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Poll hope for rival Croat parties

HDZ head Ivo Sanader (left) says "we have returned the trust of the voters"  

ZAGREB, Croatia -- Croatia's reformist ruling coalition appears to have narrowly won most counties in local elections.

But the results are unlikely to erode the influence of the former ruling nationalists, as pre-election opinion polls had predicted.

Instead, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) nationalist party of late President Franjo Tudjman, which suffered a debacle in last year's parliamentary ballot, made something of a comeback in Sunday's poll.

Pre-election opinion polls had predicted that Tudjman's party, which controlled most local governments, would lose its last remnants of power.

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But unofficial results released by the state electoral commission on Monday showed the party winning a majority of votes in 14 of 21 counties, and coming in second in the capital, Zagreb.

The six-party centre-left coalition that ousted the HDZ in the January 2000 general election had hoped for a comprehensive victory in the local polls but preliminary results paint a more complex picture.

Prime Minister Ivica Racan's Social Democrats remained strong but did not score an overwhelming victory as hoped, although they still look set to win two-thirds of the counties.

They won three counties outright, the Peasant Party had two and the Social Liberals and a regional Istrian party each won one.

Racan's one-year-old coalition has so far failed to deliver on promises of a better life, and unemployment is a near-record high of 23 percent.

"I also share people's discontent with many things in which we failed, with the pace of reforms," Racan said after casting his vote.

However, despite being the strongest single party in two-thirds of counties, the HDZ is likely to retain control only in two former war zones -- if the government coalition parties present a united front.

The HDZ previously controlled 16 counties.

"The ruling coalition faces a test," Racan said. "If all the members of the coalition stick to their position to form alliances among ourselves after the local poll, we will be able to complete the job."

Ivo Sanader, the HDZ chief, said: "Obviously, we have returned the trust of the voters, and HDZ is back as the most serious alternative to the ruling party in the country."

A Western official said the triumph of the HDZ in former war zones controlled until 1995 by Serb rebels was not a surprise.

"This is an electorate that wasn't inclined to vote for the (coalition) anyway and perhaps the government has not done enough to change that," he said.

These areas are mostly populated by Croat refugees from other parts of Yugoslavia, living in homes formerly owned by Serbs who fled a 1995 onslaught by the Croatian army.

A leading economist said the HDZ had benefited from discontent over painful reforms undertaken by Racan's government.

"This government is working on the economy, but measures they are taking are unpopular and they have lost support among, for example, pensioners and civil servants, who are affected by the reforms," said the economist, who asked not to be named.

Racan said his Cabinet would now be even more efficient and determined to press ahead with reforms.

"We must also avoid conflicts which are harmful to our interest," he said in reference to widespread criticism that internal bickering was blocking the government's work.

Croatians also voted for seats on 422 municipal councils as well as 123 city halls. Voter turnout was about 40 percent, the state electoral commission said.

• Croatian Government
• Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) (in Croatian)

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