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Tudjman expected to coast to re-election in Croatian vote

June 15, 1997

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) _ The only real question in Croatia’s presidential election Sunday was how large a margin voters would give incumbent Franjo Tudjman, who will preside over final unification of the country.

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 the father figure of Croatia, the man who realized an age-old Croat dream of independence and led his nation through an ultimately successful war against the Serbs.

Backed by a largely submissive media and copious funds, Tudjman has scotched rumors that he is in poor health, actively campaigning and portraying himself as the embodiment of Croatia.

``Tudjman: Croatian President,″ and ``The President for President″ declare thousands of 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 have suggested Tudjman will get more than 50 percent of the vote, trouncing challengers Vlado Gotovac, a Social Liberal, and Social Democrat Zdravko Tomac. All three candidates voted Sunday morning.

A victory would hand Tudjman his third term since winning the presidency in 1990, before the bloody breakup of old Yugoslavia.

Extremely low 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. Reporters in the area said thousands of people could not find their names on voter lists, problems that also caused chaos in local elections two months ago.

But 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 campaigns as the father of Croatia, both Gotovac and Tomac promise 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 has got his message through to the largely rural electorate accustomed _ like many in the Balkans _ to stick with the strong man they know.

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 are considered pro-Tudjman, never has been announced officially _ a fact the opposition views as fertile ground for manipulation.

The elections will be observed by 100 monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, headed by former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois.

Criticism doesn’t stick to Tudjman. Instead, he turns it against opponents, charging they only want to suppress Croatia’s hard-won independence.

``We should not allow that different, confused people come to lead the Croatian people, because now we have our freedom, our democracy and our government,″ Tudjman told a campaign rally Friday.

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