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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Drunk Mayor a Cause Celebre

ZAGREB, Croatia -- The mayor of Croatia's largest city sideswiped a car with his Range Rover last week, fled the scene and dodged police trying to give him a breath test.

And then the unthinkable happened in this Balkan country, where for decades the indiscretions of politicians were covered up or buried as briefs in the back of newspapers: A huge public scandal erupted.

"It marks progress in our society," said Mirjana Krizmanic, a psychologist who studies the reaction of the public to political issues. "People obviously have had enough of politicians making trouble that ordinary people would answer for -- and getting away with it."

Only five years ago, a county administrator named Ivo Peko was convicted of striking and killing an 11-year-old girl -- only to be pardoned within two years by the regime of then-President Franjo Tudjman.

Soon after that, a Croatian army general who was speeding on a road in southern Croatia allegedly caused an accident in which two people were seriously hurt. Military police took over the case and never released the results of their investigation. Mirko Norac, who was close to Tudjman's regime, was never charged in the incident.

But change is under way in this former communist state moving to embrace Western democracy and political accountability.

People in this country of 4.7 million no longer seem inclined to accept a whitewash -- even when it involves Zagreb's popular 46-year-old mayor, Milan Bandic, known for championing the causes of the poor and bringing basic services such as water to impoverished neighborhoods.

The media is no longer state-dominated, making headlines like: "Drunk Bandic Causes Accident, Then Flees Police," a possibility for the first time ever.

There are changes at the top: Tudjman is dead and voters ousted his corruption-plagued party two years ago, electing a pro-Western coalition that promised to take responsibility for their actions.

Bandic's accident is the first big test of that pledge. Though he didn't injure anyone, police say he tried to escape and that his blood-alcohol test showed he was intoxicated.

After the story broke, Bandic -- in true Western style -- offered a tearful apology. He begged reporters to remember the Bible and said "the one without sin should cast the first stone."

"The fact that he drove drunk shows his huge irresponsibility," said Davor Butkovic, chief editor of the weekly Globus. "But more importantly, it is scandalous and inexcusable that he, a government representative, fled other state officials while they were doing their job."

"Bandic has to go," he wrote.

Under public pressure, Bandic offered his resignation. The city assembly will consider whether to accept it Jan. 31.

Bandic's party, Prime Minister Ivica Racan's Social Democrats, have offered support, issuing a statement arguing he shouldn't be disqualified "because of a mistake he committed as a citizen, and not as mayor."

The opposition -- Tudjman's old party -- says contrition isn't enough, complaining Bandic is an embarrassment to the city.

The outcome will show whether Racan is serious about accountability, said Slavica Ivin, a 32-year-old elementary school teacher as she waited for her tram home from work.

"If he stays, then it shows politicians are still the untouchables," Ivin said. "Then nothing has changed."

Political analysts like Frenki Lausic argue that scandal or no, Racan's party likely will get enough votes in the city council to keep Bandic in office.

"Bandic's resignation, of course, won't be accepted," Lausic said. "Our political culture is still miles away from a Nordic state, for example, where a minister resigned when the media discovered she charged a pair of socks with the government's credit card."