Tudjman headed toward victory in Croatia vote
ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) _ Boosted by his reputation as the father of Croatian independence, President Franjo Tudjman headed for an easy and expected victory in national elections Sunday.
A triumph would give Tudjman his third term since winning the presidency in 1990, before the bloody breakup of old Yugoslavia.
Tudjman had 59 percent with two-thirds of the votes counted, election officials announced shortly after midnight.
As the tally was announced, a beaming Tudjman was shown on national television being feted by cheering supporters who popped champagne and let off a barrage of fireworks.
The president, criticized abroad as being too authoritarian, promised to continue ``the policies that brought Croatia freedom, independence and democracy.″
Challengers Vlado Gotovac, a Social Liberal supported by nine other small parties, had 18 percent, and Social Democrat Zdravko Tomac 23 percent, according to the preliminary results.
A key task in his upcoming five-year term will be to preside over final unification of the country and reintegrate the last Serb enclave into Croatia proper.
The 75-year-old president is rumored to be suffering from cancer. Foreign critics attack his authoritarian ways and poor treatment of minority Serbs. He is widely seen as indifferent to the woes of his impoverished people.
But Tudjman is Croatia’s father figure, the man who realized an age-old Croat dream of independence and led his nation through a successful war against the Serbs.
Backed by a largely submissive media and copious funds, he scotched rumors of poor health with an active campaign portraying him as the very embodiment of Croatia.
``Tudjman: Croatian President,″ and ``The President for President″ declared thousands of campaign posters. He said Sunday that the elections ``would fortify democratic rule.″
With the outcome virtually assured, turnout appeared low. Election officials said 42 percent of those eligible had voted by 4 p.m. Polls closed on schedule three hours later.
The head of the election commission, Ivan Mrkonjic, told Croatian TV that the voting had come off without incident.
Extremely low voter turnout was reported in the last Serb-held region of Croatia, which is to return to Croatian rule later this year _ to the dismay of many fearful Serb residents.
By early afternoon, U.N. spokesman Doug Coffman said about 7,000 people had voted there, only a tenth of the number who voted in local elections two months ago.
Thousands of Serbs who should have been on the voter lists compiled by Croatian authorities were left off.
But Croatian and U.N. officials said Serbs who could not find their names on the lists were allowed to vote by presenting Croatian identity documents.
Croats who had been pushed by Serbs from the Vukovar region in a 1991 war were eager to vote for Tudjman.
``I trust that the man who brought Vukovar back to Croatia will bring us back there, too,″ said 66-year-old Marija Matosevic. She wants to go home, even though her house was destroyed and her husband died while they were refugees.
While Tudjman campaigned as the father of Croatia, both Gotovac and Tomac promised a more democratic country, free of the nepotism, corruption and authoritarianism seen by many as a hallmark of Tudjman’s government.
But, despite poverty and 17 percent unemployment, neither challenger got his message through to the largely rural electorate accustomed _ like many in the Balkans _ to stick with the strong man they know.
European Union officials who monitored television news broadcasts between May 28 and June 7 said Tudjman had 33 appearances to Tomac’s single, 16-second showing.
Gotovac got more air time _ but still 10 times less than Tudjman _ because he was attacked by a soldier at a rally June 5, suffering a concussion that put him in the hospital for four days.
Despite defeat, Tomac took heart that his vote tally appeared to exceed the 15 percent each challenger was expected to receive.
``At the next elections, we will do even better ... (and) get enough votes to make Croatia a modern European country,″ he said.
The approximately 4 million eligible voters include an estimated 377,000 Croats living in neighboring Bosnia and other countries. The number of voters abroad, who were considered pro-Tudjman, never has been announced officially _ a fact the opposition views as fertile ground for manipulation.
Paul Simon, a former U.S. senator from Illinois, led a team of 100 election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
He was expected to attack the media’s pro-Tudjman slant in assessing whether the elections were free and fair.
Simon toured eastern Slavonia Sunday with U.S. Ambassador Peter Galbraith, witnessing first-hand the ruins of war and the deep mistrust that remains between Serbs and Croats.