Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) leader Andrej Plenkovic said on Monday he was ready to face Social Democratic Party (SDP) chief Zoran Milanovic in a TV debate, noting that the SDP was running in the September 11 parliamentary election with the same people and the same programme based on which they had lost the previous election.

"I made it clear while submitting my candidacy that I wanted a debate and that I wanted to give the public a chance to see the election programmes offered by the main parties. I can see that Milanovic has evolved in his views, from insults made a few days ago to debate, dialogue and today's expressions of love," Plenkovic told a press conference at HDZ headquarters.

Speaking of the election campaign and politics in general, Plenkovic said: "I am in favour of a culture of dialogue and a high level of debate, and I am glad to see that Milanovic has evolved very quickly over the last five or six days," he added.

The HDZ leader said that he did not think that the SDP was alienated from the people, but "a political party that represents its views." "They are running in this election with the same people and the same programme based on which they lost the election on November 8," he noted.

Plenkovic welcomed the decision by the HDZ's high court of honour to give its consent for the return of former HDZ members Drago Prgoment and Milan Kujundzic to the party. "We had discussions in recent days and I suggested that they return to the HDZ. I believe that this integrating act is the right message about the quality, direction and strength of the HDZ, which is running in this election on its own."

He said that Prgomet and Kujundzic would be HDZ candidates in the election and added that the HDZ's door was open to other parties as well, such as HRID and Croatian Dawn.

Plenkovic said that they had not yet talked with former HDZ prime minister Jadranka Kosor about her returning to the party. "Prgomet and Kujundzic had their own political parties, Prgomet had three seats in parliament, and at that is what is important at this point."

Plenkovic welcomed the decision by HDZ deputy leader Tomislav Culjak not to stand as a candidate in the parliamentary election, saying that this was an important political signal that it was time for "new faces on the candidate lists" and that he appreciated his gesture. "He remains an important associate in the core leadership of the HDZ and we will be working together to win this election," he added.

Plenkovic would not comment on a photograph showing Culture Minister Zlatko Hasanbegovic posing next to a Croatian flag with the Ustasha coat of arms and the letter U highlighted in the word Frankfurt on it, which was displayed at the unveiling of a monument to Miro Baresic, a Croatian emigrant convicted of the murder of a Yugoslav ambassador to Sweden in 1971.

"I think the minister already said in the media what that was about. I would not want to comment now. He clearly condemned the Ustasha regime and said he did not see what was written on the flag," the HDZ chief said.

Plenkovic also commented on a political deal by Bakir Izetbegovic, the chairman of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidency, and Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Bosnian Serb entity of Republika Srpska, regarding a coordination mechanism for European affairs, an IMF loan arrangement and a framework transport strategy for Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was reached without the presence of a representative of the third constituent people in Bosnia and Herzegovina - the Croats.

"We expect all stakeholders in Bosnia and Herzegovina to respect the equality of all three peoples under the constitution, with full support for Bosnia and Herzegovina on its EU path, but also the full inclusion of all levels of government as provided for by the constitutional framework of Bosnia and Herzegovina," Plenkovic said.

As regards relations between Serbia and Croatia, Plenkovic said that Serbia was yet to reach the levels that Croatia had already reached when it came to ethnic minorities.

"During the process of Serbia getting closer to the EU, we will advocate that Serbia resolve residual issues from the time of Milosevic's Greater Serbia policy. It is important that Serbian society experience a catharsis and face its recent past. In that way we will resolve many issues, including the issue of the highly inappropriate hybrid law on regional jurisdiction for war crimes prosecution," Plenkovic said, adding that Croatia would not agree to "such legal insecurity".

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