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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 November, 2003, 11:36 GMT
Poll-weary Croats seek Hollywood refuge
By Marko Kovac
BBC, Zagreb, Croatia

An unusual rush has hit video stores here in Zagreb.

Crowds of people, young and old, have been browsing through thousands of DVD titles.

The theory is that people are escaping the cacophony of campaigning for this Sunday's parliamentary elections and seeking refuge in Hollywood.

Prime Minister Racan campaigning
Attracting voters' interest is proving difficulty for Prime Minister Racan
Like in the blockbuster The Matrix, they seem to be building a parallel world to the reality of Croatian political parties' bleak and confusing election messages.

The promises in more than 100 election manifestos from parties and independent candidates seem to be overshadowed by voter apathy among the 4.5 million people of this south-east European country.

This is not good news for Prime Minister Ivica Racan's left-of-centre Social-Democrats, the SDP, seeking another four-year mandate and a continuation of his reformist politics.

They face tough opposition from the right-of-centre Christian-Democrats, HDZ, who lead the polls.

These will be the closest elections since this republic gained independence from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

When the governing centre-left coalition, led by the SDP, took power in 2000, many believed it would revive the country after years of economic and political devastation under the authoritarian rule of the late president Franjo Tudjman's HDZ.

Defaced election posters in Zagreb
Election posters have been defaced
In many ways since then, Croatia has been transformed into a developing democracy with a functioning economy.

Today Croatia enjoys annual economic growth of 5%, one of the highest rates in Europe.

Unemployment trends have been reversed and international investments are on the rise, with global players such as Deutsche Telekom and Ericsson developing their programmes here.

According to the latest World Economic Forum survey, Croatia rates as the most developed business environment in the Western Balkans.

People forget that before 2000, when reformists took power, many were afraid that HDZ would boycott the outcome of the elections and bring tanks to the streets. This is unimaginable today
Drazen Lalic
The government logged its EU membership application earlier this year and is hoping to achieve candidate status next spring.

Sociologist Drazen Lalic talks of a government that has democratised Croatia and has built civil society.

"People forget that before 2000, when reformists took power, many were afraid that HDZ would boycott the outcome of the elections and bring tanks to the streets. This is unimaginable today," Mr Lalic says.

This, however, has proven to be insufficient for many who put their trust in the reformist politicians three years ago.

They believe that the coalition could and should have done more.

People will vote for the lesser evil, not programmes
Davor Butkovic
Newspaper editor
Voter dissatisfaction has been intensified by Mr Racan's inability to sell his government's successes, and by growing opposition to reforms among his main coalition partners.

It has been this political wrangling that has disgusted many voters, who instead had expected a stronger fight against Croatia's well-rooted corruption and organised crime.

Jutarnji List daily editor Davor Butkovic agrees that this is the reason why elections are being held in such a depressing atmosphere.

"It would be an illusion to think that anybody likes this government, but the fact is that people don't like the opposition HDZ either. People will vote for the lesser evil," says Mr Butkovic.

The opposition HDZ is still Croatia's single strongest party and will remain so after the elections.

The HDZ has used the past three years to try to distance itself from charges of fraud and the nationalism embodied in President Tudjman's plans to divide Bosnia with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Although the party has been adopting a more moderate approach lately, it still fails to prove readiness to fulfil the basic criteria for EU membership negotiations - full co-operation with UN International War Crimes Tribunal and Serb minority refugee return.

Croatia must remember why it didn't make it into first round of EU enlargement to the east
Guenter Verheugen
European enlargement commissioner
The international community is less than impressed. These criteria will have to be met by any future government if it plans to negotiate membership with European Union.

If it comes to power, HDZ will have to struggle to prove its nationalistic policies are in the past.

Brussels officials will never say it explicitly, but there is little doubt that they prefer the ruling centre-left coalition to "reformed" nationalists.

"Croatia must remember why it didn't make it into first round of EU enlargement to the east," warned EU enlargement commissioner Guenter Verheugen during last week's visit to Croatia.

Analysts took that as a warning that Brussels still remembers HDZ's isolationist politics of the 1990s.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (l) greets Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan in Zagreb
Racan is assured of Chancellor Schroeder's support
Some weeks earlier, Mr Racan exchanged hugs and smiles with fellow Social Democrat and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Zagreb.

"It is clear who my heart is with in the elections," said Mr Schroeder.

The opposition HDZ earned its own European support through a pat on the back from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The latest polls show the SDP closing in on HDZ.

Domagoj Juricic
I'm not going to vote for anyone because I don't see that any of the parties has a clear programme
Domagoj Juricic
But even if everything goes well for his Social Democrats in the elections, Mr Racan will have no time to spare.

He will have to convince his main coalition partner, the right-orientated peasant party HSS, not to turn its back on him and join HDZ.

A coalition with the HSS is necessary for both the SDP and HDZ if they want to take power. Each would have to make big concessions.

Entrepreneur Domagoj Juricic echoes the disappointed voices of many young Croats who would prefer any government as long as it has a strategy for his country's future.

Mr Juricic, 29, will join the voters on 23 November, but only to make his ballot invalid and make sure it is not manipulated.

"I'm not going to vote for anyone because I don't see that any of the parties has a clear programme. The politicians' only goal here is to earn money and that's not a good enough motive for me," he says.

Germany backs Croatia's EU bid
30 Oct 03  |  Europe
Croatia's dance with the EU
26 Jul 03  |  From Our Own Correspondent
Croatia moves to join EU
21 Feb 03  |  Europe
Croatia's war crimes legacy
16 Jul 01  |  Europe
Eating in two countries at once
27 Jun 03  |  Europe
Timeline: Croatia
30 Apr 03  |  Country profiles
Country profile: Croatia
13 Jul 03  |  Country profiles

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