Croatia Votes For Change

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A month ago, Croatians buried their founding President Franjo Tudjman; last week they began to bury his legacy. In a show of democratic zeal, 77% of eligible voters weathered freezing temperatures to cast ballots in parliamentary elections that ousted Tudjman's hard-line nationalist Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ, in favor of a center-left coalition led by a low-key former communist functionary with a taste for blue jeans. The main coalition took 71 seats, while the HDZ got just 40. One HDZ official called the results "humiliating." After the vote, Prime Minister-designate Ivica Racan, 55, pledged to slash spending, clean up corruption and forge stronger links with the West.

Western diplomats cheered the results, but warned that true rapprochement, including access to E.U. funds set aside for former communist countries and participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace program would depend on concrete reforms. The U.S. and E.U. want Croatia to freeze out Croat hard-liners in neighboring Bosnia, speed up the return of Serb refugees expelled during the 1991-95 war and cooperate more fully with the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Domestically, Racan and the ruling coalition face a difficult road as well. Promises to cut taxes and slash the budget by 17%, for example, must be reconciled with the need to create jobs in a place where the state is still a major employer. Unemployment stands at 20.4%.

The final act in Croatia's millennial drama will take place later this month when presidential elections are held to choose Tudjman's successor. The frontrunners are Mate Granic, an HDZ moderate and favorite of the West who was Foreign Minister under the previous government, and Drazen Budisa, a former dissident who represents the main opposition coalition. Both men say they will turn away from Tudjman's autocratic style of leadership. In fact, they have little choice. One of the new parliamentary majority's priorities, if it can muster the necessary two-thirds vote, is to lessen the constitutional powers of the presidency. Tudjman would not be pleased.