Thursday, April 07, 2005

[LOCAL ELECTIONS 2005] Sanader’s Zagreb Trouble

As expected, Sanader’s government has called local and regional elections for May 15th 2005.

Although Croatia happens to be very centralised country and, therefore, local and regional governments, especially those in impoverished and war-ravaged areas like Slavonia, Lika and Dalmatia, don’t amount to much, the elections are going to be very important for two reasons.

First, no government has ever called those elections in such bad shape as Sanader’s government did. Unfulfilled election promises, corruption and other scandals, razor-thin Sabor majority and two major fiascos – disastrous presidential bid by Jadranka Kosor and even more disastrous handling of Gotovina affair – made Sanader’s government look very weak. Although late polls show slight surge of support for HDZ, numbers are still very worrisome for Sanader – it is very likely that his party will at least a third of voters who had brought him to office in 2003. The elections will also be an indicator of a long-term future prospects for some of major players on Croatian political scenes. For example, almost everyone expects HSP, far right and mildly Eurosceptic party, to knock left-centre HNS from the third place.

The elections are also going to provide answer to another important question – whether Croatian people are serious about their new-found Euroscepticism. Immediately after E-Day fiasco on March 17th, many media commentators became very anxious about local and regional elections, because the campaign, despite of their nominally local nature, is going to be a fertile ground for populist and, therefore, Eurosceptic rhetoric. Some even called for Račan (Racan) and Sanader to prevent that by formalising their tacit alliance and forming joint ticket for the elections.

This scheme might look attractive on paper, but Sanader is all too aware that it won’t sit well within his party rank-and-file. Branimir Glavaš (Branimir Glavas), Slavonian HDZ boss and one of Sanader’s top party allies, has already strayed from the official “EU At Any Cost” line by blaming EU, and not Gotovina, for March 17th fiasco. Electorate, especially on local levels - where HDZ traditionally fared worse than on national level – is going to be even less forgiving. Sanader can expect to have some success at elections – or, to be precise, avoid disaster – only by tolerating at least some Euroscepticism and hard-line nationalism in his party. Some commentators attribute the modest HDZ surge in polls to that.

It seems that Sanader took those commentators seriously, at least in case of Zagreb City Council elections. Control over Croatian capital – where the GDP is four times national average – is the most precious and most coveted electoral prize. Unfortunately for Sanader, Zagreb also happens to be the lost cause for HDZ – it would take at least a generation or two for Zagrebians to forgive renaming of Dinamo Zagreb, attempted shutdown of Radio 101, “opposition situation in capital” and other 1990s sins of Tudjman’s party.

Furthermore, at this point Zagreb City Council elections look very much like presidential contest looked before January 2005 – more of a coronation than competition. Just as Stipe Mesić (Stipe Mesic) was expected to cruise comfortably into second term, Milan Bandić (Milan Bandic), SDP überboss and deputy mayor, is widely expected to return to mayoral office which he had to leave following drunk driving incident three years ago. His ticket, based on the solid support of blue-collar Zagreb suburbs and huge network of backers in Zagreb business community, has attracted many of his former enemies – namely conservative HSS, humiliated by him in 2001 elections – and is now expected to get more than 40 %, which could all but guarantee comfortable majority in City Council.

Croatian media – partly in order to push pro-EU line, partly in order to have some excitement in the race – created some sort of archrival for Bandić in the form of HNS leader Vesna Pusić (Vesna Pusic), whose party is nominal coalition partner of SDP in current city government. Pusić, a typical Limousine Liberal intellectual, tried very hard to match Bandić’s populist skills, but most people see double digit numbers as the only thing HNS could expect to call success after these elections.

More interesting challenge to Bandić comes from the Right. And this is where Sanader tried to do something by floating the name of Andrija Hebrang, former health minister and unofficial leader of Tudjmanist hard-right within HDZ, as his party’s mayoral candidate. Hebrang, who was forced to leave his post due to deteriorating health, publicly declined the offer. And with good reason, since HDZ can expect nothing but defeat in Zagreb and whoever leads the ticket is going to be as marginalised as Kosor is after her disastrous presidential bid.

This leaves Sanader with few options. Of course, HDZ will have its ticket, just for the sake of prestige, and by attracting some minor players like HSLS or DC, it could expect to jump above 20 %, but nothing can prevent opposition to keep Zagreb as its stronghold for next four years. Even if HDZ keeps the seats it currently has, it could be interpreted as nothing less than another of Sanader’s failures.

And, there is always very real prospect of HDZ losing its Zagreb constituency to other players from the Right – HSP and Boris Mikšić (Boris Miksic). The latter, a native of Zagreb, showed great potential to be a spoiler, despite his apparent lack of political experience, as a spoiler. After presidential elections media was in full attack mode, portraying him as sore and pathetic loser, as well as wife beater. But it didn’t have much of an impact, at least judging by the recent polls. In Zagreb his ticket can expect 10 %, which is more than enough for seats in City Council. And, needless to say, those seats will be at the expense of Sanader’s HDZ.

On the other hand, if he is as shrewd politician as media often portray him to be, Sanader can transform calamity into opportunity. HDZ will get beaten badly in Zagreb and Mikšić can emerge as another right-wing icon in Croatia, but his ascendancy might be a good argument for Sanader to get at least some bones from EU diplomats in Brussels. Sanader can argue that EU has a choice between dealing with proper pro-European like him now or with dangerous Eurosceptic populist like Mikšić in near future.


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