April 14th was a very sunny and nice spring day. The citizens of Zagreb, but also a large part of Croats, had not seen so much sun for quite a while after a continuous period of torrential rains, accompanied by floods, and an exhaustingly long winter with record snow that opened large holes in the municipal and family budgets. All this predisposes to boycotting the first in Croatia's independent history election of members of the European Parliament to the benefit of a walk in the freshly mowed parks or of a trip somewhere via the wonderful Croatian motorways. By 11 o'clock on Sunday, less than 6% of those who had right to vote - over 3.7 million Croats - and by 16.00 a little less than 15 per cent had cast their ballot. And if that low turnout had persisted, it would have scored a record in the EU. By the end of election day, however, voter turnout passed 20 per cent. Nonetheless, the election is deemed a failure.
When I chose to go about Zagreb schools to see what are the moods and with what in mind do people vote, it was an early afternoon. In the area where I live it was so silent that I had a desire to whisper so as not to wake someone up. In the city centre, the same serenity and silence ruled. Nothing spoke of the day of the Croats' debut on European stage nor that this would be their first preferential vote. The exterior of the schools did not reveal in any way that there was life inside. Only when one approaches could see instructions how to vote and directions where the sections are. Nothing more - no signs showing that those were the elections for members of the European Parliament nor that anything was taking place. It felt odd coming closer to a school on Sunday.
Fortunately, before one of the central Zagreb schools there were two people smoking and this is how I realised there was life inside after all. I was starting to think that I might have gotten the dates wrong, moreover in Bulgaria the tradition goes on Friday before an election the time of the classes to be significantly reduced to allow for an early closure of the lessons so that preparations for election day could begin. And the Mondays after an election are a vacation day for the kids in Bulgaria - a time used to get everything back to order - to remove the cabins and restore desks back where they belonged. In Croatia neither the classes were shorter on Friday nor Monday was pronounced a non-schooling day, which additionally enhanced my confusion on Sunday afternoon that something was wrong.
I entered the first electoral section where smiling members of the election committee told me that since the morning until the early afternoon the turnout was much less compared to previous elections. I had to wait for some 20 minutes before a voter turned out. It was a young man with a pram. He was very confused when I asked him what he thought about the election. According to him, the future MEPs had to represent the country in an appropriate way. They had to be educated and smart, he said, but found it hard to name the biggest problem the EU currently had. He excused himself and went on with his baby's walk. After another maybe 20 minutes, an elderly woman showed up. She explained that the election was important because the country was to join the EU, but was unhappy with the voting system. Something has to change, she said.
The MEPs have to defend and promote Croatian rights in the EU. The biggest problem of the Union is the banking crisis, according to her. We are all robbed by the banks and the little man does not have dignity any longer. That's it, she said, they took everything from us and we are constantly going down. Another woman in her 50s agreed that the financial crisis is the biggest problem. She said she was happy that her country was joining the EU because she was a pro-European and for years had been considering herself a European. A young man told me, however, that no matter if he enjoyed his country's membership or not Croatia had to be part of a block. Either that would be the EU or another organisation, he said. But was convinced that the elections were important because that was the only way something to depend on you.
Who has won the election?
The most precise answer is apathy. Voter turnout was 20.84%. Croatian analysts explained that one of the reasons for the low performance was that a large part of political parties presented the election as insignificant. The campaign was very brief - less than a month and was literally invisible, especially for a Bulgarian eye saturated with politics - morning TV talk shows, evening commentary programmes, weekend reviews of the political week, newspapers, billboards, excess. In Croatia, televisions do not have morning talk shows. And in the election night only the national TV had an election studio for which it invited three analysts and was following closely the first incoming preliminary results. The other big TV stations had expaned central news programmes, but right afterwards they indulged in films and their regular programmes.
There were no pre-election debates, no political advertisement. The first political TV spots appeared in the last days of the campaign. In TV advertisement investments made the ruling coalition between Prime Minster Zoran Milanovic's Social Democrats, Foreign Minster's liberals from the Croatian People's Party and the Pensioners' Party. The spot represented in fact a call by Premier Milanovic to vote with ballot number whichever. The second largest coalition, led by Tomislav Karamarko's Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), bet on billboards which call on people to choose the right-wing if they want jobs and taxes not to be raised. Overall, judging from the streets and media it was hard to guess that the first ever in the country's history European election were to take place.
One of the reasons is that the political forces had a limit on advertisement spending. Those who do not exceed it would get money from the budget for every secured seat and can even come out with a profit after drawing the line below costs and revenues. Another reason is that the main preparation work is for the local elections.
In spite of the weak campaign, many of the parties viewed the European election as a test for the voting for local authorities on May 19th. These elections are one of the reasons why the ruling coalition did not bring forward very strong candidates which was evident on election day on Sunday. They chose new faces without any political experience. The opinion polls gave them advantage ahead of Karamarko's rights who, in turn, has internal party problems and a constantly dropping personal rating. For him, the election was also a test whether he is capable to lead the party. Unlike the social-liberal Kukuriku coalition, HDZ and its coalition partners held a very active advertisement campaign on the ground - with many tours across the country and solid campaigning in the social networks. The coalition had on its list very familiar and active faces, including the current observers in the European Parliament, like Andrej Plenkovic.
This can be one of the main reasons why this coalition surprised at the election and has won six seats instead of the expected five, thus coming as a first political force. The other and more important reason is the "Ruza Tomasic" factor who, in fact, is the biggest winner in this election. She is a member of Croatia's Sabor (parliament), a former policewoman and a founder of the Croatian Party for Rights Dr Ante Starcevic. She is famous as an activist in the fight against organised crime and during the campaign she became popular with her remark that Croatia is only for Croats, the others are just guests. Her performance is impressive. Ruza Tomasic was 6th on the list, but thanks to the preferential vote she outran Andrej Plenkovic, who was second and maintained that position. For her voted 26.58% of the coalition supporters, while for Plenkovic 15.41 per cent. The leader of the list, Dubravka Suica, gathered 12.92% of the votes and the other strong candidate of the right-wing, Davor Ivo Stier, ended up fourth.
Ruza Tomasic said in an interview with the Nova TV that she viewed her party as righter than HDZ and therefore she was not yet sure whether she would blend with them in the European People's Party - the biggest group in the European Parliament - or if she will choose another path. She specified regarding her remark that for her guests were everyone (including Croatian citizens) who spit on the country and do not respect its laws. If they do not like it, they should leave it, she said.
In general, the coalition around HDZ won 32.87 per cent of the votes. Local analysts commented that with this low turnout the outcome is a testimony for the high discipline of the core supporters of the party. Same goes for Milanovic's socialists and the parties in the coalition. In their case, the outcome is a catastrophe. First on the list was the current observer in the coalition, Tonino Picula, who collected 47% of the votes for the Kukuriku coalition. An insignificant number supported the other candidates which, again, is a testimony how unknown the candidates are and their skills. Besides, their election platform was quite general and not very specific. For the Kukuriku coalition voted 32.07%.
The thin gap between the Kukuriku and the right shows another thing which will be interesting to observe whether this ratio will remain at the local elections when the turnout is expected to be much higher. Although some Croatian media described the outcome as a defeat for the governing parties, this is hard to derive from the results because in spite of the discontent from the economic situation, the fact that the opposition leads with less than a percentage point, means that support for the governing parties is till high. Moreover, it is high given the not very well known faces on the list. Kukuriku has to make a lot of analyses, especially against the backdrop that their key coalition partner in the cabinet - Vesna Pusic's liberals - will not have a representative of theirs in Strasbourg, which is possible to increase the tensions within the coalition. Food for thought is also whether the right-wing coalition's success is due mainly to Ruza Tomasic.
Unhappy with the outcome was the third political force, too, the party of Croatian Labourists who expected to get two seats, but will have to satisfy themselves with only one. The party was supported by 5.76 per cent of the voters, thus pushing in the European Parliament Nikola Vuljanic, currently an observer. He was supported by 15 per cent of the party's supporters.
The other 25 parties and coalitions did not manage to pass the 5% threshold, but their score is interesting and tickles curiosity for the local elections. As a fourth force has positioned itself the coalition between Croatian Peasant Party and Croatian Social-Liberal Party which took 3.86% of the votes, followed closely by the collective list led by a controversial person in Croatia - the governor of the Istra region, Ivan Jakovcic who was not convincing in his attempts to prove that he never took advantage of his position. He vowed on a number of occasions that he would quit politics and the European Parliament elections were another turning point. In the post-election night he was in the victorious mood. The list he led was supported by 3.84%. The Pirate Party in Croatia also has a remarkable score - 1.12%.
The elections are legal, but are they legitimate?
The low turnout has put forward a question which yet in the election night was bothering media and social networks - is the election legitimate since only 20% of the voters will sent the Croatian representatives in the Europarliament? The blame game started the night after the election, but the essential issues again suffered a heavy blow and those responsible should be joined by the European Parliament itself as an institution. Only two months ago in Zagreb opened doors the Information Office of the European Parliament whose main function is to disseminate knowledge about what this institution is and what do the MEPs do for a living. Two months are absolutely not enough, in spite of the efforts of the team in the office.
Moreover, the Croats were forced to vote with the accession treaty only a year before the regular European elections in 2014 which will take place in all member states. Against the backdrop of the severe economic crisis in which most governments in the EU find themselves, including Croatia among the most affected, the costs for a voting could have been saved. Therefore, the Croats had to choose whether to hold their first European elections in a single day with the local elections or in separate days. The opinion about separate days was overwhelming with the argument that in this way more European topics will be discussed. Alas, this did not happen and is a black point in Premier Milanovic's credit as he was convinced the three weeks campaigning would be completely enough. In addition to the black point, President Ivo Josipovic turned against the prime minister saying the failure of the election was the responsibility of the premier.
The premier said for his part he still believed the decision about the date was the right one. In an interview for the central news programme Dnevnik of Nova TV, Mr Milanovic explained the bad outcome with the crisis in Europe and Croatia. He refused to analyse the outcome pointing out that with such a low turnout this exercise would be useless.
The fact that next year the Croats will be called to vote again for MEPs is obviously another reason why the political parties did not invest a lot in sending representatives to Strasbourg for only one year. Next year, the government will be in the middle of its term and then the picture could be very different. Besides, the battle between the European parties will be in its peak and every vote will be important. Croatia is joining the EU in no time - in the middle of the year which is why it takes part in the crucial European semester only half way - the child of the reformed economic governance of the EU. The MEPs will have a one year term which is highly insufficient to allow them actively involve in whatever activities.
So, in the first year of membership, the European Parliament will continue to be distant and misunderstood in Croatia, mainly viewed as a place where the representatives of the poorer member states get high salaries, usually as a prize for their party merits on national level. And when it comes to working on legislation related to the upgrade of the economic governance and the long-term perspectives of the EU, these MEPs will appear less prepared, just like their voters. Indeed, apathy has won the first European elections in Croatia which is another minus for the EU at large, which the Croats have never been among the most favourably disposed to and thanks to the crisis the EU is in a very bad position being the bad guy forcing governments to cut spending. It is also disappointing in terms of the European Parliament which plays an ever more important role in the European affairs and is especially active when it comes to the enlargement countries, but is absent from the agenda of the Croatian society.