Croatia and Slovenia expected to change political direction via polls

Fri, Dec 2, 2011, 00:00

Corruption and the economic crisis are dominating elections in the two Balkan states with entrenched parties expected to be rejected, writes DAN McLAUGHLIN

CROATIA and Slovenia are expected to elect new governments this weekend, as the neighbouring former Yugoslav republics vote in the shadow of major corruption scandals.

Polls suggest the long-dominant Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) will suffer a heavy defeat to centre-left rivals, while next door, the centre-right Slovenian Democratic party (SDS) is poised to reclaim power after just three years in opposition.

Governments in both countries have lost support due to their handling of the economic crisis, but while the fate of Croatia’s HDZ has been sealed by claims of top-level graft, SDS leader Janez Jansa is set to overcome his own legal troubles and return as prime minister.

The HDZ has been the major force in Croatian politics since independence in 1991, but the party is now in disarray thanks largely to the alleged crimes of the man who led it for a decade and was Croatia’s premier from 2003-9.

Ivo Sanader is on trial for taking a €10 million bribe from a Hungarian oil firm and a smaller amount from an Austrian bank, and for channelling money from state companies into slush funds for party and private use.

He denies the charges, but they have led to a broader investigation of the HDZ that has made for lurid headlines in Croatian media.

After initially winning praise for her commitment to fighting corruption and organised crime, Mr Sanader’s successor as premier, Jadranka Kosor, has been swamped by the allegations against her party and has been blamed for not doing more to purge its ranks.

“Corruption affairs and poor economic results have created a toxic political cocktail that most Croatians just don’t want to hear about any more, not to mention voting for such an option as the HDZ,” wrote the leading Jutarnji List newspaper.

Ms Kosor (57), Croatia’s first female prime minister, is likely to be replaced by Zoran Milanovic (45), the head of a centre-left Alliance For Change that is led by his Social Democrats.

Tough decisions await the next government, however. It faces pressure to slash benefits and bureaucracy so as to cut state spending and boost the economy, and Brussels expects it to overhaul inefficient industries and crush corruption ahead of planned EU accession in July 2013.

All this while trying to bring down unemployment from above 17 per cent.

Slovenia was the first former Yugoslav state to join the EU in 2004, and led the way among former communist states when it adopted the euro three years later.

But after several years of strong growth Slovenia’s export-led economy shrank by 8 per cent in 2009 and is struggling to meet predictions of one percent growth this year.

Unemployment is above 11 per cent and a large budget deficit and rising public debt prompted the main credit ratings agencies to downgrade the country recently. That pushed yields on government bonds past the 7 per cent mark that is seen as unsustainable for more than a few months.

Many Slovenes say the crisis has been worsened by inaction and mistakes from Borut Pahor’s centre-left government, which collapsed under the torrent of bad economic news and public criticism, triggering early elections.

Mr Jansa is expected to return to the prime minister’s role he relinquished in 2008, when a corruption scandal surrounding his government’s purchase of armoured vehicles from Finland helped ease him out of office.

Prosecutors say bribes were paid and that Mr Jansa (53) was involved, but he has brushed off his current trial over the allegations as a “farce” orchestrated by political enemies.

Surveys show his nearest rival to be Zoran Jankovic, the millionaire businessman and centre-left mayor of the capital, Ljubljana, who says Slovenia needs a financially savvy leader to guide it out of the economic crisis.

With the economy ailing and the new government likely to cut social spending and perhaps prop up struggling banks, there is little enthusiasm for the election and what it will bring.