Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 2
17 January 2000

Drazen Budisa, leader of the Croatian Social Liberal Party left,and his coalition partner Ivica Racan, leader of the Croatian Socialist C R O A T I A:
And What Now?
The opposition cleans up in Croatian elections
Saša Cvijetić

Two weeks ago, even the biggest optimists in Croatia were taken by surprise – the opposition coalition of the Social-Democratic Party of Croatia (SDP) and the Croatian Social-Liberal Party (HSLS) achieved a landslide victory in the long-awaited parliamentary elections, which took place on Monday 3 January 2000. Out of 151 seats in the Lower House of Parliament (Sabor), it won 71, while the other opposition coalition, consisting of four parties - Croatian Peasants’ Party (HSS), Liberal Party (LS), Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS), Croatian People’s Party (HNS), in some constituencies supported by the fifth party, Action of Social-Democrats of Croatia (ASH) - scored a slightly less than expected, but still important 24 seats. The former ruling party of late President Tuđman, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), will have 46 seats (which includes six MPs from so-called Diaspora, that is, MPs elected to represent the Croatians residing abroad, mainly in Bosnia-Herzegovina) and the right-wing coalition of the Croatian Party of Rights (HSP) and the Croatian Christian Democratic Union (HKDU) five. The remaining five MPs are representatives of the so-called autochtonous national minorities (Serb, Hungarian, Italian, Czech, Slovak, Austrian, German, Ukrainian, Ruthenian and Jewish).

The proportions of the victory of the SDP-HSLS coalition are even more remarkable if one takes a more detailed look at the results in each of the ten constituencies, into which the country was divided in accordance with the new (proportional) electoral system, adopted shortly before the elections.

First of all, however, it has to be stressed that the division of the country into constituencies was a brilliant example of gerrymandering. The capital city of Zagreb was divided among four constituencies, only one of which contained an exclusively urban population. The other three included remote rural areas, traditionally inclined toward the former ruling party.

But even the HDZ's experienced electoral engineers could not predict the scale of popular support for the opposition, including in those areas of the country that were considered HDZ strongholds, and where they were regularly winning up to 70% of the vote.

For example, Hrvatsko zagorje, the region north-west of Zagreb, has been a very easy pass for the HDZ ever since 1990. This time around, however, the "Opposition Six" won 61.66% of the vote and the HDZ a mere 21.57%. In the Karlovac region, another former stronghold of the HDZ, it now managed to get 25.04%, while the six opposition parties scored 56.35%. In Slavonia, the HDZ registered 30.75% but the opposition 45.71%. In Istria and Rijeka area, the "Opposition Six" achieved 72.39%, and the HDZ 14.35%. In northern Dalmatia and Lika, where the HDZ has had the highest popularity in the whole country, it now reached only 31.65% (its best score in these elections), while the six parties gained 43.86%. In the areas of Split and Dubrovnik, the opposition was a clear winner with 50.21% against the HDZ, which came in at 28.02%. Finally, the proportions of the HDZ's loss in the first constituency (Zagreb urban areas) were also striking; its list, which contained the party’s candidate for the presidential elections and it's most popular politician, Mate Granić, got 21.39%, while the opposition's lists (led by the SDP’s chairman, Ivica Račan, and the HSS’s chairman, Zlatko Tomčić) scored as much as 62.70% (whereby just the SDP-HSLS got 50.51%).

Not surprisingly, the HDZ was the unquestionable winner in the "Diaspora" (which will, based on the turnout, most probably have six representatives in the Parliament), with 85.59% of the vote; while no other party or coalition managed to pass the electoral threshold of five per cent.

This means that the "Opposition Six" have 95 seats in the Parliament, or 62.90%. The HDZ has 30.46% of the seats, but it can count on support of the HSP-HKDU, which has 3.31%. Minority representatives also have 3.31% of the seats. The two-thirds majority (necessary to change the Constitution and to pass some other crucial laws) is 101.

Another remarkable feature of these elections was (for Croatian circumstances) the extremely high turnout of 76%, or some 15% more than in the last elections. The citizens' motivation to get out and vote was successfully increased by a very well organised group of NGOs called "Vote 99" ("Glas 99"), which staged an outstandingly professional campaign in the media, inviting the voters to overcome their apathy and take their destiny into their own hands. Furthermore, one innovation within the new electoral law is the granting of permission to domestic electoral observers to monitor the electoral process. The organisation "Citizens Organised to Observe the Elections" ("Građani organizirano nadgledaju glasanje" - GONG) managed to mobilise more than 5,000 volunteers (among them popular actors, writers and sportsmen) and covered virtually all polling stations, making sure there were no frauds. Its members even organised a parallel counting of votes (which, in the end, showed that the State Electoral Commission’s results basically did not differ from their own). More than 1000 international electoral observers also confirmed that the elections were carried out in conjunction with the law (with minor exceptions).

The results represented a shock in both camps. It was clear from the first reactions that none of the competitors had expected such results. As CER reported, the last comprehensive opinion poll conducted in November 1999 was indicating that the SDP-HSLS would win 35% of the votes, the HDZ 24%, the "Group of Four" 18% and the right-wing coalition 6%. 17% of the voters were undecided. On the last day of 1999, the weekly magazine Globus published the results of another large opinion poll, which was showing the "Opposition Six" with 80 seats in the Parliament and HDZ with 50 (without the "Diaspora"). As many as 20-30% of voters were undecided (depending on the constituency). A careful analysis of these polls (and especially the last one) shows that those previously undecided eventually turned out at the polling stations and voted almost exclusively for the coalition of the SDP and HSLS. This, of course, changed the ratio of seats (as compared to the polls) to the detriment of the HDZ but also of the "Group of Four." Only the portion of the electorate oriented toward the right seems to be very stable and amounts to some 5% of the entire voting population.

This partly explains the surprise as the first results started coming in from the field. Even before the end of the electoral news black-out and before the State Electoral Commission made public the first preliminary results, the leading HDZ politician, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mate Granić appeared in public just to say: "We lost the elections." The atmosphere in the HDZ headquarters was gloomy, with some of the politicians openly crying on national TV; while the celebration in the SDP-HSLS camp was marked by the statements of the coalition's leading politicians such as Dražen Budiša (the president of the HSLS and the coalition’s presidential candidate), who stated that he was "somewhat surprised by the electoral results, although, of course, nicely surprised." Prime Minister-to-be Ivica Račan of the SDP said that "it was not a time for a big celebration, since the country was in deep crisis," but that he and his party "were ready to take on the burden of responsibility."

So, why were Croatian voters ahead of their politicians?

One of the explanations might be that the political elite (both in the former ruling party and in the former opposition) is (dangerously) detached from its own voters. The skilful policy of the HDZ clique, which granted enormous privileges (and, for Croatian conditions, outrageously high salaries) to members of the parliament (not only to ministers and officials from the HDZ, but to opposition leaders as well), together with the relatively weak infrastructure of the opposition parties outside Zagreb contributed to the fact that the leading opposition politicians were considering the Croatian reality not so differently from the version portrayed in the broadcast media (which were under unscrupulous control of the HDZ) and newspapers (which were, if criticising President Tuđman and the HDZ, often considered by the opposition as "too radical," such as Feral Tribune, or "yellow," such as Nacional). It has been absolutely clear that leading politicians had no awareness whatsoever of the real measure of economic misery and political disillusionment of the average Croatian voter.

This may be only a partial explanation for the current surprise, but it does indicate a much more important phenomenon that has marked the Croatian political scene over the last ten years: opportunism of the opposition. With some sporadic exceptions, the opposition parties (individually or jointly) never took a clear and unambiguous stance on crucial issues of democracy and political life in the country. They never clearly demystified the rule of late President Tuđman as unquestionably authoritarian and non-democratic; they even, on occasion of his death, praised "his undeniable contribution to the creation of an independent and sovereign Croatia" far more than civic norms of good behaviour would dictate. It even went so far as Milan Bandić, president of the Zagreb City Organisation of the SDP, proposing that the main city square - named for Ban Jelačić and housing a monument to this historical figure from 19th century - be renamed after Tuđman (a proposal that was rejected by the HDZ!). On that day, Ivica Račan stated that "we all should continue where President Tuđman left off."

Furthermore, only two dissidents within the HDZ itself, Stipe Mesić and Josip Manolić, were brave enough in 1994 to openly tell President Tuđman that his policy of dividing Bosnia with Milošević's Serbia and war with the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina was completely wrong and against Croatia's real interests. The opposition (again with some exceptions, but never as a rule) was never so strict and was even inclined to show support for the policy of Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina (orchestrated, of course, from Zagreb), shown, for example, by the relatively frequent visits of Dražen Budiša to so-called Herzeg-Bosnia, where he talked with its HDZ leaders rather than with representatives of Croats based in Sarajevo, who decided not to deny the legitimacy of the central Bosnian state authorities.

Drazen Budisa, leader of the Croatian Social Liberal Party left,and his coalition partner Ivica Racan, leader of the Croatian Socialist
Toasting victory

Another blatant example of the opposition's opportunism is its attitude toward Croatian Serbs, who were forced to flee the country after the military operation "Storm" in August 1995. The opposition parties opted for praising the "victorious Croatian Army" rather than trying to defend the basic human and civil rights of Croatian citizens of Serb nationality, who were, interestingly enough, to a great extent voters of the SDP in the first elections in 1990, especially in urban areas. The opinions of the opposition leaders, when explicitly asked about the issue, were veiled in general statements which they claimed that they "advocated the return of all refugees to their homes," never forgetting to add that they would never accept the return of Serb refugees if it did not simultaneously include the return of displaced Croats. Fair, of course, but it was obvious that the HDZ was not planning to do so and that they considered "the Serb question resolved once and for all" (President Tuđman on the rally in Karlovac in August 1995). The opposition decided to leave it up to some NGOs and international organisations active in the field to reveal the real extent of crimes and murders that took place in the area after the military operation was completed. On the other hand, they stated that "crimes should be processed by legal institutions, if they were committed," refusing to clearly state the (more or less obvious) truth.

The attitude of the opposition toward the international obligations that Croatia was forced to take over (when entering the UN and OSCE in 1992, the Council of Europe in 1996, or when signing the Pact on Stability in South-eastern Europe in 1999) was also very ambiguous. Although occasionally stressing the growing isolation of Croatia in the international arena and the country's poor relations with all relevant international organisations, including the European Union (Croatia is the only European country, with the exception of FRY, that has no formal co-operation with the EU), opposition leaders were basically adopting the HDZ’s discourse when addressing these issues, both at home and abroad. They often claimed themselves that it was "not appropriate to wash the country’s dirty laundry abroad" and that "criticism was necessary at home, but not abroad, since the country’s sovereignty and independence was still the main goal in question." Thus, they also claimed that the generals of the Croatian Army should not be prosecuted by the Hague International Tribunal for War Crimes in former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for crimes committed after the operation "Storm," because these were "legitimate actions aimed at defence of Croatian sovereignty." Thus, they more or less explicitly accepted the basic attitude of President Tuđman, so wonderfully elaborated in the statement of then-President of Supreme Court Milan Vuković, who claimed that "the Croatians, as a matter of principle, could not commit war crimes since they were leading a defensive, not an offensive, war".

The most recent example of silent collaboration with the HDZ dates from two months ago, when the opposition accepted the HDZ’s proposal that the Constitutional Court, the mandate of which had expired, be filled with party functionaries rather than by independent legal experts and judges. Thus, the opposition (far from the public) managed to push through their two candidates to the Court in exchange for the "favour" of agreeing that the high-ranking HDZ official Smiljko Sokol preside over the Court for the next eight years, with a further three members also being from that party (including one who was accused of kidnapping and rape).

The collaboration was not always so silent and behind the scenes. The HSLS was ready to enter into a coalition with the HDZ in 1997, which resulted in the split of the party and creation of another liberal party, the LS, led by Vlado Gotovac. Interestingly enough, the HSLS was considering entering a coalition with the HDZ following two years of humiliating events in the Zagreb City Assembly; in 1995, President Tuđman refused to accept the results of the local elections and rejected four of HSLS's mayoral candidates in a row (including Dražen Budiša himself), eventually appointing the mayor from the HDZ ranks and explaining that "it was unnatural that the opposition ruled in Zagreb, while the HDZ ruled the country."

So, altogether, the opposition leaders showed an incredible degree of opportunism (which they considered constructive) and a lack of basic civil courage. They were - since the very beginning - lagging three steps behind the HDZ and were never able to catch up, overcome the HDZ’s advantage of being the agenda-setter and impose their own issues and views (if they had any). Instead, they were concentrating on opposing the HDZ on such completely irrelevant and marginal issues as the name of the Zagreb football club ("Dinamo" vs "Croatia").

Not surprisingly then, the election campaign in December was extremely mild and civilised. The opposition’s main motto, "It is time for changes," as appealing as it might have been for the voters, does not offer anything concrete. The country - the economy of which is in ruins, in which the (official) rate of unemployment is 22%, in which hundreds of thousands of employees receive a minimal salary or do not receive it at all and which is shattered by tycoon-type privatisation of national wealth - is definitely in desperate need of concrete economic (and political, for that matter) programs and plans. During the campaign, only the HNS mentioned concrete issues, such as creating 200,000 new jobs; but when asked how its members will achieve this, their answer was "by cutting the supply of money from Zagreb to Herzegovina." As necessary as that step is, it is hard to believe that this is the only obstacle to prosperity of the Croatian economy.

As far as the issue of democracy-building is concerned, it is crucial to abandon (once and for all) the view that it is more important to build the state than democracy (which, so goes the argument, can come later) and that problems related to state-building take precedence over all other issues. Such an attitude is not only extremely dangerous and imminently anti-democratic but also incorrect per se, since one does not need to be a political scientist or expert in international affairs to see that modern trends in democracies show a disempowering of nation-states and integration based on supranational agendas.

Of course, one should not be led to believe that the sole (or even major) responsibility for the strikingly poor state of Croatia's democracy, economy and rule of law is to be attributed to the former opposition. It is absolutely clear that the blame is on the former ruling party, the HDZ, and, more than anyone else, late President Tuđman, and its (his) retrograde, autarchic, nationalistic and essentially non-democratic policies. Any further discussion on the nature of their rule would actually be a waste of precious time. It should simply be borne in mind as a prototype of an authoritarian rule that set a relatively prosperous and developed country back for several decades and which was rejected by its own people, because of its notorious legacy of crime and failed political agendas.

It is much more important to discuss the characteristics and potential of the former opposition, since its members are now the ones entrusted with ruling the country. This is especially so in light of the obvious fact that voters did not vote for the opposition because they suddenly realised all its admirable qualities but because they were extremely dissatisfied with the HDZ, which they wanted to punish in this, for them the only possible, way.

One of the opposition leaders interviewed on the night the electoral results were announced, when asked what the impact of these results would be, answered in a very interesting way: "Of course, the economic problems of the country are very severe, and it will take a lot of time and wisdom to fight them, but the main impact of these elections and change in power will be the disappearance of fear among Croatian citizens and the creation of an entirely new atmosphere of freedom."

This statement sheds light on the crucial determining factor of the development of Croatia's political life in the near future. If the former opposition (now winning coalition) is able to draw a line behind the last ten years and admit its own weaknesses, thus enabling the creation of a basis for a broad consensus of all democratically oriented political forces on major issues of political and economic life, then Croatia might finally be given a chance at prosperity and progress corresponding to its potential.

If, alternatively, the new rulers do not abandon the view that the destiny of the country is exclusively the matter of a (narrowly conceived) political elite and implement a kind of new political recruitment based on party affiliation rather than on the personal (moral) and professional qualities of persons who might contribute to the country’s betterment, then the country will stand a very low chance of recovering from ten years of HDZ rule. Instead, it will almost certainly continue to be considered as Europe’s unwanted child, locked somewhere deep in the Balkans, with all that this notion means - politically and economically.

So, the challenge that the "Opposition Six" is facing is huge. Although many claim that the situation will be clear only after the upcoming presidential elections (scheduled for 24 January), it is now already evident that Croatia is entering an entirely new era. But whoever the new President may be (Granić from the HDZ, Budiša from the HSLS-SDP or someone else), it is expected that the Constitution will be changed to allow for a parliamentary (rather than presidential) system, which will create the basis for further political changes.

The presidential elections are actually much more important for the HDZ itself, since only the electoral victory of their candidate, Mate Granić, would provide some chance of their survival as a political party and might prevent the split that is now more probable than ever. It is now finally fully transparent the extent that the party depended on its president (Tuđman), who, among other numerous failures, was also not able to gather a team that would provide at least some kind of future for the party. He opted to get rid of the colleagues of his who had at least a trace of integrity (and popularity), collecting instead loyal apparatchiks - who lack support not only among the voters but in the party itself.

It is relatively difficult to predict the behaviour of the new ruling coalition in the upcoming year or two - which road they will choose and whether they will stay together at all. However, what can be said with certainty is that its members need to display a much higher level of courage and initiative than they have so far. The people of Croatia have put their destiny into their hands, and that is something that, even in far better circumstances, has never been very easy to cope with.

Saša Cvijetić, 9 January 2000

Read the author's analysis of Croatia on the eve of elections and a sum–up of the Tuđman era in the CER archives.



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