Cablegate: Presidential Race Tightens; Candidates Present

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1. (SBU) SUMMARY: Ivo Josipovic, candidate of the main
opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP), and independent
candidate Milan Bandic, who is the mayor of Zagreb, are
competing in the January 10 presidential run-off election.
They share similar positions on key foreign policy issues,
such as the importance of NATO and eventual EU membership,
but present starkly different styles and images. Recent
tightening in the polls, however, suggests that Croatians are
increasingly split on who they will choose. We expect that
the recent turmoil in the ruling Croatian Democratic Union
(HDZ) may work to the detriment of Bandic because local media
have speculated that Bandic might utilize the unpopular
Sanader as an informal advisor. Recent polls
notwithstanding, we judge that Josipovic has the edge in
becoming Croatia's third president. END SUMMARY


2. (U) Both Bandic and Josipovic began their political
careers in the Zagreb branch of the SDP. They both joined
the Communist Party in the 1980s, but they only became active
in politics after the communist party reformed itself into a
modern social-democratic political movement in the early
1990s. (NOTE: Bandic is running as an independent candidate
only because the SDP expelled him from the party once he
decided to challenge the party's official candidate,
Josipovic, in the election.) True to their SDP heritage,
both candidates have shown a liberal stance on most social
issues--legalized abortion, gay-rights, and secular
education. However, the pious Bandic struggled at times on
the campaign trail to articulate a clear position on more
socially contentious issues. They have both emphasized their
support for Croatia's membership in NATO and Croatia's role
in NATO-led operations. Bandic has gone further, indicating
that Croatia should consider increasing its presence in
Afghanistan if the NATO alliance made a formal request for
additional troops. On Bosnia, Bandic has recently been the
more strident of the two candidates in his statements of
support for Bosnian Croats and the notion of a third entity.
However, Josipovic's statements on the campaign trail,
particularly in Herzegovina, have been fairly similar to
Bandic's and represent a departure from the SDP's traditional
lack of interest in Bosnian-Croat issues.


3. (SBU) Josipovic is a well-respected legal scholar who
tends to come across as a dry-as-dust law professor rather
than a politician with a common touch. Although he can be
very articulate in both Croatian and English, he is regarded
by the public as boring and lacking in charisma. Croatians
tend to view him as a secular Zagreb sophisticate; not
surprisingly he has trouble connecting with the country's
less educated, non-urban population. Josipovic is both an
accomplished legal scholar and classical composer, but his
political resume is undeniably thin, and this election
represents his first real electoral campaign. Josipovic
actually left the SDP in the mid-1990s to pursue his legal
career, but appeared on the SDP ticket in 2003 and 2007
parliamentary races as a non-party candidate. He did little
formal campaigning during this period and only officially
rejoined the SDP in 2008. His presidential campaign has been
almost exclusively focused on touting his anti-corruption
credentials and "clean hands" reputation. After the first
round results, President Mesic provided some tepid support to
Josipovic's campaign by characterizing Bandic as being poorly
suited for the office of the president. Nevertheless, Mesic
fell short of formally endorsing Josipovic.

4. (SBU) Bandic, on the other hand, is a strong and
experienced campaigner, and while he, at times, can come
across as unpolished, he has an exceptional ability to
connect with everyday folk. Unrelenting in his emphasis on
his Roman Catholic faith and his resume of accomplishments as
the four-term mayor of Zagreb, Bandic consistently highlights
his humble roots and the long hours he puts in on the job for
the betterment of Zagreb's working class. His populist
campaign seems to be winning the support of the center right
and rural voters despite persistent allegations of corruption
and cronyism within his city administration. Under fire for
an apparent lack of transparency in campaign finances, Bandic
brushed off all hints of impropriety and noted that
prosecutors have never brought any charges against him. The
Catholic Church has provided some support for Bandic's
candidacy, most notably when Cardinal Bozanic favored the
candidate with a two-hour meeting following the first round
results. However, in a prominent editorial the Church-based

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newspaper, Glas Koncila, dismissed both candidates as being
ill-suited to bring about the "positive changes" Croatia


5. (U) Recent polls show a tightening race, with Josipovic
consistently receiving about 55 percent of the vote in
Croatia proper and Bandic now earning about 40 percent.
Bandic's poll numbers have risen over the past ten days going
from the low 30s to approximately 40 percent. One poll this
week indicates Josipovic's lead is less than 10 percentage
points, with Josipovic likely to receive about 55 percent of
the vote and Bandic about 45 percent. Meanwhile, preliminary
results for a media-monitoring study conducted by the
democracy-oriented NGO (partially funded by post) indicate
that Bandic has more than doubled what Josipovic spent on his
campaign since the presidential contest began in November.
Turnout was low in the first round race at 44 percent and is
projected to increase slightly, up to 50 percent for the
second round. This moderate turnout should favor Josipovic,
who can count on the SDP's party machinery to turn out its
base, and several polls have indicated that Josipovic is
getting the preponderance of the traditional left-of-center
SDP voters. (reftel A) The polls, however, do not capture the
votes of the diaspora, which are expected to go
overwhelmingly to Bandic and, depending on turnout, will
probably provide Bandic with 4 to 5 additional percentage

6. (SBU) COMMENT: The recent turmoil in the HDZ, which
resulted in former HDZ chairman and Prime Minister Ivo
Sanader's expulsion form the party, may work to the detriment
of the Bandic campaign. (reftel B) Sanader, who has
experienced a dramatic loss of public support, has chosen to
back Bandic and called on the HDZ to support him. However,
HDZ leaders have refused to go along. Moreover, local media
have reported that Bandic is likely to be a conduit for the
return of Sanader's influence to politics. Some media have
speculated that Bandic would go so far as to make Sanader an
advisor in the realm of foreign policy, an area where Bandic
has little experience. Despite the narrowing gap between the
two candidates in the poll, we judge that a solid turnout of
the SDP base for Josipovic and the liability that Sanader
represents for Bandic is likely to give Josipovic the edge in
becoming Croatia's third president. END COMMENT

© Scoop Media

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