Sunday, January 26, 2003

Too Late for Yale Professor?

Yesterday Dr. Ivo Banac, professor of history at Yale University, became the new chairman of LS (Liberalna Stranka/Liberal Party), small centre-left party that is the member of current government coalition in Croatia.

Thanks to his books that dealt with the history of former Yugoslavia, Banac is familiar name to all those who had some deeper interest in the background of former Yugoslav conflicts. Banac is familiar name to all those who had read opposition papers in Croatia during Tudjman years, since he used to be full-time commentator of Feral Tribune. Being opposed to the Tudjman's views, he joined HSLS in early 1990s. His membership in that party became well-known only later, in 1996, when HSLS became split over the issue of eventual coalition with Tudjman's HDZ. After the victory of pro-HDZ faction led by Dražen Budiša (Drazen Budisa), Banac joined departing HSLS chairman Vlado Gotovac in creating new and more radical party LS.

LS leaders earned a lot of praise from opposition-minded public in Croatia for their radical anti-Tudjman stance and ideas of Second Republic. However, this praise failed to manifest in any noticeable electoral support, except in city of Osijek, mostly due to the charisma of war-time mayor Zlatko Kramarić (Zlatko Kramaric), politician who would later replace Gotovac at the helm of LS. New party had around 1-2 % in opinion polls and got four seats in 2000 Sabor as a part of four-party coalition, dominated by right-centre HSS. To add insult to injury, their former party comrades from HSLS got six times more seats by allying with ex-Communist SDP.

In last three years LS, having only Ministry of Urbanism and Environmental Protection led by idealistic Božo Kovačević (Bozo Kovacevic), ended up with significantly less dirt on their hands compared with their coalition partners. However, perception of LS as a champion of anti-Tudjmanism within new government hardly raised their poll numbers. New opinion polls, just like those before 2000, predict LS being wiped out from Croatian political scene if its ticket runs alone.

Main reason for LS bleak prospects lies in the fact that pro-Western intelligentsia, youth and other sections of Croatian society that were supposed to form voting base for LS had already found their champion in the form of HNS. Two parties are ideological twins; the only difference is that HNS was more fortunate with their leaders. Vesna Pusić (Vesna Pusic) is only one of two HNS representatives in Sabor, but she already made quite a name for herself (and her party) by publicly accusing Tudjman's regime for waging aggressive war against Bosnia-Herzegovina – taboo that few Croatian politicians, especially those belonging to centre, dared to break. Avalanche of right-wing attacks on Pusić and her party had the side effect of attracting anti-Tudjmanist voters, at the expense of SDP and LS alike. To make things worse for LS, Kramarić began to shift LS to the right, sometimes siding with HDZ in some Sabor issues, and sometimes even arranging local coalitions with HDZ – the very same thing that had led to his break with HSLS years ago.

Banac's victory, which was quite tight (255 delegates for him, 244 for Kramarić) came just in the right moment for LS. The party would have less than a year to create new platform for upcoming elections, and this platform would have to include policies significantly different from those adopted by other parties of governing coalition. Banac in his convention speeches, before and after the election, started distancing himself from Račan's government and stated that LS couldn't take responsibility for Račan's failures any more. This is so far the strongest hint that LS would be another party to leave coalition, although the effects won't be that dramatic as in the case of HSLS – remaining LS representatives in Sabor are unlikely to vote for new government that would include HDZ. LS in leaving would just follow example of their former coalition partner, small Istrian regionalist party IDS, which had left the cabinet posts only to support present government in any Sabor votes that could have returned HDZ to power.

However, even the radical new platform and such radical moves aren't likely to represent some magic potion that would invigorate LS. The party would need to quadruple its voting base in order to gain single seat in Sabor. And it is doubtful that Banac has enough charisma to do that – his reputation of top intellectual isn't likely to bring votes in the country that prefer populist and more brutish leaders.

The most sensible thing for LS is to try to create permanent coalition with its ideological twin. However, HNS seems to see this coalition as prelude to fusion, and LS leaders used to feel squeamish about that. The new leadership under Banac might be more flexible in this issue, but it isn't clear whether Banac has enough authority for the move that could have make him the last chairman of his party.

Banac has announced that he would leave his Yale tenure. That would undoubtedly represent a huge loss for Yale University. Whether it would represent some gain for Croatia is yet to be seen.


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