March 17, 2002
Divided rivals vie to lead opposition
By Jeffrey T. Kuhner
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
The race for the leadership of Croatia's main opposition party has become a struggle between two candidates with different economic visions for the country.
Ivo Sanader, the current head of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), and Ivica Pasalic, former adviser to the late President Franjo Tudjman who led the country's 1991 drive for independence from Yugoslavia, are engaged in a leadership contest to lead the center-right party in general elections that could be held as early as this summer.
The HDZ led Croatia into independence and ruled the country until it lost power to a center-left coalition in 2000 elections.
The popularity of the ruling coalition in Zagreb has plummeted recently in the wake of the country's economic crisis and soaring unemployment rate, which is now at 23 percent. Elected on a platform of economic reform and forging closer links with the West, the government led by Prime Minister Ivica Racan's Social Democratic Party has lost significant support and faces an increasingly frustrated electorate.
Nearly 2,000 HDZ delegates will elect the next party chief at a party congress on April 20-21. The winner will likely form the next government, since many opinion polls show the HDZ as the most popular party in Croatia. It won nationwide local elections last year.
Mr. Sanader, 49, is a Reaganite conservative who advocates a tax-cutting, pro-growth agenda.
In a speech at Georgetown University last Sunday, he touted the benefits of "Reaganomics" and vowed that if he should form the next government he would immediately "slash income and business taxes to stimulate economic growth and job creation."
He also has pledged to cut government spending, streamline the public bureaucracy and "battle corruption" in order to encourage foreign investment and entrepreneurship.
Mr. Pasalic, however, said in an interview that he champions a "social market economy" that seeks to combine free-market reforms with vigorous public spending on social programs for the unemployed and the poor.
"I also want to attract investment from the Croatian diaspora abroad — to give them a chance to do business in Croatia," the 41-year-old contender said.
A third candidate in the campaign, party Vice President Maja Freundelic, is not considered a strong factor in the race.
Both Mr. Sanader and Mr. Pasalic have said reversing the country's economic decline will be their top priority should the HDZ return to power. Both men also seek to obtain NATO and European Union membership for Croatia.
Tomislav Sunic, a leading writer on Croatian affairs, said Mr. Pasalic's main weakness is his suspected involvement in economic corruption during the Tudjman regime in the 1990s.
"There have been allegations that [Mr. Pasalic] had intimate knowledge and participated in some of the shady privatization measures that took place when the HDZ was in power," Mr. Sunic said. Mr. Pasalic has been virulently attacked by the liberal press in Zagreb even though no evidence has been found, he added.
"The public perception of Sanader is more favorable and that he is honest," he added.
Josko Celan, a political analyst at Slobodna Dalmacija, a Split-based newspaper, agrees with that assessment.
"Although Pasalic has leadership qualities that Sanader does not have," he said, "Pasalic will be attacked by the pro-government press in a general election campaign, and that is his greatest drawback."
"It will be a close contest. But everything points to Sanader winning this race," Mr. Sunic said.
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