FOR many Croatian voters, the political crisis over who will rule the capital city of Zagreb has become the talk of the town.
Despite accusations of dictatorial rule, President Franjo Tudjman has the upper hand in a tug of war, having rejected three candidates for mayor put forward by the opposition.
The fourth opposition candidate is expected to be vetoed soon. President Tudjman's own choice for mayor - imposed last month - was thrown out by the city council with a no-confidence vote.
The weekly Feral Tribune, an independent newspaper in Zagreb, poked fun at the stalemate by asking readers to choose the real mayor in a competition: On its back page were mug shots of the five candidates - and Tudjman.
The Croatian leader's efforts to place his own candidate in the mayor's office is just one of many authoritarian moves he has made that have embarrassed the United States. The US has backed Tudjman as a critical guarantor of the Dayton peace plan in Bosnia. American officials have criticized the most blatant abuses of democracy and human rights inside Croatia, but with little apparent effect.
The root of the problem in Zagreb, diplomats and critics say, is the president's own pride. The capital is home to nearly one-quarter of Croatia's 4.7 million people, the base of heavy industry, and the focal point for the country's political decisions. Tudjman's rule is so pervasive that even an opposition mayor will not likely detract from it.
For diplomats and many Croats, the outcome of the crisis is seen as a test for Croatia as an emerging democracy. After decades of Communist rule, and four years of civil war that divided the former Yugoslavia into ethnically pure states, the result is far from certain.
The strong-arm handling of the issue, which one European diplomat calls "vintage Tudjman," has further damaged the standing of the president and his ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party. Though the HDZ won the most votes in national elections last October, the party was beaten locally in Zagreb by a seven-party opposition coalition.
The city council, trying to come to grips with a stagnant economy, thousands of refugees in the capital, and the massive unemployment of demobilized soldiers, has been leaderless for five months.
Tudjman's actions have made it easy to criticize him. Accusing the president of establishing himself as an "absolute monarch," Croatia's main opposition party made its point in a tough resolution: "Pompousness in exerting authority, most often in the function of creating a personality cult for Tudjman, and inappropriate lavishness only reflects the corruption and nepotism typical of some Latin American dictatorships," said the Croatian Social-Liberal Party.
Tudjman has lashed back at his critics with a strategy that critics say accuses "everybody" of subversion and antipatriotism, based on the belief that if one is not with the HDZ, then one must be against Croatia. In one virulent speech, he blamed "obviously demented political lunatics" for equating the HDZ with "fascism and totalitarianism."
"[Tudjman] is irrational, paranoid, and afraid that his power is slipping," said a well-placed Croatian journalist. "Now that the war is over, and there are no more enemies outside, he is looking for enemies within - among us."
Tudjman's HDZ, like most of the opposition parties, expressed militant nationalism during the war. But the decline in his popularity and the emergence of the opposition reflect a changing political landscape now that most nationalist goals have been met.
Cracks began to appear in the HDZ edifice during the October elections, even though election laws were rewritten to give the ruling party every advantage. Though failing in major cities, the HDZ is still relatively strong in rural areas where its policies of supporting traditional values - the Roman Catholic church and a major population campaign to encourage the birth of more Croats - still resonate.
The peak of Tudjman's popularity came last fall, after the Croatian Army's Operation Storm, a lightning-quick advance to recapture territory controlled by rebel Serbs in August that forced 150,000 Serbs to flee Croatia. A private American firm of retired senior US military officers had advised the Army for months before.
Tudjman likened his Army to that of Israel's, which made "miracles" occur with small numbers of troops, and his support rose to more than 60 percent in polls. But now it stands at just 30 to 35 percent and is falling.
"It is not unnatural after the tension of war that people become less attached to those who led them through the war. From Damocles to Churchill, it has been the same, and it is now happening here," says Slavko Goldstein, the editor of the bi-monthly opposition journal Erasmus.
Tudjman's response, Mr. Goldstein says, is "a typical authoritarian reaction by a man who does not understand what democracy is at all." The president is a former colonel in the Yugoslav Army and spent 40 years in the "toughest" Communist echelon - the military leadership - that was virtually prohibited contact with Western ideas.
The current political crisis in Zagreb reminds Goldstein of the late 1980s, when communism was collapsing and no one in the coffee bars would consider defending the Old Guard.
"Now it's the same in Zagreb," he says. "You can't hear a single word in favor of Tudjman."