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Croatia: Nationalists Do Well In Parliamentary Election

Croatia's opposition nationalists are claiming victory in the weekend parliamentary elections. Preliminary results show the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) and two allies as clearly ahead of the Social Democrat-led ruling coalition of Prime Minister Ivica Racan. If the trend is confirmed, this will put the HDZ, the party of late wartime leader Franjo Tudjman, back in the driving seat in Croatia.

Prague, 24 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The political pendulum appears to have swung back to the right in Croatia, where weekend parliamentary elections have put the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) and its two smaller rightist allies, firmly in the lead.

Final figures have not been released yet, but preliminary results indicate the HDZ-led group has taken up to 73 seats. That compares with only 64 for the moderate ruling coalition of Prime Minister Ivica Racan and his Social Democratic Party (SDP). Parliament has 140 permanent seats, but there are up to 20 more available for minorities and the diaspora, depending on voter turnout.

Racan took the apparent electoral rebuff with as much grace as possible. "If these results are final, this really means we do not have enough votes to form a government coalition," he said. "In that case, I will be able to congratulate those who will [form the government] and wish Croatian citizens a lot of luck and successes with the new government."

The name HDZ is closely linked to Croatian nationalism and the memory of the country's late authoritarian ruler, Franjo Tudjman, a figure implicated in the bloody violence that accompanied the disintegration of the Yugoslav federation. The party ruled Croatia from the start of the 1990s until 2000, and often defied Western norms of democracy and human rights.

The electoral win of the Racan moderates in 2000 set the Balkan republic on the road to wider acceptance in Europe. Zagreb's progress toward adopting EU norms has been so rapid that it has won praise from the European Commission. Earlier this year, Croatia filed a formal application for EU membership -- only the second former Yugoslav republic to do so -- and Brussels has encouraged it to believe it might enter in 2007, along with Bulgaria and Romania.

So, considering the radically new image and international standing which Croatia has gained in the last few years, what led to the apparent loss of the Racan coalition?

First, the HDZ has not been standing still. Under its present leader Ivo Sanader, the party has remade itself and moderated its policies, and Sanader now claims it is part of the mainstream of European conservatism. It, too, espouses European integration in what Sanader called a "clear and determined" way. "Our priority in foreign policy will certainly be joining the European Union and NATO and resolving all open questions with our neighbors," he said. "We want fast normalization of these relations. We also wish a clear European perspective for our Eastern neighbors as they want it for themselves."

Apparently many voters believe the HDZ's transformation has been successful. One who was not so optimistic was a Zagreb woman who gave her name as Vesna in a street interview during the voting. "This is definitely going to slow down Croatia's accession into the European Union and other European integrations," she said.

A second factor favoring the HDZ is that many voters had become weary of the country's difficult economic situation. A Zagreb taxi driver named Mirko told RFE/RL: "They [the current government] have destroyed us, completely destroyed us. Look at us, we sometimes don't have a single client for five hours. I hope things get better now, I really do."

It's true that the economy is stable and inflation low, with gross domestic product growth recorded at over 5 percent last year, and rising levels of national income. But unemployment levels remain stubbornly high at over 18 percent of the country's 4.4 million adult population, and living has been hard in the last decade of transformation and dislocation.

Another man in the street, Josip, expressed hope the HDZ can do better: "People will live better with HDZ in power. I expected them to win and I am glad they did."

Racan and his coalition have not given up hope of scraping back into power, in part on the diaspora and minority vote. But the biggest element of the Croatian diaspora lives in neighboring Bosnia, and their politics are usually solidly nationalist.

One of the HDZ's biggest challenges if it returns to power would be to prove it has the ability to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in The Hague. Many Croatian nationalists have been hostile to the work of the court in issuing war crimes indictments against officials from all sides, including Croatia, in the wars and ethnic conflicts of the 1990s. Sanader has said his party is prepared to live up to its obligations, and will cooperate "responsibly" with the tribunal.

One consolation for Racan is that he sees the weekend election as proof that Croatia is maturing as a democratic nation. While casting his own ballot yesterday, he praised the atmosphere of the voting. "There were no irregularities. [This] proves that Croatia today -- after the previous elections -- is more mature than before, although it is located in an unstable region," he said. "This is the reason for satisfaction this morning."

The events in Croatia find an echo in Serbia, which has apparently swung to the right just a month ahead of parliamentary elections. Serbia's presidential election earlier this month failed for the third time in little more than a year, because of low turnout.

However, many Serbs were shocked by the strong showing in that poll of ultranationalist Tomislav Nikolic of the Radical Party. The party's leader, Vojislav Seselj, is now awaiting trial for alleged war crimes at The Hague.

Nikolic easily outpolled the candidate of the ruling pro-reform DOS coalition, Dragoljub Micunovic, who had been seen as favorite. The Radicals say they have now set their sights on doing well in the coming parliamentary election.