analysis 26 Oct 11

Croatia's HDZ Shifts Right in Hunt for Votes

Ruling party seems to be returning to classic nationalist politics with the passage of a controversial law on war crimes, but the shift is is unlikely to derail Croatia's EU accession in 2013.

Boris Pavelic

Croatia's ruling party, the HDZ, is bidding for the support of right-wing voters by adopting a controversial law blocking war crimes probes from neighbouring Serbia.

But the party's rightward lurch only 50 days before the next general election – which it is expected to lose – will not postpone Croatian accession to the European Union on July 1, 2013, according to most experts.

In another move that signals a stiffening of political positions, the Croatian Democratic Union, together with its coalition partners and independent MPs, has scrapped the parliamentary immunity of an opposition MP, opening the way for his prosecution for libel.

Social Democrat MP Zeljko Jovanovic has angered the government of Jadranka Kosor by repeatedly terming the HDZ a "criminal organisation" in reference to a string of corruption cases involving HDZ politicians.

The more important shift in position was last week's passage of a Law of Invalidity, which, as its name suggests, declares that all war crimes investigations in Croatia by bodies representing Serbia, the former Yugoslav Army and the former Yugoslav state are invalid.

Both actions have been criticised as unconstitutional, antidemocratic and as harmful to the country's international reputation.  

The EU has told Croatia that adopting the war crimes law could set back recent progress towards regional cooperation in war crimes investigations, which is a key EU demand towards all Western Balkan countries.

"If [Croatia's] parliament adopts such a law, it will complicate cooperation with Serbia. We would rather Croatia continued negotiations with Serbia," the chief of the EU delegation in Croatia, Paul Vandoren, said, a few days before parliament discussed the law.

More signficantly, the country's President, Ivo Josipovic, has also come out against the law, urging the Constitutional Court to nullify the law if it is ruled unconstitutional.
Josipovic, who was elected President as candidate of the Social Democrats, said the law would be counterproductive and could prove "extremely harmful to the rights of groundlessly accused Croatian soldiers, and the judicial security of Croatian citizens".

The State Prosecutor, Mladen Bajic, also opposes the move, saying it will "protect war criminals walking here among us".

GONG, an NGO that monitors the electoral process, meanwhile criticised the abolition of the MP's immunity as contrary to the constitution.

"With this decision, the HDZ and its coalition partners have stopped the development of Croatia's fragile democratic political culture and questioned the democratic character of the political system," GONG said in a statement.

The war crimes law was passed in parliament with a minimum quorum of MPs present.
The issue of Serbian war crimes probes has stirred strong feelings ever since the HDZ raised the issue in September, when it became public that Serbia had accused more than 40 Croatian soldiers of war crimes in Vukovar, eastern Croatia, in the summer of 1991.

The Vukovar issue remains sensitive, as the Danube riverbank town was the scene of one the single worst massacres in the Yugoslav wars of the Nineties. After overruning the town in 1991, Serb paramilitaries and Yugoslav Army troops executed more than 200 Croats taken from local hospital, dumping the corpses in a mass grave at nearby Ovcara.

One Croatian suspect, Tihomir Purda, spent two months in custody in Bosnia at the beginning of this year, where he was detained on a Serbian arrest warrant.

Another suspect is the wartime head of the hospital in Vukovar, Dr Vesna Bosanac. Naming her caused fresh anger in Croatia, where Bosanac is highly reputed.

The vicepresident of the parliament, Vladimir Seks, another HDZ politician, is also among the accused.

Prime Minister Kosor responded to Serbian accusations swiftly, saying parliament would simply pass a law nullifying all Serbian investigations of war crimes in Croatia.

"It is time to say 'enough' to the harrassment of Croatian defenders, starting from Purda case," Kosor said in September.

"The fact is that Croatia was a victim of [Serbian] aggression [in the 1990s], that we were attacked, and that Croatian defenders defended their homeland," Kosor added.

The law and the scrapping of the MP's immunity should not endanger Croatia's expected accession to the EU on July 1, 2013, according to Vesna Pusic, a prominent opposition politician and chair of the National Committee on EU accession.

"Fortunately nobody in the EU takes what is going on these days in the Croatian parliament seriously," said Pusic, referring to the fact that the election campaign is widely seen to have already started.

"The EU will want those problems solved after the elections, so we can expect that HDZ to withdraw the law by itself if it wins the elections," she added.

"If the opposition win, of course we will withdraw it immediately," continued Pusic, who is the unofficial opposition candidate for the post of foreign minister.

Political analyst Ivan Rimac, from Zagreb's Political Science faculty, echoed that view.
"If the EU says so, the HDZ will withdraw the [invalidity] law after the election," he told Balkan Insight.

If the HDZ wins, Rimac added, "It will be able to say that 'We did what we could, but now we have to do what EU requires.'

"The HDZ is behaving in a politically contradictory way these days,“ Rimac continued. "On the one hand, we have a classical, intolerant authoritarian right-centre party model, but on the other hand they are obedient to stronger authorities like the EU," he noted.

"We would have expected more political creativity and depth from an experienced political party," Rimac concluded.

The abolition of the MP's immunity is also highly controversial move, as the constitution declares that "MPs cannot be criminally prosecuted, jailed or punished for opinions expressed, or for voting in parliament," in spite of which the HDZ filed a law suit against Jovanovic for libel.

Jovanovic justifies his use of the word criminal on the grounds that former HDZ prime minister Ivo Sanader is in jail awaiting trial for corruption, while several other prominent HDZ figures are awaiting trial for corruption, or are sentenced already.  

The vote to scrap the MP's immunity and adopt the immunity law was passed with a minimum quorum of 77 MPs present.

After the vote, one MP, Semso Tankovic, said he had «made a mistake“ and said that he was "sorry", but his retrospective apology did not annul the vote.

Whether the HDZ's rightward shift will have an impact on voting day remains to be seen.

Most polls suggest that the HDZ is on course to lose the election. The last poll, conducted by Puls agency a few days ago, suggested that HDZ would win 20 per cent of the vote, while an opposition centre-left coalition would win about 40 per cent.

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