Croat Right admits first poll defeat since 1990


Croatia's conservative HDZ party, which was founded by the late President Franjo Tudjman and has held power since the country's independence almost a decade ago, conceded defeat in elections to the lower house of parliament early this morning.

"We have lost the election, but I swear we shall be a very serious and firm opposition," said Foreign Minister Mate Granic after preliminary results showed his party trailing in nine out of Croatia's 10 national constituencies.

The HDZ party was ahead in just one of the constituencies. Its support was running under 25 per cent, against 44 per cent in the last election in 1995.

The electoral commission said the main opposition bloc, a centre-left formation, took around 40 per cent, while a second opposition alliance, which is expected to link up with the Social Democrats and Social Liberals, took some 16 per cent.

Because of Croatia's complex proportional representation system, the number of seats won in the law-making lower assembly will not be known before tonight or tomorrow morning.

"Together with the other opposition bloc I think we will have a very stable majority," said Mr Ivica Racan, the leader of the Social Democratic party. "I am ready to become prime minister and I am aware it is not going to be easy."

Chris Stephen adds: Croatia's main football club, Croatia Zagreb, illustrates just how difficult his task may be. It provides a case study of the problems the new administration will face at every level in Croatian society. The club is likely to be one of many casualties of the disintegration of the grace-and-favour system built up by the late president, Franjo Tudjman.

The team has been left with a mountain of bills following the sudden death of Tudjman last month. The autocratic leader had made the club his personal plaything, diverting state funds to pay its costs.

Tudjman ordered a name change in 1991, jettisoning the club's original Dinamo Zagreb name to distance it from its communist past, and replacing it with the more nationalist Croatia Zagreb title.

But fans objected, saying the only association the name Dinamo held for them was for their beloved team.

Now it has become an election issue, with the opposition Liberal and Social Democrat coalition announcing that if it wins this vote, and a presidential election in three weeks, the name will be changed back.

The club's problems are a mirror of the system of cronyism that Tudjman spun around himself. Croatia Zagreb's boss, Zlatko Canjuga, is typical of the small group of trusted lieutenants who ran every aspect of Croatian life on behalf of the late president.

In addition to being president of the club, Mr Canjuga is also president of the Zagreb branch of the HDZ party, president of the city council, president of the board of state TV, and a vicepresident of the HDZ's ruling council.

Mr Canjuga has now bowed to fans' demands, announcing a poll of club members on a possible renaming.

The name change, however, may well be the least of the club's problems. Bills for the half-built new stadium and debts amount to £10 million this year alone.

"It's absolutely impossible to get this money," says a former director, Zdravko Mamic.

"The club cannot function without Tudjman. Every time the club needed money they would ask Franjo for it."

The opposition leader, Zdravko Tomac, was president of Dinamo during the communist years and says the club is simply part of a system which bred inefficiency and brought poverty and high taxes for the majority.

"It is not only with football. There is corruption everywhere," he says.

"This government has brought Croatia into a very difficult situation."