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Croatia's Parties Begin Talks to Form Government - 2003-11-24

Croatia's nationalists are negotiating with potential coalition partners after defeating a pro-Western government in Sunday's election. With nearly all votes counted, the Croatian Democratic Union is expected to win 73 of the 140 seats in the parliament, while the ruling Social Democrat-led coalition has won 63 seats. Croatian President Stipe Mesic said that Ivo Sanader, leader of the Croatian Democratic Union is "the most likely candidate" to form the new cabinet.

Parliament will convene in late December or early January to prepare for the transition.

The nationalists' victory is a comeback for the party, which lost seats in 2000, following the death of its founder, Croatian president Franjo Tudjman.

But it's a disappointment for the left wing coalition government of Prime Minister Ivica Racan, who has been credited with moving Croatia toward more democracy after years of ethnic conflict during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

He says, if these results are final, this really means we do not have enough votes to form a government coalition.

The popularity of the nationalist party is being attributed to voter anger over the current government's inability to deliver on its promises of economic prosperity, lower unemployment and an end to corruption.

The Democratic Union has been widely criticized for allegedly fueling violence during the fight for independence from Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Under its leadership, thousands of Serb civilians were expelled in 1995.

The Union leader, Ivo Sanader, is trying to distance the party from its past, saying it is now a political force aiming to unite the population, not divide it.

"I am very satisfied that Croatian voters have again after four years of our opposition status, recognized the HDZ as a stable force in this country," he said. "We have reformed the party [and] the confirmation of this reforms are the results of these elections."

Mr. Sanader said his party is even prepared to extradite alleged war criminals to the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Among the most wanted Croats is fugitive General Ante Gotovina, who is accused of participating in the massacre of at least 150 ethnic Serbs during the 1990s.