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Journal of Democracy 11.4 (2000) 159-168

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Field Reports

Monitoring the Vote in Croatia

Suzana Jasic

On 3 January 2000, Croatians took to the polls in huge numbers to cast ballots in their country's first parliamentary elections following the death of President Franjo Tudjman in December 1999. The opposition coalition of the Social Democratic Party of Croatia (SDP) and Croatian Social-Liberal Party (HSLS) emerged victorious with 71 seats in the 151-member House of Representatives, soundly defeating Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which won 40. Another opposition bloc comprising four parties--the Croatian Peasant Party, the Croatian National Party (HNS), the Istrian Democratic Assembly, and the Liberal Party--secured 24 seats. Together, the two opposition coalitions gained more than 60 percent of the seats in Croatia's lower house of parliament. In presidential balloting on January 24, the HDZ suffered another loss as its nominee, Mate Graniç, trailed behind opposition candidates Stipe Mesiç of the HNS (who captured 41 percent of the vote) and Drazen Budisa of the HSLS, who won 28 percent. In a February 7 runoff, Mesiç defeated Budisa, 56 percent to 44 percent.

The 2000 elections marked an important milestone in Croatian politics. Not only did they herald a significant defeat for the HDZ, which had ruled Croatia ever since the country's independence from Yugoslavia [End Page 159] in 1991, but they also represented a welcome departure from previous elections that had been widely regarded as "free, but not fair." Prior to 2000, one of the most fundamental rights of Croatian citizens--the right to vote--had been discouraged, manipulated, or even abused by forces close to the HDZ and its autocratic leader. In the weeks leading up to previous elections, political parties had received unequal access to and coverage in the electronic and print media. Nowhere was this more pronounced than on the State Radio and Television, which openly backed the HDZ. Campaign-finance laws invariably worked in favor of the ruling party and to the disadvantage of others. Supposedly independent members of the Croatian Electoral Commission and other electoral boards often stepped forward after an election and confessed to rigging the vote. Under such circumstances, it was no wonder that the HDZ had emerged triumphant time and again.

In contrast to these earlier electoral contests, the elections of 2000 and the campaigns preceding them were conducted in a free and fair manner. They drew an exceptionally high turnout of almost 80 percent of Croatian voters, who cast their ballots overwhelmingly against the HDZ and in favor of democratic reform. This remarkable turnaround was no fluke. Rather, it was the direct outcome of ongoing efforts--not only by the country's opposition parties but also by its nongovernmental sector--to create a more democratic Croatia. One of the key players among the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in this effort was the group that I direct, Citizens Organized to Monitor Voting, known by its Croatian acronym GONG.

Securing the Rights of Observers

Established in February 1997 by a group of NGOs eager to address the inequities in Croatia's electoral system, GONG conducts election-related projects, workshops, and other activities in order to increase electoral transparency. Among its specific goals, it seeks to 1) mobilize and train citizens to be nonpartisan observers of elections and governmental institutions; 2) educate people about their rights as voters and citizens; 3) secure the conditions for the running of free and fair elections; 4) monitor elections to make sure that they are being conducted freely and fairly; 5) work with political parties and politicians in communicating their views on issues dear to citizens; and 6) raise the level of public trust in the electoral process through the aforementioned activities. A nonpartisan civic initiative, GONG holds the distinction of being the only Croatian NGO specializing in election observation.

GONG's highest authority is its General Assembly, which meets twice a year, elects GONG's Executive Board and president, and makes crucial decisions on the organization's activities. The Executive Board, composed of experienced individuals who have worked with GONG in the...