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The Message of Croatian Elections

ZAGREB: Barely two months after Franjo Tudjman's death, Croatia is a different country. Years of political fear have been washed away in just a few days. Last month, parliamentary elections dealt a mortal blow to Tudjmans' monolithic party, HDZ. This week, the opposition's Stipe Mesic won Croatia's presidency. Tudjman, long an object of dread, has vanished from the political screen, taking into oblivion the ideological clutter that made Croatia a pariah state.

Despite an electoral law favoring it, Tudjman's mammoth organization has been reduced to a mere 40 seats in the 151-seat lower chamber of the Sabor (parliament). The coalition of Ivica Ra an's ex-Communists (SDP) and Drazen Budiša's right-liberals (HSLS), known as §the Two", hold 71 seats. The allied coalition of §the Four ¨ (Peasant Party, Liberal Party, National Party, and the Istrian regionalists), which together with "the Two ¨ make up a new governing coalition called §the Six", won an additional 24 seats, meaning that the new premier, Ivica Račan, a former head of Croatia's defunct League of Communists and the man who yielded power to Tudjman in 1990, has a comfortable majority, but not the two-thirds needed to change Tudjman's constitution of excessive presidential power.

The consequences of HDZ's collapse shaped the presidential contest. HDZ's candidate, Tudjman's reputedly moderate foreign minister Mate Granic, whom pundits declared an easy winner, confronted two adversaries – Drazen Budiša, the candidate of §the Two", and Stipe Mesic, whom §the Four ¨ put forth almost as an afterthought. Stipe Mesic edged Granic out of the race in the first round (24 January) and defeated Budiša decisively in the second round (7 February).

Mesic's astounding victory speaks volumes about the current mood of the Croat electorate. Mesic is an unassuming populist involved in the Croat opposition movement since the 1960s. From a Communist family who witnessed the murder of his grandmother by the collaborationist Ustašas as a child, he belonged to the reform wing of the communist party in 197. Afterward, in a period of hard-line communist reaction, he became a political prisoner, even a non-person. He joined with Tudjman and the national movement in 1989, becoming Prime Minister, and briefly, as Croatia's representative in 1991, served as ex-Yugoslavia's last collective president.