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Croatia: Presidential Run-Off Will Be Test Of Personality

Polls open Monday in the run-off for the Croatian presidency. RFE/RL's correspondent Alexandra Poolos looks at the two candidates, who are running on very similar reform platforms.

Prague, 4 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Drazen Budisa and Stipe Mesic are competing in Monday's runoff for the Croatian presidency on their differences in personality rather than any major differences in ideology.

Both the Social Liberal Budisa and People's Party candidate Mesic have pledged to bring Croatia in from the strict international isolation enforced by autocratic ruler Franjo Tudjman, who died in December. They have promised to work hard to transform the country into a true parliamentary democracy, tackling a floundering economy and boosting social freedoms.

Both candidates have also said that they would curtail the powers of the presidency, thereby strengthening the parliament.

Local press reports say that Budisa's and Mesic's goals are very similar, but that their "style and temperament differ."

Mesic, of the People's Party, is seen as the front-runner in the upcoming vote. A dark horse candidate in the first presidential poll last month, Mesic won 41 percent of the vote, leaving Budisa in second place with close to 28 percent. Mesic's relaxed manner and down-to earth image helped his popularity among Croatian voters.

In his decades of political activity, Mesic has held just about every office -- from town mayor to prime minister of independent Croatia. He represented Croatia in the collective presidency of the former Yugoslavia in August 1990. Then, during Croatia's political transformation from communism to political pluralism and following its first democratic elections, Mesic became secretary of Tudjman's party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and Croatia's first prime minister. He was elected parliament speaker in 1992, but left Tudjman's party two years later in protest over Zagreb's policy of a divided Bosnia. After that, Mesic became Tudjman's most outspoken critic, denouncing the fraud in privatization of state enterprises.

But Mesic's lead has been cut to only five points in the latest opinion polls. Analysts attribute the shift to recent news reports alleging that Mesic used to work for the former Yugoslav secret service. Doubts have also been raised over how his presidential campaign has been financed.

Budisa, the Social Liberal candidate, began the presidential campaign riding high on the gains of a coalition including his party which ousted the ruling Croatian Democratic Union in parliamentary elections in early January. But Budisa quickly lost his footing as presidential campaigning progressed. He was faulted for his stiff manner and humorless presentation at press conferences, a wooden style some compared to Tudjman.

Budisa first shot to prominence as a 22-year-old, when he led a nationalist student movement demanding democratic reforms and more independence for Croatia, at that time a republic of federal Yugoslavia. He was given a four-year prison term for his activities. After his release, Budisa became a librarian. He re-emerged in the political spotlight in Croatia's first free elections in 1990, which ousted the Communists. Budisa ran for president in 1992, but lost to Tudjman.

The candidate who placed third in the first round, Mate Granic of the Croatian Democratic Union, won 22 percent of the votes, and those votes will be critical in the runoff. In a bid to attract Granic supporters, Budisa announced last weekend that if elected president he would ask Granic to be his foreign policy adviser -- but Granic immediately declined the offer.

Mesic has also been strongly campaigning for the Granic vote. Immediately after the first round, he announced that he was seeking the support of whatever "democrats" had supported Granic.

International and local observers alike regard the election as the conclusion of the broad political transition that transformed Croatia early last month with the ouster of Tudjman's party. Western leaders have come out in strong support of the new parliament, saying they will back Croatia as it attempts to reintegrate into European and global institutions.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrived for a brief visit this week and met with both candidates. Albright said that true democracy is taking root in Croatia. And she said she hopes the recent changes would set an example for the democratic forces struggling in Serbia.