Dying leader takes his last stand for glory

Franjo Tudjman is poised to win the Croatian presidency tomorrow

The hair is thinning, the face gaunt. But age and illness seem only to have spurred Franjo Tudjman on to near-superhuman efforts in his drive for re-election tomorrow as Croatian President.

The prize is in the bag. A toadying, controlled media and a reputation as the man who took on the Yugoslav army after Croatia declared independence in 1991 - and won - have seen to that.

But Mr Tudjman is treating this election, which cancer means will be his last, as if his place in history depended on it. "He doesn't just want to win - there's real desperation there," said one observer.

"Together, my opponents will get half the votes that I'll get," he boasted on Wednesday. Before an adoring crowd of 10,000 at his last pre-election rally in Zagreb on Thursday, the 75-year-old former general hammered home the message he knows will strike the deepest chord: the man who delivered Croatia's independence is the man who will restore the war-shattered economy, too.

It is only a year since Mr Tudjman's liberal and left-wing opponents humiliated his HDZ nationalists in elections for the mayor and city council of the capital, Zagreb. Since then the opposition has squandered its strength in internal squabbles. Mr Tudjman's two opponents, the former dissident and poet Vlado Gotovac, and Zdravko Tomac, a former communist official, seem likely to get only 20 per cent, compared to Mr Tudjman's 60 per cent.

Most Croats warm to macho leaders, and Mr Tudjman's military uniforms and bullying manner are no turn-off outside the refined political culture of Zagreb.

When US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright berated him over attacks on Serb refugees attempting to return to their homes in Croatia's recaptured Krajina region, she merely boosted his standing among an electorate suspicious of foreign intentions, and hostile to Serbs.

"What people see is a man who is dying, but who still has so much force and will to win, and they like that, because they see him as a fighter," said Ines Sabalic, a journalist with the opposition newspaper Tjednik. "They can sense his opponents are resigned to losing."

Resignation is understandable, as Mr Tudjman has barred their access to the powerful state television. "Gotovac and Tomac got one hour precisely, and Tudjman is on every minute," said Ms Sabalic.

Both opposition candidates have complained to the electoral commission, but this body, stacked with Tudjmanites, dismissed their complaints.

In a worrying sign of how intolerant Croatia has become under Mr Tudjman, Mr Gotovac was attacked last week at a rally by a soldier who leapt onto the stage, shouted "Long live Pavelic" (Croatia's Second World War Fascist dictator) and beat the candidate with a belt.

As one observer said: "This disgusting attack was not surprising, as Tudjman is always saying that anyone who opposes him is an enemy of the state."

Mr Tudjman makes much of alleged fifth-columnists working to subvert the nation's independence. In a televised interview before the poll, the President proclaimed: "We are facing an organised activity, including psychological war aimed at obstructing our independence waged by many people in Croatia and abroad."

Marcus Tanner is author of "Croatia: a Nation Forged in War" (Yale)

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