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One Bridge, Many Rivers

Published on , , Zagreb, Twitter: @euinside
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Croatia is sunk in political uncertainty. The results of the November 8th elections created a stalemate situation, in which it becomes clearer and clearer that no one is a winner. Negotiations have already started between the new political star Most (Bridge in Croatian), made up of independent lists and the two largest pre-election coalitions – “Croatia is growing”, concentrated around the Social Democratic Party of Prime Minister Zoran Milanović and the Patriotic coalition around the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) of Tomislav Karamarko. Some details of the negotiations leak here and there in the press, but in general obscurity prevails. What is certain, however, is that Most from acting like a winner is beginning to act as someone who has won the jackpot. They have no idea what to do with the money – invest it, or spend it. Their messages already start to diverge and the longer this uncertainty around the future government continues, the more their credibility will melt away.

And credibility is a very precious political capital not just for the new party, but for the entire country, for if Most play their cards well, this could cause the long overdue reform of the old parties, pampered by having people vote for them out of habit and a lack of any meaningful alternative. If any disagreement appears within the Most-ians, however, surely the vultures of the two leading political formations will eat them up, and then the “return to the old” that Zoran Milanović used to scare everybody with is guaranteed. The way to the correct solution passes through an analysis of the situation. 

Why did Most win?

First of all – timing. They appeared exactly when people needed a strong alternative, which showed that change is possible. This is the reason behind the relatively high voter turnout – 60% as well. They are not radical or deeply specialised like the green “ORaH” for example. At the same time, they have a relatively clear profile – moderate right, as opposed to the small leader’s parties, who counted on their leaders’ names to get them into Parliament. From their pre-election programme and their behaviour before the elections one could conclude that they are the voice of reason. Their biggest strength is their biggest weakness. If they are unable to push through their package of reforms, they will lose people’s trust and will return bipolarity for an unknown period of time. This would be a terrible loss, because the mistakes of the two large political formations were great. 

HDZ is a party of the past and SDP offers more of the same

The Patriotic coalition's campaign showed that the potential of the HDZ is exhausted under the current leadership. They proved to be even less adequate than the government, so they practically lost. HDZ are supposed to be a right-wing party, they are a member of the EPP, but they based their entire campaign on criticism of the government, pulling skeletons out of the closet, fuelling of unnecessary patriotism, and over-cautiousness. Their media presence was weak and usually as a reaction to actions by the government. Their long-awaited pre-election programme turned out to be badly communicated and with no clear target – is it the business, the youngsters, war veterans, or the most conservative people in the countryside. One of the accents in their criticism of the government was that because of bad governing many young Croats are leaving the country. At the same time, however, at their pre-election rallies you could only hear patriotic hits that are unlikely to be listened to by the young people. 

Besides fuelling their campaign only with criticism of the government, they chose the wrong approach at it as well. Instead of commenting on economic problems in their essence, offering an alternative, they countered the government’s economic achievements with doubts about the validity of statistical data. An argument, proved totally wrong by the autumn economic forecast, which the European Commission announced in the last day of the election campaign. In it, the Commission corrects its expectations for the growth of Croatian economy upward. This fully justified the decision of the governing party to call their pre-election coalition “Croatia is growing” and put wind in their sails. 

 Although they have been preparing long to take over the next Croatian government, the HDZ failed to capitalise on the lead pollsters were giving them for over a year and which was granted to them by winning three elections in a row. The coalition around the party won the first and second European elections in the country and their greatest victory came with the presidential elections earlier this year. This caused HDZ leadership to overlook a very important analysis – who really won. Both at the first and the second European Parliament elections victory was secured by the conservative Ruža Tomašić, due to preferential votes. Success at the presidential elections was due mainly to the personality of Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović and to the numerous mistakes by her opponents, mainly by former president Ivo Josipović, who made the same mistake – he counted entirely on his huge popularity.

At the parliamentary elections of November 8th there was no clear leading figure that could repeat Ruža Tomašić‘s success and the fact that the Patriotic coalition, made up of seven parties, hung in balance against the current government is indicative of the HDZ’s potential and that of the parties, gravitating around it. The lead they had in polls was melted down by the coalition of the current government “Croatia is growing” due to masterful exploitation of the Patriots’ weaknesses, never minding the fact it did not offer anything new. Among the good moves of “Croatia is growing” is them managing to steal away the HDZ’s monopoly on patriotism with several well-timed, albeit risky moves. The government took a strong and unrelenting stand in the argument with Slovenia over the Gulf of Piran. They started pulling on the patriotic string as well around the refugee crisis, when several times they made a very risky move of closing the border with Serbia and engaging in dangerous neighbourly rhetoric. In the mean time, they created an image of the most humane country along the migrant route for Croatia, which did not go unnoticed in international plan.

This very move caught the Patriotic coalition quite unprepared. It had no good move. If it sides with Viktor Orbán in neighbouring Hungary it would harm HDZ’s relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Thus they chose just to criticise the government’s actions, avoiding giving specific ideas and leaving the president by herself at the frontline against Prime Minister Zoran Milanović. Her actions, however, did more harm than good to HDZ and the coalition around it. Ms Grabar-Kitarović sharply attacked the German Chancellor in a TV interview over her open doors policy. Later on, the photograph of leader Tomislav Karamarko with Ms Merkel sent out conflicting signals. It did not become clear if he supports her policy regarding refugees, while at the same time Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán’s name was chanted at Patriotic coalition rallies, who in his turn sent a warm letter of support to Mr Karamarko. 

Criticising the trench war, waged by PM Milanović on neighbouring states, the Patriotic coalition turned out to be a protector of the governments in Belgrade, Budapest, or Ljubljana, which was artfully used by their opponents. The focus on love for the country and patriotism may have kept the core supporters with them, but they failed to draw more people to their side. The centre-left coalition “Croatia is growing” scored more points with its adamant decision to transform the Swiss Franc mortgages into euros, which brought a lot of criticism from the European Commission and other EU member states like Austria for example. This is a populist move, which did however secure much wanted support for the governing coalition. 

The Patriotic coalition also failed to show an adequate reaction to the news around former HDZ leader and the first PM to be convicted of corruption Ivo Sanader. Instead of focusing on the battle against corruption and the judiciary reform, committing to guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary, they preferred to celebrate their acquittal. The patriots were so busy in the battle against their arch-enemy that they failed to notice the appearance of Most – a party with clear ideas and specific and realistic suggestions for reforms. They surely attracted those votes that the HDZ wasted, believing they had victory in their pocket.

The HDZ made a huge mistake in their approach to media as well – it protected itself too well from public appearances and failed to clear itself of the image of a party that has media for an enemy, which needs to be censured. The biggest failure is the refusal of leader Karamarko to participate in a pre-election debate with his opponent Zoran Milanović. The latter did everything in his power to advertise this refusal fittingly. 

HDZ’s losses, however, did not finish with the end of Election Day. They continue to lose as we speak. According to an opinion poll, ordered by RTL television the majority of Croats prefer that PM Zoran Milanović stays in office and they plead for a coalition between Most and “Croatia is growing”. Support for Tomislav Karamarko as a leader of the next government is minimal. The reason again being the unclear messages and the fact they got caught deeply unprepared for such a scenario. “Croatia is growing” swiftly took advantage of their weakness, positioning themselves as the most suitable coalition partner – dialogic, ready to compromise, not rejecting unconditionally, not sulking, or placing labels. 

Will Most manage to live up to high expectations?​

At the moment Most have their legs astraddle. Responsibility, assigned to them by voters, looks like it is an impossible burden for them. In the beginning of negotiations they attempted to shirk it by proposing an impossible Solomon’s solution – a grand coalition between the three largest political powers. This suggestion is immature, for if the HDZ and SDP could imagine a joint government there would be no need of Most. And it is a pure mentality problem. Differences between the two coalitions are not as great in respect of their pre-election programmes. The problem, however, is the existence of historic accumulations between them and the skeletons in the closet. Most will achieve nothing without the difficult decision to choose between one of the two great powers.

The more they procrastinate, however, the more threatened their integrity becomes, for there are already talks of the formation of various currents within Most. Rivers ahead of them are many, and the Most [bridge] is only one. New elections will not solve the problem, for it is obvious that the old parties cannot offer anything new and there is no potential for a new political formation at the moment. Most’s election victory would have served as a catalyst for the renovation of the full political spectrum in Croatia. Thus their failure will be the greatest. The constant repeating that they only care about their reforms and are not interested in ministers’ seats does not save them from taking responsibility for the implementation of these reforms.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

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