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Elections in Croatia - a Battle for the Political Centre

Published on , , Zagreb, Twitter: @euinside
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Less than a year after the regular parliamentary elections, a campaign is ongoing in Croatia for snap elections, scheduled for September 11th. The reason for a re-vote is that the fragile coalition government, led by the non-party Croatian emigrant Tihomir Orešković, fell in the beginning of this summer under the pressure of heavy scandals and intra-coalition tensions between the senior coalition partner – the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), led by Tomislav Karamarko - and the new political power at the Croatian political scene Most of independent lists, led by Božo Petrov. The government suffered a long and agonising fall, which at the end rotated entirely around the political survival of the HDZ leader Tomislav Karamarko, who later lost his leader post in the party as well. 

There are several novelties in the upcoming elections. The first one is the replacement of the HDZ leader. Currently leading the party is the influential MEP Andrej Plenković. The other piece of news is that the pre-election coalition-building got shattered after Mr Plenković announced that the HDZ will run by itself at the elections. An end was thus placed to the Patriotic coalition, which managed to win several elections for them, but which also took them to the far-right corner of the political spectrum. The third novelty, which may yet change (not likely, however), is that these elections will be the first ones to have no talk about Ustaša and Partisans. At least not domestically. The topic remains a leading one, however, in neighbouring Serbia. And while in the European Union and the United States as well, the political scene keeps radicalising, one could say that in Croatia it is normalising. Lose no hope, however, the campaign is not over yet and there are already leanings towards radicalising rhetoric. 

Catharsis or a compromise in the HDZ?

Shifting in the HDZ shook all of Croatia and totally shuffled the deck of cards. The internal revolt and takeover of the party by the HDZ MEPs caught the rest of the political players totally off guard. This also makes the already peaking election campaign very interesting, with constantly shifting focus and uncertain outcome. Andrej Plenković is recognisable as the vice-chairman of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs. He heads the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with the Ukraine, where he was also quite active. His right-hand-man is another Croatian MEP – Davor Ivo Stier. He is also a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but was sent into intra-party exile because of his collaboration with a MEP from the HDZ’s arch-enemy – the Social Democratic Party (SDP) - on the subject of Bosnia and Herzegovina. His positioning in the party deteriorated dramatically at the end of last year when he published his essay on the direction the party should move in. 

The left-hand-woman (metaphorically speaking) of the new HDZ leader is the only Croatian MEP to participate in the most influential EP committee – the Economic and Monetary Affairs one – Ivana Maletić. She was actively involved in the drafting of the economic part of the election programme [in Croatian] of the party and earned her place as a list leader. Expectations are that if the HDZ wins Ivana Maletić will receive a ministerial seat. The fact that MEPs took up the leadership of this exact party pulled the European Union right into the campaign, although not too visibly, nor in any particular substance. In their statements during the campaign, the leader Plenković and his closest assistants keep reminding that the HDZ is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP) family and follows its values system. 

The big question, surrounding the HDZ, is whether Andrej Plenković brings an overall radical change, i.e. catharsis – breaking away from the past and going from Orbán-ism towards European mainstreaming – or is he the product of a compromise between warring factions within the party? This question could receive a rather positive answer, but there are still several outstanding problems. During the 4-year reign of Tomislav Karamarko, who has a background in the security agencies and previous governments, which ended tragically for the party, the HDZ made a sharp turn towards the extreme right-wing and the Church-sponsored social conservatism. Coming to power at the beginning of the year, the HDZ initiated a mass purge at the helms of institutions, which are key to democracy and the rule of law, including the public television. This created the feeling that Croatia is Orbán-ising and starting down the Eurosceptic road of the Visegrad Four. 

In its election programme the reborn party denounces such policies. The document reveals that the party is going the liberal way. There is special attention paid on media, committing to developing a comprehensive media strategy, which would ensure media independence. It promises adherence to legal practises of the most-developed European democracies and the recommendations of European institutions, which is a serious commitment. The programme also promises that the new strategy, which will include a package of laws, will be put to public discussion with all concerned groups. It also commits to granting tax incentives to media.

There is special mention of making changes in the law on the Croatian public television and radio (HRT), so that an end is put to political influence “over the largest Croatian radio and TV production house, which is sponsored by the people” (through direct payments).   

You can judge about the HDZs turn to the liberal by the commitment to fight for gender equality, especially on the labour market. The party is no longer hostile towards same-sex couples, but insists that their cohabitation must not be named marriage. On the other hand, there is stated commitment for making them feel safe and secure in the country. During the first and so far only televised debate with his largest opponent – SDP leader and former Prime Minister Zoran Milanović – Andrej Plenković announced that he always belonged to the centre-right. To him, the basis are the fundamental values of the EPP – people-focused roots, Christian Democracy, the individual. 

Andrej Plenković has managed to set a moderate tone to the campaign with the ambition to put an end to the previous ideological controversy. This, however, proves to be a large challenge to the rest of the political players, who are unprepared for something new, like a competition of ideas and programmes for example. At the very beginning, Mr Plenković announced that he wished to steer his party back towards the centre and so denounced the overly extreme right-wing elements of the Patriotic coalition, who were pushing his party towards political extremism. Polls again show a very close result between the two large parties, which is a serious achievement of Mr Plenković over just two months. The new head of the HDZ, however, is yet to prove himself as a leader, for the stepping down of Tomislav Karamarko does in no way mean that the more conservative and nationalist circles in the party have left with him. 

The big challenge for the MEP will be showing that his party is truly capable of undergoing catharsis and turning a new page in its history. Croatian analysts and journalists warn that one of the controversial figures in both the party and the country’s government, Culture Minister Zlatko Hasanbegović – enjoys the confidence of the party’s new leadership as well. Hasanbegović was accused of sympathising with the country’s Ustaša past and is making attempts at revising history. Accusations which both him and his new boss Andrej Plenković deny. 

After numerous scandals, including for dubious sources of party finances, Andrej Plenković announced a modest campaign, which is to be led mainly through media. The lack of HDZ advertisement is noticeable in the streets, flooded by the presence of other political players. The stakes are high for the HDZ at these elections, for failing to win and be involved in the formation of the next government could set the party even farther back than the position at which it entered this campaign. It is quite possible this would also mean an end to the leadership of Andrej Plenković, regardless of him being the sole candidate at the second internal elections. He was the only one because there was general consensus achieved within the party that he should not be obstructed. Otherwise, there are plenty of contenders for the position. 

Trading places - Milanović is an Eurosceptic with a right-wing mind and a left-wing heart

Before the official start of the campaign, newly elected leader of the SDP Zoran Milanović also targeted the political centre.  Following his debate with Andrej Plenković, however, the situation changed. Milanović did not give up on pre-election coalition-building, again staying true to the tradition of it having a provocative name. Back, during the 2011 election cycle, the left-liberal “Kukuriku” coalition was built, named after the restaurant, where the coalition agreement was signed, but actually being a wink at the public. This year’s provocation is aimed at the major opponent – the HDZ. The choice fell on a People’s coalition, which officially announced itself omnivorous – the four-party coalition intends to cover the left part of the political spectrum, the centre, and right-centre. 

The right-wing part is represented by their new coalition partner, who fell out of the Patriotic coalition – the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), which is deeply conservative. Milanović himself, during the debate on the HRT, qualified himself as a man “with a left-wing heart and a conservative head”. He explained this controversial ideological coexistence thus: “I am a Social-Democrat, not a conservative, but I am also a Croat, Croatian Social-Democrat. I know well how to oppose well the cool-headed brains in Brussels. I can do this very well. You will see.” This means that Zoran Milanović has undergone a slight transformation and a minor upgrade. While being a moderate Social-Democrat, Mr Milanović positioned himself as an Eurosceptic – meaning a politician, who will not silently obey Brussels and will stand for the interests he feels are the national ones.   

Once, answering a question by euinside, he stated that there was no need for more Europe and the Union in its current form suits him just fine. This was more than two years ago. A lot has changed in the EU since then. Following his debate with Plenković, Zoran Milanović’s rhetoric radicalised. Besides upgrading his Eurosceptic profile, he also adopted the ideological model of his favourite enemy – Tomislav Karamarko – to the point of already causing aggravated neighbour reactions after the leaking of a recording of his meeting with an association of war veterans, at which he committed to having the European way of Serbia blocked if a bilateral agreement is not reached for the resolution of pressing post-war issues. The recording reveals him insulting the Serbian people, calling them a “handful of weaklings”. The leaked recording sparked anger in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well, after hearing Milanović state that there is no one there worth talking to and that BiH is not a state. 

 Zoran Milanović relies on two things for a win and return to power – nationalist rhetoric and his experience as a Prime Minister. He thinks his trump card is the fact that the Croatian economy pulled out of an over 6-year period of recession at the end of his term due to his government’s work. He keeps underlining his opponent’s inexperience, calling him an “European bureaucrat”. It is clearly evident from the pre-election programme [in Croatian] of the People’s coalition that it relies mainly on previous success. Ideas for the future are scarce and way too general. 

With no ideological differences the two mastodons are terribly alike

After having the leaders of the two largest Croatian political parties publicly denounce the central subject of all elections – Ustaša and Partisans – voters were left with not much of a choice. The two platforms are so alike, that one could hardly tell one from the other. Both the HDZ and the People’s coalition commit to raising non-taxable minimum income. The HDZ proposes raising it to 3 750 kunas (approximately 500 euro), and the People’s coalition – to 3 000 kunas. The HDZ promises to open 180 000 new jobs and the People’s coalition promises 140 000. Both parties propose raising the threshold for VAT registration to 300 000 kunas from the current 230 000. Both parties have targeted their programmes at young people, pensioners, and war veterans. 

They promise improving the performance of the administration, the judiciary, and privatisation. They differ with regards to the EU. The HDZ plans to adhere to Croatia’s European commitments and have fiscal discipline, which includes working for exiting the excessive deficit procedure and lowering public debt. The People’s coalition underlines it is going to work for fiscal discipline, but only if economic growth allows it. It is directly stated that rules are going to be followed if convenient. That audacity comes not just from the Eurosceptic profile of the candidate for Prime Minister Zoran Milanović, but also from the compromise that the European Commission made with long-standing fiscal rules violators like Spain, France, and Portugal. 

The HDZ aims at high economic growth of 5% and promises to lower the current VAT rate of 25% to 24% in the second year of their term and to 23% at the end of the term. The People’s coalition plans closing the labour market to the “cheap labour force, which undermines the price of labour in Croatia”. On the foreign affairs side both parties state intentions of reinforcing the “Central-European dimension” of Croatia, which means strengthening cooperation with the Visegrad group countries. The HDZ recognises this group as being important “economic and geopolitical space”.

What sets the People’s coalition apart from the HDZ is placing educational reform in a very prominent position on the list. This is mainly due to the coalition attempting to extract maximum benefit from the mass protests against the attempts of the government of Tihomir Orešković (with HDZ participation) to politicise the large-scale educational reform, which includes changing the entire curriculum. It is by no accident that the People’s coalition placed a provocative heading of the chapter about education in their pre-election programme – “Education without censorship”. 

Besides both parties’ programmes being similar, their leaders have a lot in common as well. They both started their careers at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where they worked in the same period of time. They both feel respect for each other (which has been evaporating with the progress of the campaign). This was clearly evident at the beginning of the debate between them, where Zoran Milanović had some very flattering words of his opponent: “Andrej is one of the best diplomats. Professional, pedantic, cool-headed. He has very high reputation”. Plenković, however, did not reciprocate. While internal party dramatics were unfolding in the HDZ and Plenković was not yet elected leader, there was often talk that ideologically he rather belongs to the left-liberal sector. 

Thank goodness for Serbia

Lacking a serious ideological schism, it had to be invented. Unfortunately, it once more turned out to be Serbia, and that at a moment of heightened geopolitical tensions in the region. Croatia’s attempt at blocking the opening of Chapter 23 of the negotiations with Serbia brought serious heightening of tension between Belgrade and Zagreb. The regular exchange of ever-escalating lines and insults across the border turned into a major subject of the election campaign with both parties promising they will not back down from the criteria, which Zagreb used to block the opening of Chapter 23 – fair treatment of minorities, removing universal jurisdiction from the Serbian law for prosecuting war crimes, and resolving the issue of missing persons during the war. 

The rhetoric of Zoran Milanović and the People’s coalition, however, is far more extreme and unbalanced. The HDZ, under the leadership of Andrej Plenković, is so far discussing the subject moderately and cautiously, highlighting the contributions of the right-wing Croatian MEPs in including numerous demands in the progress reports on Serbia. During the debate on the HRT in mid-August Zoran Milanović extended a curious provocation at his opponent, asking him how would he react if the EPP family is joined by the party of Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić – The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). In reply, Andrej Plenković was surprised Mr Milanović did not mention Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, Jean-Claude Juncker, or Donald Tusk, who are also from the EPP family. He added that he knows very well where the roots of the Vučić’s party lie. “We know very well who we are talking about”, he concluded. 

And what about Most?

While Zoran Milanović and his new coalition quickly shifted and changed strategies, Most-ers seem to have lost their identity. They appeared as an alternative to the already sickening HDZ and SDP, who offered nothing new, except ideological division and alternate at the top. Most managed to harvest the protest vote and draw in those Croats, who over recent years have found no motivation to walk to the polling stations. At the emergence of an evidently new, reformed and moderate HDZ, Most are failing to identify their cause. They claim that the HDZ may have a new leader, but the party in general is identical and demand that both parties change radically. The campaign is already halfway through and Most are yet to find a clear cause and direction. They are forced to stay in a perimeter defence situation, explaining what they do not want, rather than stating what they do want. 

Their disorientation is evident in opinion polls as well, which are showing that interest in them is declining. Regardless of that, however, their role is again expected to be a key one, for it is very possible that the two mastodons will once more finish in a death-grip and the need will come for post-election negotiations, like last year. Keeping in mind Most’s uncertainty and lack of a clear identity, this could bring prolonged uncertainty and the possibility of new elections several months later. The previous government formation negotiations took several months. 

The September 11 elections will be a test for how wide the political centre is and whether all of those not voting are situated in it. This will also be a test of how much benefit is there in nationalist rhetoric, which brought no large success to the HDZ. Whether its transfer to the left will bring it more dividends is yet to be seen. Those elections will also show whether less campaign spending leads to worse results, or they are immaterial. If Andrej Plenković’s moderateness succeeds, it is very possible it will bring quakes in the SDP and will for reform there as well, similar to the catharsis in the HDZ. Results from preferential voting will in turn reveal internal attitudes in the HDZ. 

In this sense, the EPP will do a favour to the HDZ, as well as itself (after its image was seriously tarnished by Orbán and other national parties), if it gives more visible support to its partners from the HDZ. A win of the MEP Plenković at the elections in Croatia could prove to be a good argument in favour of the battle against populism and extremism in Europe. In a sense it is disappointing, but also to be expected that not a single important European subject is raised in Croatia during the campaign – not the Brexit, nor the future of Europe, or the migrant crisis. The future Schengen membership is not discussed (even less the changes in Schengen), neither is there any talk about adopting the euro. The campaign continues to be fully national, with a bitter regional flavour.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

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