Nationalists poised for power in Croatia as voters stay away

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The Independent Online

Croatia's nationalist party, which led the country into a disastrous war, could be heading back to power amid widespread disappointment with the pro-Western government.

After three years in power, disappointment is palpable with the centre-left government of the Prime Minister, Ivica Racan, who has failed to improve living standards. Large numbers of Croatians are expected to stay away from the parliamentary elections tomorrow. Analysts say a low turnout will almost certainly translate into a larger share of the vote for the biggest party of the nationalist right, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), whose supporters are certain to vote.

Pop music was blaring from loudspeakers in central Zagreb yesterday as the main political parties staged an increasingly desperate attempt to attract voters to the polls. A pop group was holding an open air concert in Preradovic Square. Solemn patriotic songs echoed down nearby Gajeva Street, chronicling the bravery of Croats.

The HDZ under Franjo Tudjman led Croatia into the war of independence from former Yugoslavia in 1991-1995. After Mr Tudjman's death four years ago, his party lost parliamentary elections in January 2000, as voters punished the HDZ for its management of the economy. The party's privatisation scheme enriched Tudjman's allies, but impoverished tens of thousands of people.

Under Mr Racan's coalition of Social Democrats and two smaller parties, inflation has been brought under control and unemployment stands at 18 per cent. But foreign debt has risen dramatically and stands at €18bn, or almost 70 per cent of gross domestic product. Mr Racan has also failed to keep a promise to eradicate corruption.

"For me, voting looks like choosing between bad and worse," said 37-year-old Damir Ivacic. "So little has changed."

Latest surveys show that HDZ will be the largest party in the parliament, yet unable to form the government. Mr Racan's Social Democrats are expected to come second.

The most likely scenario is for the junior partner of the ruling coalition, the Croatian Peasant Party, to switch sides and form a coalition withHDZ.

"This is not a vote for the right or the left," said Mr Racan at the closing rally of his party on Thursday evening.

"It is a matter of voting for the forward or the backward step of Croatia." Mr Racan hopes to attract the young, urban and educated voters by promising that Croatia could join the European Union in 2007.

The procedure for admission to the EU started last February. But Croatia has to meet some strict criteria to be accepted. One condition is handing over of a war crime indictee, General Ante Gotovina, to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, a demand which presents a dilemma for Croatia similar to the one facing Serbia over General Ratko Mladic, the fugitive Bosnian Serb military commander.

General Gotovina is considered a hero among Croats, much like Mladic among Serbs. General Gotovina has been indicted for war crimes against Croatian Serbs in 1995, when his troops killed hundreds of Serb civilians during an military operation codenamed "Storm", which ended the Serb rebellion in the Krajina region.

The issue of its Serb minority is another problem that Croatia must tackle before it can be admitted to the the EU. More than 200,000 Croatian Serbs fled to Serbia proper in 1995, but not all have returned. The EU insists their rights be respected, meaning that Croatia should allow all of them back, with the full restitution of their property and homes.