After agonising expectation and speculations the cards have been dealt in Croatia. It remains to be seen when exactly the game is going to start. Since last week the country officially is in an election cycle. This happened after Croatian parliament speaker shed some light on a possible election date and after the governing parties announced their coalition for the elections. The mystery surrounding the date for holding the regular parliamentary elections in Croatia was a subject for shootouts between the governing coalition headed by the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of Prime Minister Zoran Milanović and the largest opposition party Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) that nominated the elected president of the country, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović.
The speaker of the Hrvatski sabor (Croatian Parliament), Josip Leko, announced last week that it is possible that the Parliament will be dissolved on September 25th, which means the elections could be held between October 25th and November 22nd. According to the Constitution, the date has to be set by the president. Before the summer, there was talk that the elections could be in December, or even early next year. The previous parliamentary election was at the beginning of December and brought to power the left-liberal coalition with the funny name “Kukuriku” (Cock-a-doodle-doo). The coalition is made up of the large Social Democratic Party, the much smaller Croatian People’s Party (HNS) of Foreign Minister Vesna Pusić, the regional Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS), and the Croatian Party of Pensioners (HSU). They came to power after several consecutive terms of the HDZ, during which the country signed its Accession Treaty with the EU and the first Croatian prime minister was prosecuted for corruption.
Last week, after long expectations and negotiations the new/old coalition was announced that now has the serious name “Croatia is Growing”. It has almost the same composition, with the exception of the Istrian party that is yet to decide whether to run by itself in the elections or join someone. A few small regional parties joined the coalition. Basis for the new name of the left-liberal coalition gives the new statistical data from the beginning of September which shows the Croatian economy has been growing two quarters in a row. In the first quarter, Croatian Gross Domestic Product grew by 0.5%, while in the second it is already considerably larger – +1.2% compared to the same quarter of last year. This gave wings to the ruling parties for most of the criticism towards them were for the long recession (6 years).
HDZ has long been ready with its election coalition with the resounding name “Patriotic Coalition” (or rather Homeland-loving coalition). It consists of seven political parties, among which the Croatian Party of Rights (HSP), led until recently by MEP Ruža Tomašić, the Croatian Peasant Party, the Bloc of United Pensioners, and others. The coalition, although not in its entirety, already has three big victories under its belt – the first elections for Croatian representatives in the European Parliament, won due to preferential vote for Ruža Tomašić, the regular EP elections a year later at which the coalition also came out victorious, and the presidential elections in the beginning of this year, which were a close race between the candidates of the two largest parties – SDP and HDZ (former president Ivo Josipović was not a SDP candidate, but was backed by them). At the end, the HDZ won with its candidate Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović.
The name of the Patriotic coalition hints that the focus of the campaign, which started unofficially last year, will be nationalism. During the last two years, the leading party in the coalition moved quite noticeably further right than before but is still at the border between moderate-right and far-right. Neither coalition has come up with an election programme yet, nor a dedicated website. HDZ claims its election programme is ready, especially the economic part, but it is not yet publicly available. According to weekly political magazine Globus, the SDP is currently working on its programme, which will have nothing in common with the previous “Plan 21” that consisted of just several bullets. The magazine points out that what is being written at the moment is a very thorough programme, with which the party will veer further to the left but not as far as the Greek SYRIZA.
Main topic in the election campaign, apart from the usual skirmishes on the totalitarian past and the independence war of the 90’s, will be the economy. This is also the topic that the opposition uses most often in its criticism of the government. The newest GDP data, however, put additional wind in the government’s sails. Not only that, but by all accounts election spending has already started. The government decided last week to pay Christmas bonuses to the pensioners with lowest income.
9 months later
The biggest present, however, will be for the people that took bank credits in Swiss Francs during the credit boom. In January, when the Swiss central bank untied the franc’s exchange rate, tens of thousands of debtors in Croatia began paying much larger instalments. The left-liberal ruling coalition of PM Zoran Milanović decided back then to freeze the franc’s exchange rate, which spurred sharp criticism, especially by the banks, but was hailed by the affected debtors. Nine months later, at a government meeting last week a bill was agreed on for changes in the credit law, which give the possibility to debtors in Swiss Francs to convert their loans into euros.
This decision was also met with negativism by the banks, but a sharp reaction also came from Austria, whose Minister of Finance Dr Hans Jörg Schelling stated on Saturday before the unofficial meeting of EU finance ministers that this was an unfair move. Earlier, he threatened that he would raise the issue at the European level. The decision that is yet to be voted on by the national Parliament was also criticised by the opposition as a pre-election move. The subject turned into a field for political attacks.
The unknown future coalition partners
According to a September poll by CROBAROMETER, the HDZ-led coalition enjoys a comfortable lead of 34%, which is constantly growing, and the government has the support of 28.2% of the surveyed Croats. It is important to note that single support for the HDZ (outside the coalition) is also constantly growing, while the one for the SDP is not changing significantly – 31.8% for HDZ and 23.2% for SDP respectively. Coalition partners of both large parties could not by themselves overcome the election barrier. The big surprise, however, is that the Croatian political environment came back to its two-party tradition, or rather went to a two-coalition tradition after the bubble of new parties burst. At exactly this time last year, the star on the political sky was the green party ORaH of former minister in the Zoran Milanović government Mirela Holy.
After her support for former president Ivo Josipović running for second term the support for it started a dramatic downfall. According to CROBAROMETER, at the moment it has plunged below the election barrier of 5% with a 4.1% support. Mirela Holy is adamant that she will run alone at the elections, but hinted that she would not refuse support to the left-liberal coalition “Croatia is Growing” if push comes to shove. Another big star that rose at the presidential elections – the Croatian SYRIZA “Live Wall” also collapsed. One of the leaders of the movement against the repossession of property of debtors, who are unable to pay their loans, Vilibor Sinčić ranked third at the first round of the presidential elections and created expectations for serious reshuffling on the political scene. Support for him is currently 6%.
The share of the undecided has also dropped significantly, so at this stage the big battle remains between the two large coalitions. If, however, none of them receives enough votes to form a government, the role of little new stars will grow. “Live Wall” and ORaH are in the left part of the spectrum, while there are several parties in the centre and it is yet to be decided whether they will back the HDZ-led coalition and whether it will have them. Word is of the breakaway from the HNS reformists of former Deputy PM in the Zoran Milanović government Radimir Čačić, who spent time in prison because of a car accident with casualties in Hungary. Mayor of Zagreb Milan Bandić, who was also under investigation for corruption and spent several months in custody this year, meanwhile founded his own party. According to polls, he enjoys the support of 3.6% of voters, while the party of Mr Čačić has 1.9%. It is not yet clear what the Istrian party IDS will decide.
The battle between the two large coalitions will be fierce and has been going on for awhile. At the moment, it is in the phase of personal attacks between their leaders Zoran Milanović and Tomislav Karamarko. The latter promised the Croats a passage through the valley of tears, meaning the heavy and painful reforms that a number of consecutive governments have been postponing, and which cause comparisons between Croatia and Greece. Zoran Milanović on the other hand, who has so far positioned himself as an austerian, has already untied the purse strings, although Croatia is in an excessive deficit procedure, and is making generous promises for after the elections. In the end, it will all come down to who loves Croatia more.
Translated by Stanimir Stoev