Tudjman whips up election mayhem: The campaign leading up to today's vote in Croatia has focused solely on nationalist issues, writes Tony Barber in Zagreb

Conditions could scarcely have been worse for Croatia's first elections as an independent state. One quarter of the former Yugoslav republic is under Serbian control, and it is fighting a war in neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Several hundred thousand Croats are refugees living outside Croatia, and several hundred thousand more are displaced within the republic. Many do not want to vote or do not know where to vote. At the same time, in an effort to boost the turnout and consolidate the nation's links with its diaspora, the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has extended voting rights not just to all people of Croatian descent abroad but to anyone who claims one Croatian parent or even merely an intention to acquire Croatian citizenship. Such people could have waited until yesterday to register in places like Chicago, Toronto, London and Melbourne. In theory, hundreds of thousands may take part in an election in a country they have never seen and where they do not intend to live. As a result, the precise size of the electorate is unknown and the outcome could be a heavily distorted reflection of the Croatian political scene. 'Elections cannot work in a state where there is no way of knowing how many voters there are until the Saturday before the ballot,' said Zarko Puhovski, a politics professor at Zagreb University.

Opposition parties have accused the HDZ, the centre-right party of President Franjo Tudjman, of manipulating the election campaign so that both he and the party are returned to office. But the election is likely to be messy rather than fraudulent. For example, refugees from the Serbian- held town of Vukovar in eastern Croatia are dispersed far and wide across the republic and polling centres have been set up for them in two dozen places. However, there is no exact list of those voters who died in Vukovar when it was flattened by Serbian bombardment last autumn, or of which refugees went where. Besides, even though the town's population was evenly balanced between Croats and Serbs before the war, very few Serbs are expected to vote. In fact, very few Serbs anywhere will cast a ballot, notwithstanding that they made up 12 per cent of the pre-war population of Croatia.

The campaign has therefore concentrated exclusively on Croatian nationalist issues and has done nothing to address the problem of what to do, after the war, with the republic's Serbian minority. It could scarcely be otherwise given that the Serbs, with the help of Serbia and the Serbian-led former Yugoslav army, have in effect detached themselves from Croatia by setting up autonomous regions in the areas under their control. But if there is to be a solution in the long run to the Yugoslav crisis, then Croatia's leaders must replace inflammatory rhetoric with serious consideration of the minority issue.

It was, after all, Croatia's determination to be an independent state after the fall of Communism in 1990 that revived Serbian memories of the slaughter of Serbs committed by the Nazi-supported state of Croatia in the Second World War. It could be argued that if Mr Tudjman and the HDZ had shown more sensitivity to the minority on this point then they would not have undermined the position of moderate Serbs and so encouraged the most militant Serbs to seize control and start arming for war.

But any Croatian political party would be committing electoral suicide if it talked in conciliatory terms about the Serbs. Knowing this, the HDZ has portrayed itself as the party that built up the Croatian army and police force and will recover Croatia's lost territory, by war if necessary. President Tudjman, a 70-year-old former army general and Communist who later turned into a dissident nationalist, is presented as the masterful father of the nation who guided it to independence, freeing it from 'Yugo- Bolshevik hegemony'. Despite (or perhaps because of) Mr Tudjman's autocratic style and love of patriotic pomp, the recipe seems to be working.

Mr Tudjman may be forced into a second round of voting on 16 August, but he is streets ahead of his seven rivals in the presidential contest. Polls last week gave him about 40 per cent support, double that of the second-placed Drazen Budisa of the Croatian Social Liberal Party. Support for the HDZ in the parliamentary elections is running at about the same level, meaning there is a chance that after a second round the HDZ could win more than half the seats. While that would not spell the death of opposition politics in Croatia, it might weaken faith in parliament as an institution and encourage the growth of extremism.

Mr Tudjman is most vulnerable on the subject of the accord with the United Nations, which turned the Serbian-held parts of Croatia into zones under UN protection. Although the arrangement helped to wind down the war in Croatia it did so, in the eyes of many Croats, at the expense of consolidating Serbian control of the zones. All the main opposition parties (in total 37 are running for parliament) have therefore vowed to revise the terms of the accord, if not to throw out the UN altogether. Mr Tudjman, mindful of the need to retain international sympathy for Croatia's cause, cannot afford to take such a hostile line against the UN, but equally he must take heed of domestic public opinion.

In particular, he needs to watch the Croatian Party of Rights (HSP), a very active and determined ultra-rightist movement with a powerful paramilitary wing. The HSP sees nothing wrong in brandishing the symbols and slogans of the wartime fascist Croatian state, and its leader, Dobroslav Paraga, advocates an invasion of Serbia culminating in the destruction of Belgrade. The HSP also stands for the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where an autonomous Croatian region has already been created in western Herzegovina with the Croatian army's help. As his supporters raised their arms to him in Nazi-style salutes last week, Mr Paraga told them: 'We will burn (Serbian) cities the way the Chetniks (Serbian forces) burned Zadar and Vukovar. Then we will see what it is like when Chetnik children bleed the way Croatian children have bled.'

Mr Paraga and the HSP will do well to take more than 10 per cent of the votes, unless they attract heavy support from emigres and Croats in Bosnia who have been given dual citizenship. A poor result will not, however, remove the threat of the far right. It is armed and thrives on public discontent with war losses, a ravaged economy and a tremendous refugee problem. Today's elections may be only the first stage in a contest for power in Croatia that will be decided later in the streets.

SARAJEVO (Reuter) - Muslim forces said yesterday they had captured territory from the Serbian troops around Sarajevo, including the town of Trnovo, 18 miles south of the city, in what some reports called an all-out offensive to break the Serbian siege.

The Belgrade-based Tanjug news agency said Muslim fighters had killed 150 Serbian soldiers and civilians in fierce clashes during the last three days and made advances against Serbian forces around the Bosnian capital. Tanjug said Serbian sources denied Trnovo had been captured. Bosnia has not formally announced a co- ordinated offensive against the siege of Sarajevo, where 380,000 civilians are trapped.

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