Round-trip to Europe and back

A referendum or a choice?

On Saturday night, a journalist friend of mine introduced me to Ivo Josipović, the Presidential Election candidate of the opposition Social-Democratic Party. We chatted a few minutes on the street, and he said that current Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandić would be an easier opponent for him in the second round, as the vote in that case would turn into a referendum. It reminded me of the 2002 elections in France, when, faced with a Le Pen-Chirac duel in the second round, the French massively turned out to vote, not For Jacques Chirac, but Against Jean-Marie le Pen. Of course, the two situations are in no way comparable, but the dilemma for many Croatian citizens might still be as difficult.

Well, here we are. Ivo Josipović, with 32,44% of today’s vote, will face Milan Bandić, who received 14,84%. HDZ official candidate Andrija Hebrang comes out of the first round with 12,01% of the votes, while HDZ dissident and Head of the Croatian Chamber of Commerce Nadan Vidosević follows with 11,33%. And indeed, the second round should turn into a very simple choice: Croats can either choose populism, demagogical promises and the mafia boss-like ruling style of the Zagreb Mayor, or the straightforward, mild-mannered law professor who, although lacking in charisma cannot be accused of corruption or of having built a fortune by ripping off the state or its citizens.

It was to be expected that this grey, rainy Sunday, two days after Christmas, was going to be a lazy one for Croats. Unfortunately, the Croatian Government chose this 27th of December as the day of the first round of the Presidential election. In a country where almost 90% of the population declares itself as Catholic, and where Christian values were repeatedly invoked by the candidates, the Christmas spirit and the charm of Croatian Christmas traditions were somewhat lost under the avalanche of electoral meetings, concerts, debates, posters, street flyer and handshake handouts. Of course, the choice of the election date was meant to encourage the vote of a great number of expatriates returning home for Christmas and considered to be traditional supporters of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). It is unfortunate that in addition to the deep distrust Croats feel towards politicians these days, a sometimes confusing campaign that dragged on, too many candidates and the rain, the date itself probably has to be counted as one of the reasons of the low – about 44% – voter turnout. Still tired after the Christmas celebrations and getting ready for the New Year ones…

It was nevertheless the day when Croatian citizens had to choose their third President since independence was declared in 1991. The first, Franjo Tudjman, won twice by a landslide in times of war. Safeguarding Croatian identity, the survival of the newly born state and the freedom to choose their own destiny were then the only criteria for a vast majority of Croats. The second, Stipe Mesić, was elected on the – correct – assumption that he would be the absolute opposite of his predecessor in demeanour, political convictions (or the lack of) and style. The war had ended, the presidential system had been changed into a parliamentarian one, and Croats were eager to trade the frowning, authoritarian Tudjman ways for a “lighter” presidential role. Mesić conquered many with his jokes, his “I am one of you” attitude.

The third Croatian President will be the head of a state whose international position has been stabilized: a member of the United Nations Security Council, of NATO and well on the road to EU membership. But it is also a state where the practice of democracy and rule of law are still an everyday learning process, one that has been hit hardly by the international economic and financial crisis, in addition to the rampant corruption that is weakening its institutions, its political parties and the participation of civil society in the crucial debate about Croatia’s vision and strategy for the next decade.

The choice Croats will have to make next January 10th is a very simple one.

On one side, we have a man who has built a sizeable fortune whose origins no one has so far been able, or willing, to uncover. A man who has turned Croatia’s capital into his private playground and placed all of its public services under his direct and sole command, very much like a mob boss would. A man who leaves the city’s budget empty. A man who is said to have distributed cash to his followers and potential voters in the small villages and towns of Herzegovina, the Bosnian province where he was born. A man who was not ashamed to state, during the electoral campaign, that his “only role models were his mother and God”. A man who has constantly been linked to great number of corruption scandals but has somehow always escaped trial (including an accident caused by drunk driving when he fled the scene and had to be chased after by the police).

On the other side, a mild-mannered and soft-spoken man who is a professor of criminal law and music composer. One that so far seems to have no major skeletons in his closet, an upper middle class intellectual whose urban lifestyle is a far cry from that of “tycoons” that have amassed vast fortunes through less than legitimate privatization processes, murky business deals and the protection of politicians from various political parties. Both the Croatian and international media have repeatedly said that this man lacks charisma, temperament and political experience.

I would like to quote a commentary published today by a Croatian news site,

“… Actually, all those who advertise Josipović as educated and cultured aren’t conscious that they are not doing him a favor: if these are his main qualities for this office, then we have a big problem. Even the statement that – unlike Bandić – he is not corrupt, doesn’t sound too promising. That should probably be a precondition for a candidate to a high political function.

But in a country where only Bandić and corruption are advancing, we have to be satisfied will small things. Only that the candidate is honest and cultured. We obviously have no right to ask for more”.

In this particular case, I want to believe that politicians often reveal their true capacities after they take up their office. I think that in times of peace, in a country where the Head of state’s main responsibility lies in the realm of foreign policy, charisma is not essential. Being serious and educated and trustworthy is important. Hopefully, the third President will truly be the “President of all Croatian citizens”. Maybe the choice we are facing is indeed a real one. Maybe it is not only a referendum against a candidate, but the decision to choose another one, even if he does not represent one’s usual political affinity. Maybe this is the most important choice we are going to make since the end of the war.

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  1. there are not many (if any) positive examples of politicians we selected during different elections within last 20 years, so patience level is low, indiference is running high and expectations are modest

    better question is how someone like bandic can even participate in the process and even have a sizeable chance to win, as David Byrne sung “well, how did we get here?”

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