- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 25, 2002

Ivo Sanader, an economic conservative, narrowly won the leadership race to head Croatia's main opposition party, setting the stage for a fierce campaign against the ruling Social Democrats in the country's upcoming elections.

"This is a great victory for myself, my party and Croatia," Mr. Sanader said in an interview following his re-election victory Monday to be the leader of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). First elected as HDZ chief in April 2000, he was regarded as the favorite going into the campaign.

Out of nearly 2,000 HDZ delegates assembled at a party convention in Zagreb, the capital, over the weekend, Mr. Sanader edged out his arch rival, Ivica Pasalic, winning 1,005 votes to 912. The other challenger in the race, Maja Freundelic, finished third with only 40 votes.

The leadership race between Mr. Sanader and Mr. Pasalic was hotly contested, with both candidates offering different programs to address Croatia's weak economy.

Mr. Sanader, 49, is an economic conservative who advocates tax cuts and smaller government.

The 41-year-old Mr. Pasalic, a former adviser to the late President Franjo Tudjman who led Croatia's 1991 drive for independence, championed a "social market economy" that sought to combine free-market reforms with vigorous public spending on unemployment and the poor.

Yet a major reason for Mr. Sanader's victory was the widespread accusations in the media that Mr. Pasalic oversaw many of the shady privatization deals during the 1990s when the HDZ ruled Croatia.

Following Mr. Tudjman's death in 1999, the HDZ lost power to a center-left coalition led by Prime Minister Ivica Racan's Social Democratic Party in early 2000 elections.

Tonci Coric, a delegate at the convention, said Mr. Sanader's commitment to reform the HDZ into a Western-style conservative party played a pivotal factor in his victory.

"People realized that you have to choose a leader of the party who is electable. Most of the delegates believe that the HDZ now has a better chance of beating the Social Democrats," Mr. Coric said.

Mr. Sanader pledged that he will focus on economic issues in the general elections, which could be held as early as this year.

"We will make the economy the main issue in the campaign. The current government has failed to create jobs and properly manage the economy. My economic program will focus on tax cuts, slashing government spending and battling corruption," he said.

The election of the center-left coalition government in January 2000, which ran on a platform of economic reform and closer ties with the West, reduced the once-dominant HDZ to a shadow of its former self. Yet the coalition's inability to overcome the economic woes plaguing the small Balkan country of 4.3 million has led to a resurgence in the popularity of the HDZ. The party won local elections last year and is ahead of Mr. Racan's Social Democrats in public opinion polls.

Slaven Letica, an economics professor at Zagreb University, said that under Mr. Sanader's leadership the HDZ has a good chance of returning to power "because of the inefficiency of the current government" in dealing with the country's economic crisis.

"The economic situation is very bad. Something dramatic must be done or Croatia's economy will collapse," Mr. Letica said.

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