Croats set to endorse 'only leader'

The casual visitor to Zagreb could be forgiven for thinking that Franjo Tudjman, President and self-styled "Father of the Croatian Nation", was up for re-election. His jowls and fixed smile are everywhere: on electronic billboards or posters, on television and on calendars handed out by newspapers, sometimes in tandem with the fascist wartime leader, Ante Pavelic, but never with Tito, the most famous Croat of all.

Voters go to the polls on Sunday to elect a lower house of parliament, but the ruling HDZ party - which has swiftly rewritten the electoral laws to reap maximum advantage - knows Mr Tudjman is the only card to play. The man who led the country to independence and recovered most of the territory in rebel Serb hands by force this summer is not only popular: to most, he is the only leader Croatia has produced.

Mr Tudjman is determined to take his country into Europe, coveting membership of the European Union and the cash flowing with it - so determined, in fact, that he has ridden roughshod over the fundamental principles that underpin Western Europe: democracy, freedom and justice.

The HDZ, right-wing and deeply nationalistic, scores over 40 per cent in opinion polls, and is almost certain to win the elections, which assign some seats on a first-past-the-post basis and others on proportional representation. But the party wants a two-thirds majority that would allow it to rewrite the constitution, unfettered by any checks or balances.

A delegation from the US Democratic Party's Institute for International Affairs has identified serious flaws in the electoral process, including the reduction of seats assigned to Serbs, a huge increase in representation for expatriates - and for Bosnian Croat citizens - and unequal access to the media for opposition parties.

Following the blitzkrieg against the Serb-held Krajina, which forced around 200,000 Croatian Serbs to flee, the government cut from 13 to three the number of parliamentary seats reserved for the Serb minority. "The change in the law," said the institute's report, "presupposes that Serbs who have recently left Croatia due to war conditions will not return."

Instead, 12 of the 127 seats in the lower house are to be elected by members of the fearsomely nationalistic Croatian diaspora, which bizarrely - and to the fury of the Sarajevo government - is said to include 291,000 Croats who live in Bosnia-Herzegovina and hold Bosnian citizenship.

Opposition parties have found it impossible to compete on the state-controlled airwaves: each is owed one hour of free air time, but must answer questions set by the national network. Criticism of the government is not allowed. The network rejected one opposition party's paid advertisement because it was "annoying".

However, the HDZ enjoys blanket coverage. Television in Croatia, where the state controls three of the four channels, is by far the most important medium, though the HDZ is also keen to shackle newspapers.

The opposition, weak and divided, restricts its campaigning to attacks on government corruption - charges to which the HDZ is vulnerable. "Tudjman is OK, he's a good man, but the HDZ is totally corrupt," one Zagreb voter said. "Eastern Slavonia [the last sliver of land still in rebel Serb hands] is not the problem here, the economy is the problem."

Foreign observers warn that victory for the HDZ is likely to harden Zagreb's position on eastern Slavonia and its prickly relationship with Sarajevo over the Muslim-Croat federation in Bosnia. "Instead, the ruling HDZ is likely to use its election victory to harden its negotiating position," said a foreign political analyst. "They will continue to count on the great powers' basic indifference . . . and growing dependence on Croatia's 'democratic stability' in a volatile region."

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