June 16, 1997

Croatia's Tudjman wins but observers say vote not fair

By Caroline Smith

ZAGREB, Croatia - Croatian President Franjo Tudjman has won a landslide reelection victory as expected, but international election observers led by former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon said Monday the vote was free but not fair.

With just over 90 percent of Sunday's votes counted, Tudjman won over 61 percent of the vote with Social Democrat Zdravko Tomac on 21 per cent and Vlado Gotovac of the Social Liberal Party on just under 18 percent.

Tudjman's position is now stronger than ever, with his ruling HDZ party also entrenched in parliament and local government.

But Simon, co-ordinating a monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said in a statement given to reporters: ``Croatia has experienced a free but not fair election.

The pre-election process ``did not meet the minimum standards for democracies. By contrast the election itself was, with some exceptions, conducted efficiently,'' the statement said.

Before the poll, opposition candidates had already branded the campaign biased and undemocratic because of Tudjman's virtual control of the state media especially television, accusing him of using his position to promote his candidacy.

U.S. ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith told Reuters the U.S. position ``corresponded'' with that of the OSCE.

Simon told reporters it would take time for democracy to develop in Croatia. ``We don't move from communist states to full democracy overnight. These are recommendations we make. It's up to them to consider and, we hope, act upon.''

Both opposition candidates were subjected to violence during the campaign. Gotovac was hit on the head by an army captain at a rally and Tomac had stones thrown at his campaign van while touring the country.

``This election was not democratic. Gotovac and I were in such a disadvantageous position that any result we achieved would be a good result,'' Tomac said after casting his ballot Sunday.

But Tudjman's popularity among ordinary citizens seems to have stayed intact despite poverty and doubts about his health after reports from U.S. administration officials that he has stomach cancer.

After leading Croatia to independence from former Yugoslavia in 1991 and steering it through the 1991-1995 war against the Serbs, he is praised as a strong leader and idolized by many as ``the father of the nation.''

Tudjman, a former communist general who has led a post-communist drive to align his country with the West, pledged his immediate priority would be to attack low living standards hit by war and recession.

The opposition challenge suffered because of infighting and public doubts about the leadership strengths of the candidates.

Officials said the turnout Sunday was 57 percent -- one of the lowest since Croatia held its first democratic vote in 1990 while still part of the former Yugoslavia.

Celebrating at a banquet as the results came in, Tudjman said: ``I promise the continuity of the policy with which we established freedom and independence in Croatia, a stable economy and we shall dedicate ourselves with all our forces to raising the standards of living for the entire population.''

Tudjman presided over a post-communist economic reform program launched in 1993 which slashed inflation and stabilized the currency, boosting foreign investor interest and domestic growth.

The majority of Croatians are struggling to make ends meet after a war which destroyed infrastructure and shut factories.

The strong exchange rate hurts exports and tourism, a big earner before the war, is only just beginning to pick up again.

Zarko Miljenovic, chief economist at Zagrebacka Banka, said he didn't expect Tudjman to be able to do much after already using a large part of the budget to compensate war victims.

``Whatever was possible has already been done, and more,'' he told Reuters. ``Unless there is a radical change in fiscal policy and more money is switched from military spending to social needs I can't see a big improvement.''

Tudjman's first priority will be to manage the reintegration of the last Serb-held enclave in Croatia, Eastern Slavonia, which is currently run by the United Nations. It is due to revert to Croatian rule in July and the process will involve the resettlement of thousands of people.

The reintegration will mean the last Serb-held area on Croatian soil has been returned to Croatia, something Tudjman very dear.