Croatia faces bruising presidential ballot

Croatia faces a tight presidential runoff on Sunday between a jurist keen to fight corruption and a church-backed populist, both hoping to lead the country into the European Union within two years.

Law professor Ivo Josipovic, a Social Democrat relatively inexperienced in politics, won the first round on December 27 with a comfortable edge over 11 rivals, running on an anti-corruption platform, and is slightly ahead in the polls.

But Zagreb mayor Milan Bandic, a former Social Democrat known for populist policies and flirting with the right, has staged a strong catch-up, playing up fears of a “return to communism” under Josipovic.

Bandic, who has built up Zagreb’s public facilities as a tax-and-spend city boss over the last decade, has won support from the powerful Roman Catholic church and many in the conservative part of the electorate who will always be reluctant to vote for anyone seen leaning to the left, given the country’s recent past as part of communist Yugoslavia.

Local media have accused Bandic and the city administration he controls of links to a number of corruption scandals, but no charges have ever been pressed.

“The election is now much more important than it seemed a month ago,” said Davor Butkovic, an influential editor at the Jutarnji List daily.

“We are choosing between a civilised state run by the rule of law and a chaotic state full of cronyism,” he said.

Ordinary Croats who ventured out in heavy snow on Thursday said they just wanted a president who could help the government turn around the economy, severely hit by the global recession.

“People should not be divided into the ‘reds’ and the faithful. For us small people, it’s jobs that count and we need a man who can start this. Everything else is irrelevant,” said fruit vendor Stef Zagorec, 50.

The president has limited powers over diplomacy, defence and the intelligence services but none over the economy. However, Bandic has promised new jobs and vowed to “work like a horse” for Croatia and its 4.4 million people.

Latest opinion polls put the soft-spoken, bespectacled Josipovic, seen as lacking charisma, ahead with 55 percent. A part-time composer, he has the backing of Croatia’s pop music glitterati who have recorded a song and video clip supporting him.

However, the polls do not take account of some 400,000 expatriate Croats, mostly in Bosnia, who are eligible to vote in Croatia and likely to support Bandic, himself born in Bosnia.

Both men back Croatia’s aim of completing EU accession talks this year and joining the bloc in 2011 or 2012, but analysts and diplomats say Josipovic was more likely to support the government’s new anti-corruption drive, required by Brussels.

Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, who took over in July, has stepped up the fight against graft, backing investigations into high-level malpractice in several state-owned companies, and has pledged to press on with reforms.

Croatia also needs to revamp its judiciary and public administration and cut high state subsidies.

“Josipovic has clearly supported the government’s agenda, which is what this country needs. With Bandic, it is not so clear,” a seasoned EU diplomat in Zagreb said.

In an interview with state-owned Vjesnik daily on Thursday, Josipovic said he was offering “reforms, a fight against corruption and the return of integrity into politics.”

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