Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 4
31 January 2000

Stipe Mesić - President to be?
  Croatia's next
C R O A T I A:
Coffee With the President
Saša Cvijetić

Croatia has recently become a political scientist's paradise and nightmare at the same time: a paradise, because a plethora of very interesting and remarkable political and societal phenomena are taking place; a nightmare, because it is practically impossible to predict their outcome, since the voters' preferences change dramatically in very short periods of time.

One thing can, however, be (re-)stated [see this author's article from 17 January 2000] with certainty: the voters are in favour of fundamental changes, while the majority of the country's political elite is lagging behind this mood and is not able to comprehend the real attitudes of the people, even after the groundbreaking results of the parliamentary elections held on 3 January. This phenomenon is one of the most important reasons behind the unexpected but striking victory of Stipe Mesić, the candidate of a marginal party (HNS - Croatian People's Party, which managed to win only two seats in the Parliament three weeks earlier), in last week's presidential elections. Mesić scored 41.11 per cent in the first round, thus leaving behind both Dražen Budiša of the ruling coalition - between the Croatian Social-Liberal Party (HSLS) and the Social-Democratic Party (SDP) - who scored 27.71 per cent, and, even more importantly, Mate Granić, candidate of the former ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), who managed to collect only 22.47 per cent of the votes - not sufficient to enter the second round.

Mesić's leading position is even more remarkable if one takes into account the fact that only a month and a half ago his score in the ranking of politicians' popularity was a mere two per cent and at the beginning of the presidential campaign never surpassed single digit percentages. In the first week of the campaign, Mesić climbed in the polls by nearly 20 per cent, and in the last week before the elections, by another 20 per cent. At the same time, a clear winner only two months ago, Granić (who had 51 per cent in the polls in November) sank in the polls to only 11 per cent. Budiša's pool of supporters proved to be very stable and his rating remained constant somewhere around 20 per cent.

There are several reasons for this dramatic shift. Some of them (albeit arguably not the most important ones) may have to do with Granić's very poor strategy (he would have probably stood higher chances, had he distanced himself from the HDZ in time, which he did just a couple of days before the elections, only when it became absolutely clear that it was working against him) or the very professional and modern campaign of Mesić. However, the real reasons for this outcome are deeper and can be broadly separated into three phenomena.

First, the Croatian electorate clearly and unambiguously showed on 3 January of this year that it wanted a radical departure from the HDZ and its style of politics. Croatians are saturated with blind nationalism, corruption, economic poverty and political immorality. It is only logical to conclude that they want a change in all sectors of power: not only in Parliament and government but in the President's Office as well.

Neither Budiša nor Granić guarantee that change. In spite of his probable personal democratic orientation, Granić, who was for more than eight years an obedient executor of Tuđman's (catastrophic) foreign policy, was simply unable to convince voters that he would represent the necessary departure from the HDZ's policies. Budiša faced another problem: although never a member of the HDZ, he is seen by many as a kind of "civilised" nationalist, or as he once said, "liberal nationalist." He is, as such, not a very desirable candidate for the electorate of his coalition partner, the SDP, which at the moment represents the largest electorate. In addition, Budiša is perceived as a person extremely obsessed by power and someone who is ready to do (almost) anything to get it: in 1997, he was ready to enter the coalition with the HDZ (thus forcing Vlado Gotovac, then President of the HSLS, to leave the party); that same year, his campaign manager Dorica Nikolić played a very gloomy role in the affair with the Zagreb City Assembly; his party branches in Šibenik and elsewhere have all these years been in coalition with the HDZ; and so on. In other words, Budiša does not represent a clear distinction from the HDZ and is described by many as a "small Tuđman," which is something that Croatian voters are obviously not ready to support at this moment.

A further important difference between Granić and Budiša on the one hand and Mesić on the other is their style. Both Granić and Budiša are very serious people; they hardly ever smile. Granić has earned the nickname "Očenašek," meaning someone who is humbly praying to God; while Budiša is already famous for his incapability to be relaxed and spontaneous and has the look of every mother's favourite son-in-law. Mesić, on the other hand, is certainly the most relaxed and charming politician on the Croatian political scene. He is already legendary for making jokes about everything and everyone, is beloved by women (at least he has such a reputation) and is (most probably deliberately, but not entirely) nourishing an image of being "the president next-door," who is always ready to stop in for a couple of minutes and chat. After all, his campaign was run under the slogan "Come have a coffee with the President," and during it he went around the country basically doing nothing but chatting with people.

Needless to say, Mesić won a lot of sympathy this way, for a very obvious reason: the late President Tuđman was the diametrical opposite of this. He was never seen talking to common people; was always using planes, helicopters or huge bullet-proof BMWs; addressed the people only from TV screens, always in anger and never with a smile and only to accuse them of being insufficiently in favour of the Croatian state, of being enemies - or even geese or cattle (his favourite metaphors). Croatians obviously no longer want this kind of president, who is not able to sympathise with them. Mesić is therefore a welcome change in the average voter's eyes.

The last, and probably the most important, reason behind Mesić's dramatic success is his rhetoric. It seems that he is the only one in the country who senses the atmosphere among the people (who, as already mentioned, seem to be in favour of radical changes) and is therefore not scared (on the contrary!) to address even that last taboo: the attitude of Croatia towards (Bosnia and) Herzegovina.

In the last ten years, Croats from Herzegovina acquired enormous political and economic power in Croatia, and the so-called Herzegovina lobby became definitely the most powerful one in the country. Led originally by late Defence Minister Gojko Šušak and then by Tuđman's advisor Ivić Pašalić, this lobby is, in the eyes of Croatians, responsible for economic crime of enormous proportions, corruption and nepotism. Tuđman played on this card for a long time, since he needed the political and material support of this lobby and because they shared the same goal: secession of Herzegovina from Sarajevo authorities and its subsequent joining with Croatia.

Gradually, Herzegovina and its nouveaux-riches, who were omnipresent in Croatia, became a drainpipe for all the economic and political frustrations of average Croatians, which, however, no one dared to openly and clearly raise in public - before Mesić, that is. He stated (somewhat non-diplomatically) that Herzegovinians should learn to work and earn money on their own rather than living on the DM three million of Croatia's money sent to Herzegovina every day over the past decade. That, logically, provoked anger among Herzegovinians (one general of the Croatian Army and a powerful member of the Herzegovina lobby publicly protested and stated he would not accept Mesić as his supreme commander if he is elected President but was forced to resign by the acting President of the Republic, Vlatko Pavletić). However, it was exactly what Croatian voters wanted to hear and what only Mesić was ready to say.

Mesić is thus the only one among the presidential candidates who represents that radical departure, and that is why, as soon as they recognised it, voters stood behind him.

While Mesić's statements could be (and already have been) depicted as crude populism, it is really hard to believe that if elected President, Mesić would actually behave undemocratically. He has sufficient experience in politics (he was a member of the Croatian Spring Movement in the early 1970s and imprisoned by the Communist authorities; then Croatia's first Prime Minister in 1990 to 1991; the last President of Yugoslavia in 1991; and Speaker of Croatia's Parliament until 1994, when he fell out with Tuđman over his policy in Bosnia and went into opposition) to know that the electoral campaign is one thing and being the country's President is another. Some of his other non-diplomatic statements (for instance, on the night after the electoral results were made public) can be attributed to his (over-emotional) reaction to a mud-slinging campaign against him in the media just prior to election day (including the one launched by his political opponent Budiša and his campaign managers).

Does all this, however, mean that Mesić, although scoring nearly 14 per cent more than Budiša in the first round, will win the second round and become Croatia's President? Not necessarily. The last week of the campaign will be decisive and the final outcome is difficult to predict. It is very likely that most of Granić's voters (whose number is certainly not negligible) will support Budiša this time around, and the final race will be very tough. However, the latest polls, conducted after the first round, show a further increase in Mesić's popularity. On the other hand, polls have proven to be a very weak indicator of the real attitudes of Croatian voters. Another important factor may be a decrease in turnout (already noted in the first round, as compared with parliamentary elections).

The most important question, of course, is not whether Budiša or Mesić will enter the President's Office, but rather what are the prospects for the democratisation of Croatia in either of those cases. The answer to that question is fortunately quite optimistic in both cases, since the most important goal has already been achieved: the HDZ is completely stripped of any power in the country.

Both Budiša and Mesić have committed themselves to strong collaboration with the Parliament and changes in the Constitution that will allow for a more important role of the Parliament as compared to the President. Although there is always a possibility that either of them will suddenly change his mind after entering office, Parliament can eventually introduce these changes without the President's consent, and it seems that even in this "worst-case scenario," a crisis will almost certainly not ensue on this issue.

The potential for crisis is much higher in other fields: if Budiša is elected President, this will certainly mean stable and good relations between the Parliament, government and President (because they would all be run by the SDP-HSLS coalition), but it is potentially fertile ground for the disintegration of the Coalition of Six Parties, since the "Group of Four" (HSS, HNS, LS, IDS) might feel alienated from the leading two parties. It may increasingly tend to profile itself as a separate group, with possible unification of three smaller parties (HNS, LS and IDS), which has already discretely been announced. Ivica Račan, the new Prime Minister, is obviously aware of that possibility, and that is exactly why he (to the surprise of many) gave two very important positions to the "Group of Four": Speaker of the Parliament will be Zlatko Tomčić from the HSS and State Minister of Reconstruction, Public Works and Building (a very important ministry in Croatia) will be Radimir Čačić, the chairman of the HNS. That might help in keeping the balance and tempering possible dissatisfaction of the "Group of Four".

On the other hand, if Mesić is elected President, it would mean a certain kind of (although not literal) cohabitation - the Parliament and the government would be (mainly) in the hands of the SDP-HSLS and the presidency in the hands of the "Group of Four." Although this seems like quite an artificial danger, it may at some point become real, especially if the government and Parliament disagree on some major issue with President Mesić.

Although Prime Minister Račan declined the suspicion that the outcome of the presidential elections will have any influence on the co-operation within the Coalition of Six Parties, it remains yet to be seen if the coalition will be strong enough to pass this test. Political scientists dealing with Croatia will obviously have their hands full in the months to come.

Saša Cvijetić, 29 January 2000



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