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Cablegate: Pumping Up -- Opposition Reviving Coalitions for Local

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS ZAGREB 001571

SIPDIS


E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREL PGOV PHUM HR
SUBJECT: PUMPING UP -- OPPOSITION REVIVING COALITIONS FOR LOCAL
ELECTIONS

1. SUMMARY AND COMMENT: Croatia's current opposition parties
learned the hard way when they lost power in the 2003
parliamentary elections - coalitions are the key to electoral
victory against the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). With
that lesson in mind, opposition leaders see local elections
(expected next spring) as a critical opportunity to rebuild the
partnerships they abandoned in 2003, strengthen party
infrastructure, and set the stage for the next round of
parliamentary elections. This revival of opposition coalitions
indicates a marked evolution of attitudes among party power
brokers - a step away from the personality politics of the recent
past that too often favor party extremists. Local elections will
give Croatian politicians the opportunity to prove they can
sustain these alliances and produce a more balanced and stable
multi-party democracy.

2. The Social Democrats (SDP) and the Peasant Party (HSS)
announced plans for close cooperation in local elections,
including joint candidate lists. In a similar vein, a trio
purporting to make up the Croatian "civil center," the Croatian
People' Party (HNS), the Liberal Party (LS) and Libra, signed a
coalition agreement and left open the possibility of linking up
with their former partners in the SDP and HSS. The ruling HDZ has
generally avoided talk about elections; however, some house-
cleaning moves indicate that it, too, is preparing. The Croatian
Party of Rights (HSP) is positioning itself to appeal to voters
too far to the right for the reformed HDZ, but remains open to
local coalitions with the ruling party. Despite earlier
posturing, most parties seem to favor the existing party ballot
system rather than the direct election of mayors and county
executives. END SUMMARY AND COMMENT.

LEARNING FROM THEIR MISTAKES
----------------------------

3. Croatian opposition parties are aiming for a political
comeback by reforming the partnerships that once brought them to
power. The SDP, the largest opposition party, and the HSS are in
the process of negotiating a coalition for local elections
ordinarily due in May 2005. This alliance is critical, as the
independent ambitions of HSS leader Zlatko Tomcic are widely seen
as the main reason for the previous coalition government's
collapse. In addition, while the SDP dominates urban politics,
the HSS power base is rural, creating a complementary ticket for
local elections. Senior officials in both the SDP and the HSS
told the Embassy they would seek joint lists of candidates in all
counties and major cities across the country. They plan to sign
an agreement in early September, and hope to make similar
arrangements in smaller communities. Party leaders have also said
they would leave the door open for other parties, especially
former partners in the HNS and the regional Istrian Democratic
Assembly (IDS). The HNS, LS and Libra signed a coalition
agreement July 18 establishing what they called a "civil center"
of Croatia, and welcome cooperation with other parties, namely the
SDP, the HSS, and the Pensioners' Party (HSU).

4. In addition to these formal steps to rebuild the former
coalition, political leaders from the SDP, HSS and HNS united to
criticize government actions this summer, particularly those
concerning road construction. The opposition took full political
advantage of the GOC's intention to expand a road construction
contract without public tendering. Using this "affair" to portray
the HDZ-led government, and particularly some of its ministers, as
a group pursuing private rather than national interests (the
latter being an issue of particular sensitivity for the HDZ), the
opposition eventually forced the government to open a full
tendering process. According to Post contacts, the leaders of
these parties will continue to work together to counterbalance the
HDZ's power when Parliament resumes its work later in September.

TAKING OUT THE TRASH -- HDZ'S SUMMER CLEANING AND THE FAR RIGHT
--------------------------------------------- ------------------

5. The ruling HDZ has not yet publicly addressed elections.
However, some of the party's and the government's recent moves
indicate that they are positioning themselves for local elections.
In July, the HDZ expelled from membership Ante Loncar, mayor of
the economically troubled town of Imotski, for spending city funds
on a particularly expensive official vehicle. Similarly, the
government pressed corruption charges in August against Stipe
Gabric Jambo, another former mayor and ex-HDZ member who has
greatly enriched himself over the past decade, becoming a symbol
of cronyism and dubious privatization. In its countrywide effort
to stop illegal building, in July the government ordered the
destruction of a house in an elite part of Zagreb belonging to a
former prominent HDZ-er and army general Ljubo Cesic Rojs, who
epitomizes the regime from the nineties. While steps like these
are welcome, opposition officials claim they are more a result of
infighting than a genuine wish to clean party ranks and combat
corruption, noting that these house-cleaning targets enjoyed full
support and protection while loyal to the party and were
conveniently hit only after they left the HDZ or when their
interests clashed with those of other, more powerful old-school
party members.

6. The far-right Croatian Party of Rights (HSP) recently formally
abandoned its past practice of glorifying Croatia's WWII fascist
regime. As a consequence, it won eight seats in the November 2003
elections, doubling its strength in the national Parliament. As
the HDZ has moved toward the center, the HSP has been quick to
capture the right side of the political spectrum. It launched a
campaign this summer in support of generals indicted for or
convicted of war crimes, including posters across Dalmatia
picturing Mirko Norac, a Croatian general indicted by the ICTY and
already found guilty of war crimes by a domestic court, declaring:
"Guilty -- of defending his homeland." Similarly, the party has
become a more vocal skeptic regarding NATO and EU membership and
was also the only important party that had no problem with the
recent erection of monuments in memory of Ustasha leaders. Recent
polls show that HSP support may have peaked, settling at 7 to 8
percent, a number predicted by local analysts, including President
Mesic's domestic policy advisor, Igor Dekanic. COMMENT: Local
elections could reveal the HSP's real strength, as they are the
only significant party with the possibility of going into
coalition with the HDZ. While international considerations kept
the HDZ from forming a national alliance with the HSP following
the last parliamentary elections, it is less likely to avoid
cooperation with the far right at the local level. END COMMENT.

DEBATES OVER ELECTION TIMING AND REPLACING PARTY BALLOTS
--------------------------------------------- -----------

7. HDZ strategists have also considered how the timing of the
local elections due in 2005 might help their cause. The law
requires local elections on the third Sunday of May every four
years. However, two high-ranking old-school HDZ-ers have made
conflicting statements on changing the election schedule. The HDZ
MP and party chief in Eastern Slavonia, Branimir Glavas, suggested
in mid-July that local elections could be held together with those
for the President around the New Year. Although Glavas argued
that combining the two elections would reduce organizational
costs, opposition leaders and independent analysts suspect Glavas
believes the HDZ would do better at combined elections than at a
local election following their candidate's expected defeat in the
presidential race (septel). Later in July, another prominent
party member, Deputy Speaker Luka Bebic, said that he expected
local elections in April. Either of the suggested dates would
require a legislative change. SDP SG Igor Dragovan told us in
late August that the HDZ would have trouble getting its coalition
partners, especially the Pensioner Party and the Independent
Democratic Serbian Party (SDSS), to vote for changing the law, due
to growing SDSS discontent with the slow pace the government is
addressing their interests. Dragovan believes the HDZ chose to
make conflicting statements about the election date to create
confusion in the opposition.

8. There has also been intermittent debate about direct election
of mayors and county executives (zupans). Under current law, local
executive authorities are selected by the city councils/county
assemblies elected on party/coalition ballots at the local
elections. Reformers have argued that local officials should be
responsible directly to the citizens rather than the parties they
come from. All major parties have supported this view in public
statements. The HNS, however, is now the only major party that
still publicly promotes a change. While claiming that they still
support direct election of mayors and zupans, all other relevant
parties (HDZ, SDP, HSS) in fact favor the status quo. They
privately offer a number of reasons: there isn't enough time to
change the law; that, once elected, mayors would be unimpeachable;
that local governments would become unstable; or even that Croatia
is not ready for such a radical change. Most major parties
governing Croatian cities and counties (HDZ, SDP, HSS) are not
ready to give up party influence on the electoral process,
especially in places with strong individuals. With virtually no
debate on the issue in the run-up to local elections, it's likely
the current system will remain in place.

FRANK


NNNN

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