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Croatia's Election Campaign again Brings out Ghosts from the Past

Published on , , Zagreb, Twitter: @AdelinaMarini
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Skeletons have come out of the closet once more for this election campaign. This time, however, with new strength and a new face. The usual for Croatian election campaigns is the two large parties accusing each other for crimes in the distant past – Communist dictatorship and Ustashian state. This year, however, we could add the Blackshirts of Branimir Glavaš, convicted and spent time in prison for war crimes during the war in former Yugoslavia. After he got released from prison in Mostar in the beginning of the year, despite the fact there are court cases against him still active, he plunged headfirst into Croatian politics by stepping into the lead of one of the regional parties – Croatian Democratic Alliance of Slavonia and Baranja (HDSSB). He has actively used his time out from prison to provoke the Croatian public, and the regional one for that matter, with Nazi symbolism. 

He was photographed drinking wine from a bottle whose label depicted Hitler. He made a film about himself, titled “My Struggle”, an analogy to Adolph Hitler’s book of the same name. In the little over 40-minute film, at the background of patriotic songs, Mr Glavaš explains his views on life and Croatian politics. Adding to that the rally of the Blackshirts, which he organised during the campaign in Zagreb’s Upper town, where the buildings of the government, parliament, the Constitutional Court, and St Marco church are. Blackshirts were members of Nazi parties in Europe and served as partisan militias. Them appearing amidst the beautiful and peaceful St Marco square in Zagreb caused violent criticism in the media and among many of the political parties in the country. 

The theatre, as some politicians named, could have remained just that, had it not been for Prime Minister Zoran Milanović who did, willingly or not, raise Glavaš’s party to a major factor status with his refusal to respond openly to the millions of questions, asked daily, whether he envisages a possible coalition with HDSSB after the November 8th elections. Many political parties, including the largest opposition political party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which leads the pre-election "Patriotic coalition", have denounced Branimir Glavaš’s actions and asked Zoran Milanović and the “Croatia is Growing” coalition, that he leads, to state unequivocally whether they are planning to make a coalition with him after the elections. A question that the PM keeps avoiding, using attacks against his main adversary HDZ and its leader Tomislav Karamarko personally, calling them the true Blackshirts. 

And it is not just Zoran Milanović. Many representatives of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of the Croatian PM and also members of the pre-election coalition, chose roundabout replies. This is one of the weakest spots of the left-centrist coalition. A key coalition partner until yesterday – foreign minister Vesna Pusić’s Liberals – also was not giving a straightforward yes or no answer, until she herself stated clearly in a television interview that she will not allow post-election coalitions with Branimir Glavaš’s party. This, however, happened just days before the end of the campaign. Until then, many of the bigger and smaller parties, that flocked to these elections, took advantage of the governing party’s indecisiveness to attack them on this very subject. Most active in this has been former president Ivo Josipović, who has come back to politics after losing the presidential elections earlier this year by creating the Forward Croatia-Progressive Alliance party, which got into a pre-election coalition with the reformists of former deputy PM to Zoran Milanović, Radimir Čačić. 

The two have drawn in their ranks former independent Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, who was kicked out of the HDZ last year for disagreeing with the official party line. They also sheltered former minister of finance Slavko Linić, who is the author of the most serious reforms implemented by the incumbent government. Sharp criticism is coming from another member of Mr Milanović’s government – Mirela Holy, who used to be minister of environmental, but in the first months of the government’s term was forced by the PM to resign because of suspicion that she set up some relatives of hers with jobs. Later on, she instituted the first green party in the country – ORaH, which even managed to get a MEP in the European Parliament at the EP elections last year. Using this, and other, issue the impressive lady managed to score a number of points during the two pre-election debates done so far. To her the “Glavaš” case came out great, for after the celebrity moment of last year, when she turned into a third political power with over 10% electoral power, her popularity sharply dipped after the presidential elections, in which she backed Ivo Josipović. At the moment, pollsters are unable to guarantee her passing the entrance barrier.

Battle at the economic front is most fierce

Having a war criminal at the Croatian political scene is doubtless one of the leading subjects in the Croatian election discourse, but is not the most important one. The big battle between all political factors in the campaign is concentrated on the economy. This is the topic of the pre-election advertisements of the two large parties, which are neck to neck in the polls. The “Croatia is Growing” coalition is attacking its opponents of the “Patriotic Coalition” on cutting spending, turning into a slogan right-wing leader Tomislav Karamarko’s words from last spring that Croatia must pass through the Valley of Tears, which means making the heavy and painful reforms that governments in a row postponed, including Zoran Milanović’s cabinet. In its advertising campaign “Croatia is Growing” shows two possibilities – one is a clean, brand new motorway, which is a result of the government’s attempt to pull the state out of a six-year long recession, and the other is a cracked way at the background of cloudy skies, which leads to the Valley of Tears. There is a threat put onto billboards that if the Croats choose HDZ they are choosing a return to the old practises, meaning corruption and totalitarianism. 

HDZ on the other hand is concentrating on the huge unemployment rate in Croatia and accented on increased emigration out of the country after its accession to the EU. The right-centrists pre-election coalition’s theory is that Zoran Milanović’s governance is forcing young people to leave the country in a search for a better life and work. They do also attack the government on the state’s excessive debt. Jokes are made with the name of the coalition, admitting that some things like debt, unemployment, etc. indeed are growing. According to Tomislav Karamarko, Croatia’s public debt is 90% of GDP. Forecast for next year is for it to grow to 93.9%. “If it keeps going in this manner, Croatia is highly susceptible to debt slavery and a Greek scenario”, warns Karamarko in his preamble to the election programme [in Croatian] of the coalition led by him. It is evident in the economic programmes of both parties that there is more thirst for spending. Research by two scientists of the economics department of Zagreb University, quoted by Croatian TV channel RTL shows that pre-election promises of the right-wing will cost more than the ones of the left-wing. 

What are the patriots promising?

A tax reform, part of which is lowering VAT from the current 25% to 23% in the first half of the term and down to 20% towards the end of their hypothetical governance. They promise to open 100 000 new jobs, or increasing employment by 5%. Removing para-fiscal taxation, increasing pensions to reach 60% of average salary, fiscal decentralisation, 1000 euro to every newborn child, lowering VAT to 5% for children’s foods and commodities. According to the research of the scientists with the economics department, the centre-right coalition’s promises would cost 8 billion kunas, which is over a billion euros. They think lowering VAT would cost over three billion kunas, and measures fighting demographic decline will require 317 million kunas. 

Left-wing promises cost 6.8 billion kunas

The “Croatia is Growing” coalition also promises to lower para-fiscal taxes. This, the authors of their economic programme [in Croatian] believe, will have a financial effect of 300 million kunas. The ruling coalition is not planning any drastic lowering of VAT, but just of certain commodities in the consumer basket. It is provided that employers will not be liable to pay social insurance on the salaries of people over 50 years of age for five years. An increase of minimum salary is planned, introducing widow pensions. Economists of Zagreb University’s department of economics are calculating the effect of the coalition’s measures to 6.8 billion kunas, which is a little under 1 billion euro. 

Which one is a right-wing and which is a left-wing coalition really?

Pre-election debates disclosed certain ideological controversies. In the first debate, shown on NOVA television, the rightists took heavy criticism for their plans to lower VAT. All other participants, regardless of their colour in the political spectrum, denounced this measure as unrealistic. It was curious, however, that the representative of the Patriotic Coalition Željko Reiner backed a strong participation of the state in the economy. During the conversation on whether state companies should be privatised, or key infrastructure, like motorways for example, be given out for concession, he asked how does it turn out that the private investor could be a better owner than the state. “Where is the logic!”, he exclaimed. According to him, simply an effective governing is needed. His opponent from “Croatia is Growing” Orsat Miljenić, Minister of Justice, on the other hand took a full right-wing position in admitting the state is not a good master. 

According to Reiner, reforming public administration is very important, but not in “the vulgar way”, meaning speaking of numbers. Job cuts will not solve the problem, he feels, but rather increases in effectiveness, motivation, and de-motivation of labour. Over the past four years, when unemployment and debt increased rapidly due to the prolonged recession, the two largest parties switched seats often. PM Zoran Milanović often walked in the shoes of a right-wing austerian, while right-wing Karamarko criticised the thwarting of economic growth. The diluting of ideological boundaries is a process, which is noticed all over the world and is dictated mainly by globalisation. This is also the cause for the growing power of nationalistic and chauvinistic political options. 

Which are the important topics in the Croatian election debates?

Some topics were truly surprising. For example the one used by regional TV channel N1 (owned by CNN) to open its debate was on the president’s powers. It was provoked by the deepening conflict between the president’s institution and the government following the presidential elections from the beginning of the year, won by the HDZ candidate Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović. The last months passed entirely under the sign of PM Zoran Milanović’s unwillingness to cooperate with Ms Kitarović, which created an atmosphere of preliminary campaigning and accusations that Ms Kitarović was leading the HDZ’s campaign. A question that was put forward during the debate on N1 and answered “yes”, the president is working for the HDZ during the campaign, by all participants, excluding the one from the HDZ. 

The prevailing opinion among parties with a chance of entering the next parliament or continuing to be in the focus of popular opinion is that the president should continue to be elected by the people. Only the ruling parties are of the opinion that this should be sanctioned by parliament. Along this issue the HDZ representative Ivan Domagoj Milošević admitted that Croatia was not yet a mature democracy. The representative of the Serbian minority in Croatia, Milorad Pupovac, came forward with a strong message, according to which the president’s institution should not duplicate the will of the people. Parliament is the representation of the people and at the moment this is the weakest institution, the current Member of Parliament said. One of the reasons for that he sees namely in the president’s role, who takes away the sovereign will of the people. 

Ex-president Ivo Josipović strictly disagreed with this theory, pointing out that the fact that Sabor is weak is not the president’s problem, but of the attitude of the people towards Parliament. Members of Parliament should emancipate from power and the leaders of their parties, he said. A strongly discussed subject is the reform of public administration, which is perceived as too vast. There is no agreement between parties as to exactly how this should be approached. The current party in power is of the opinion that a reform is necessary. Orsat Miljenić said that the problem is not in the large number, which is not that big. The problem is in the price society pays. He thinks that those working well should be awarded. Leader of one of the new conservative formations MOST Drago Prgomet, former high-ranking representative of HDZ, in his turn reminded that every government employs between 5 000 and 10 000 people in the administration. 

De-politicisation of state administration and instituting meritocracy is one of the country-specific recommendations of the European Commission in the European semester. Implementing this recommendation the government of Zoran Milanović began introducing competitions for executive posts in state-owned companies or ones with state participation. There was a lot of turmoil around the giving on concession of the motorways, whose repayment is a heavy burden on Croatian budget. The government attempted a concession, but changed its mind after heavy union pressure. ORaH of Mirela Holy is against the concession with the HDZ argument that if someone finds it worthwhile to take the motorway under concession, then why couldn’t the state, through re-organisation, achieve the same effect, she asks.

Against the concession voted also the party of Zagreb’s mayor “Bandić Milan 365”. Orsat Miljenić, however, advocated for the concession, underlining that this is not a sale. He added that the motorways are rather an emotional issue, but the debt is present and it needs to be repaid. Along the debate on the motorways the regular sparks flew between the HDZ and SDP, for ministers from the HDZ were prosecuted for corruption, connected exactly to the motorways. The cases of painting tunnels at a price six times higher than normal are already proverbial in Croatia. HDZ claims, however, that it is all renewed and clear of corruption. 

Another thorny issue in the Croatian pre-election campaign was the one of same sex couples. During the rule of the current government the law of cohabitation was overhauled and significantly liberalised, which provoked the calling of a referendum for changes in the Constitution. At the referendum, the majority of Croats agreed that in the Constitution marriage needs to be explicitly defined as the union of a man and a woman. An interesting detail is that the movement “In the Name of the Family”, which initiated the referendum, is finally joining the election race. There were expectations that the movement of Željka Markić will grow into a political party as far back as the European and the presidential elections, but it never happened. They did, however, join the race for parliament and one element of their campaign is exactly a remodelling of the family code. This is a change supported by the HDZ as well. Moreover, the Patriotic Coalition plans to implement a law forbidding abortions, which outraged Mirela Holy.

She and Mr Milošević had a verbal shootout during the debate on TV channel N1, after Ms Holy noted that there were hardly any women in their ballots. To that Mr Milošević  replied that women find it harder to succeed in political life. Moreover, he stated that this was exactly why the HDZ is a conservative party. His statement caused a violent reaction not only by Mirela Holy, but also by the representative of MOST, Ružica Vukovac, who even suggested that behind the HDZ proposal of 1000 euro for every newborn stands a design to keep women at home. By the way, an interesting suggestion of the right-wing coalition is that women start receiving wages from the state for raising children after the fourth child. 

Foreign policy was poorly covered in both debates, however some key differences became evident after the N1 debate. For example, “Croatia is Growing” avoids direct criticism of Russia for its invasion of the Ukraine and thinks that without Russia the war in Syria cannot be solved. The HDZ are cautious in their foreign policy statements, mainly saying that Croatia is currently isolated and this has got to change. It is important to note that Euro-scepticism is currently conquering all political parties. Croatia was never openly pro-European, even the referendum for the country’s EU membership was about to fail if the election barrier had not been lowered. Two and a half years after joining, however, moods are quite glum. 

The prevailing feeling is one of disappointment. The analysis of many politicians is that this is due to the deceived expectations that entering the EU will rapidly raise the standard of living. A disappointment, which all Eastern European countries went through. This, however, is not the only reason for disappointment. The manner in which the EU is dealing with the refugee crisis also generates strong disappointment, frustration even, more so with Croatia in the centre of the Western Balkan route. Up until now over 320 thousand refugees have passed through the country. Mirela Holy feels the EU failed in dealing with such a large challenge. Lack of common policy and solidarity is a very bad failure. Milorad Pupovac, in his turn, warned that the EU and NATO were making a mistake not speeding up the process of integration of Serbia and Montenegro. They are delaying this process for too long thus opening space for issues like Serbia’s re-armament, he said.

He summarised the first two years of membership by saying that two things have been learned. The first one is positive – freedom of the individual, rule of law, rights. There is also a negative lesson and it is that it is exactly the EU that is giving up these ideological ideals. Foreign affairs are totally absent from the election programmes of the two largest pre-election coalitions. They both pay attention to fighting organised crime and corruption, albeit with no particular details. Simply a commitment is stated. Smaller parties have positions on foreign affairs. Most prominent is the one of the anti-establishment party “Live Wall” of young Ivan Vilibor Sinčić, who ranked third at the first round of presidential elections. He thinks Croatia should leave the EU and NATO.

It is important that both large coalitions have included something about the media in their programmes. The “Patriotic Coalition” plans to come up with a new and comprehensive media strategy, changes in the media law and in the law on electronic media, so that the conditions for local and regional media are improved. They also promise a flat VAT rate of 5% for all printed media. They promise lowering of the tax for radio and television. The HDZ, however, has often been accused by left-wing media in levying censure and media repressions. 

“Croatia is Growing” plans to continue its liberal approach towards media. It has also been accused by the right-wing in supporting “home team media”. The coalition offers no particulars about exactly what it plans to improve. Regarding fighting corruption, there’s also not many details, but it is underlined that corruption threatens human rights and erodes the morale and structure of society. 

In Croatian political culture pre-election coalitions are already firmly defined. This year’s campaign shows, however, that this is no longer enough for an election victory. Small parties in the leading coalitions have already been almost assimilated and have no political life of their own. Thus new parties and political formations will prove key factors in deciding the election result. So far, the two large election coalitions are refusing comment on possible post-election coalitions, but if the results remain close to polls, i.e. continue to be strongly neck-to-neck, it would mean a hung parliament and a need for making post-election coalitions. Some of the small parties have already upped their price by saying they are not going to participate in post-election deals. They prefer to remain in opposition and stand for their principles from there. Others are not so straightforward. One thing is certain, though –  whoever sells their soul to the Blackshirts is sure to pay a high price later on.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

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