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Croatia: Election Results Show Preference For Personalities

Two reform, Western-oriented politicians will face each other in a February run-off following yesterday's historic presidential election in Croatia. RFE/RL's Alexandra Poolos reports the vote was more a test of personalities than of politics.

Zagreb, 25 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Opposition politician Stipe Mesic has won the initial round of presidential balloting yesterday, with a strong 42 percent of the vote in a nine-candidate field.

But Mesic failed to gain the absolute majority needed for immediate victory and to succeed late president Franjo Tudjman.

He now faces a runoff ballot on February 7 against his erstwhile political ally, the Social Liberal leader Drazen Budisa, who came in second with 28 percent of the vote.

Mate Granic of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) finished third, with 22 percent. Granic, once a strong favorite to succeed Tudjman, has now been eliminated.

The vote marks a symbolic end to Tudjman's decade-long autocratic rule, which alienated Croatia from the international community and prevented the country from implementing democratic reforms.

Commenting on the results last night, Mesic said he is confident he will be the next leader of Croatia. He says his goal is to take Croatia westward:

"This result gives me the right to move forward in my campaign. I'll continue to do that correctly and I believe I will be successful. I'm counting on those who didn't vote yet that they will vote in the second round. I'm counting on the democratic part of the HDZ, on those who didn't misuse their power, on those who defended and established Croatia. In me, they will recognize that I am the one who is not changing my principles. But because of my principles I can step out. Now I can help Croatia to achieve its strategic goals, which are joining NATO, joining the European Union with European standards and European criteria."

But unlike the parliamentary vote earlier this month when voters rejected Tudjman's policies, yesterday's election was more a test of personalities -- and ultimately a rejection of Tudjman's style of leadership.

Mesic -- dubbed affectionately in the press "a porcupine" for his bristly beard and round face -- began the campaign as a long-shot. Once voters became familiar with his easy-going, down-to-earth manner -- a stark contrast with the stiff and impersonal Tudjman -- Mesic began rising quickly in opinion polls.

Budisa, a former student dissident in the 1970s and an early frontrunner, lost voter appeal at least partly because his wooden manner suggested a faint echo of Tudjman.

In the February runoff, voters will see very few differences in policy between the two candidates. Both were members of the six-party opposition coalition which won the January 3 parliamentary elections. Both promise to limit the powers of the presidency and to help the country qualify for membership in the European Union and NATO.

Mesic was the first prime minister in Tudjman's 1990 HDZ government and he played a key role in the year leading up to Croatia's independence in 1991. In 1994, however, he split with Tudjman over corruption and how the president was waging the war in Bosnia.

Since then, he has been an outspoken critic of both Tudjman and the HDZ.

Mesic's campaign was successful in part because he cultivated a relationship with Croatia's youth, many of whom saw no future in their country. Voters, especially younger ones, say he is a modern leader who can help the country shed its isolationist past.

Jasmina Druzic, a 24-year-old engineer who voted for Mesic, tells our correspondent she has high hopes:

"I think it's a very exciting time because we expect lots of changes, so we don't have to leave our country, so we can live here and have a future and have a job and everything else."

Mesic says he will work closely with the new government to end the country's international isolation. In part, this will mean cooperating with the United Nations Criminal Tribunal, allowing Serbian refugees to return to their homes in Croatia and boosting human rights and press freedoms in the country.

More importantly, perhaps, Mesic says he will not lose touch with the people. He says he will continue to be a "simple man" who drinks coffee with his friends and enjoys a good laugh.