Roughly five months before presidential elections, Croatian politics is in the state of increased drama. Situation was so different from those quiet, idyllic times two months ago when Ivo Sanader used to be prime minister with government and ruling party firmly in his hands and future of country, including the outcome of presidential elections, seemed boringly certain.
Nowadays nothing is certain about elections. There are talks about 2010 presidential elections being the last, at least if the average voter is concerned. Croatian media is reporting about chief HDZ ideologue Vladimir Šeks lobbying for constitutional changes that would abolish popular election of president and instead introduce "pure parliamentary" system with president being reduced to complete figurehead elected by Sabor supermajority. This plan is something that, reportedly, enjoys support of SDP, because that party traditionally fared badly on presidential elections and because pure parliamentary system appears to be "more European" or "radically different" from dark authoritarian days of Tudjman.
Ironically, 2010 presidential election appears to be the one SDP might win, at least according to polls. Ivo Josipović, SDP candidate, soft-spoken, "cultured" by at the same time faceless and uncharismatic legal expert, heavily favoured by SDP chairman Zoran Milanović, convincingly beats all competition. His pole position was further strenghtened when Davor Butković, chief columnist of Jutarnji list, strongly endorsed him.
Yet, somehow, few people are willing to bet on Josipović actually winning presidency. The reason for his strong showing in polls has less to do with SDP popularity and even less with Josipović's popularity. Main reason is in HDZ having presidential candidate in the form of Andrija Hebrang, self-declared leader of "unreformed" hard nationalist right-wing faction of the party, the very people Sanader was supposed to kick out or silence for the sake of long-term electoral prospects and European future of Croatia. Hebrang's chances look even less likely due to some of his "problematic" positions on certain social issues, like being pro-choice on abortion.
So, both candidates of Croatian main parties shouldn't count on mass enthusiasm to get themselves elected. The alternatives, on the other hand, could, and some of them has begun, implicitly and explicitly, to campaign, even while being members of those two parties.
In case of HDZ, in early July there was speculation of Ivo Sanader leaving government only to triumphantly return as last-minute saviour of his party's electoral prospects. Two months later, those speculations appear less convincing, mostly due to Croatian public falling in love quickly with new faces.
Milan Bandić, mayor of Zagreb, made series of well-publicised tours all over Croatia, which many interpreted as start of his presidential campaign. Bandić is, on the other hand, member of SDP and his boss Zoran Milanović said that Bandić could expect rapid expulsion from the party in case he runs and thus not support Josipović. Bandić, who has more than solid electoral base in Zagreb, couldn't care less about Milanović and SDP, but he apparently cared about polls showing that base not being as strong as it appeared.
That void was more successfully filled by Nadan Vidošević, chairman of Croatian Chamber of Commerce, who, unlike Bandić, openly defied his party - in his case, HDZ - and was expulsed from it. Vidošević appears to be formidable candidate, party due to his physical resemblance to George Clooney, partly due to clever distancing from Sanader and his economic policies and partly due to well-financed and well-oiled PR machine that tried to portray him as the most natural successor of Mesić. Vidošević currently enjoys around 12 percent in the polls, but this is more than solid base for further improvement. There are months before actual elections, and 2000 experiences with Mesić tell that even candidate who begins at No. 3 could end on No.1.
In this particular moment, the only thing that could stop Vidošević juggernaut is Bandić. If those two candidates enter the ring, they are likely to compete in second round. Both of them being their respective parties' dissidents is going to be huge slap in the face of Croatian political establishment.