Tudjman holds all the aces in Croatia poll: Tony Barber in Zagreb looks at the line-up for Sunday's election - the first in the country since independence

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The Independent Online
THE television advertisements blend an image of Jesus on the cross with pictures of President Franjo Tudjman and the Croatian army and police force. Posters on Zagreb's main square show Mr Tudjman holding two small girls in his arms below the words, 'A safe future for Croatia.'

The 70-year-old president, a Communist army general in the former Yugoslavia until he became a Croatian nationalist, will dominate Croatia's first presidential and parliamentary elections as an independent state on Sunday.

His ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), portrays him as the nation's father, the war-leader who resisted 'Serbian terror' and won Croatia international recognition, a man on cordial terms with the Pope and politicians in Germany.

There are eight presidential candidates and 37 parties. But a poll on Tuesday put Mr Tudjman and the HDZ way in front, with 43.2 per cent and 38.1 per cent support respectively, more than double that of their nearest rivals. The president, who came to power with his party in April 1990, has played the nationalist card so strongly that his rivals have had no choice but to follow suit. The political spectrum in the election is thus very narrow: for the most part it stretches from the centre right to the extreme right.

There are question marks over the electoral register. With hundreds of thousands of people displaced, a quarter of Croatia under Serbian occupation, and voting rights extended to Croats in 13 countries, it is uncertain how many legitimate voters there are.

The opposition parties accuse the HDZ of corruption, manipulating media coverage of the campaign and restricting their activities, but when it comes to the big issues - the war against Serbia, and how to recapture occupied territory - they are as nationalistic as Mr Tudjman.

This applies particularly to the United Nations agreement which turned Croatian land captured by Serbs last year into special zones supervised by a UN Protection Force. The Croatian media have accused it of failing to disarm the Serbs and dismantle the self-proclaimed Serbian republics in these zones.

Dobroslav Paraga, the candidate of the ultra-right Croatian Party of Rights, goes even further. 'The first act we shall pass on

2 August will be the abolition of the Chetnik Krajinas (Serbian Republics) . . . we shall liberate Knin, wade over the Drina River and burn Serbia down,' he said, adding that Croatia should also annexe Bosnia.

Such statements make it even less likely that the 600,000 Serbs who formed 12 per cent of the population of pre-war Croatia will want to live in an independent Croatian state. Election commission officials say voting will go ahead in the UN zones, but Serbs there dismiss the election as taking place in a foreign country.

The anti-Serbian tone of the campaign has hardened their determination not to be reabsorbed into Croatia. The Croatian presidential candidates know that virtually no Serbs will vote and have felt free to run a vitriolic anti-Serbian campaign.

The most inflammatory candidate is Mr Paraga, whose party has adopted the symbols of the Nazi- backed Croatian puppet state of the 1940s. He has attracted tens of thousands of Croats to his rallies, partly because the paramilitary wing of his party has fought in some of the fiercest battles against the Serbs. But much of his support appears to come from fanatical Croatian youths too young to vote. The poll put him in fourth place with 7.3 per cent support.

The closest rival to Mr Tudjman was Drazen Budisa of the Croatian Social Liberal Party, with 19.3 per cent. Like the president, he plays on his German connections. In third place with 8 per cent was the Croatian National Party candidate, Savka Dabcevic- Kucar. Like Mr Tudjman, she is an ex-Communist turned nationalist. She has suggested that the president lacks proper democratic credentials and says this means this has led Croatia into 'European internment'.

At best, however, the opposition can probably only force Mr Tudjman into a second ballot. He seems assured of a victory that will mean renewed pressure on European powers and the UN to take the fight to the Serbs.