Can Europe Make It?: Analysis

Ambitious contenders from Croatia’s Left: Možemo wins Zagreb

It seems the long-term impact of economic malfunction can efface the centrality of ethno-cultural cleavages in societies marred by inter-ethnic conflict

Vassilis Petsinis
25 June 2021, 12.00am
Tomislav Tomasevic, new Mayor of Croatian capital Zagreb with his deputies, Danijela Dolenec and Luka Korlaeta, June 1, 2021.
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K.J.Donell / Alamy. All rights reserved.

On 30 May, in a landslide victory, Tomislav Tomašević, the candidate of a recently formed Green-Left coalition was elected the mayor of Croatia’s capital, Zagreb.

This, an astounding victory in the capital of a country where the centre-Right Croatian National Union (HDZ) seemed to have consolidated its political dominance, attracted the interest of the press and political commentators worldwide.

Tomašević, who ran under the Možemo (‘We Can!’) coalition, won 199,630 votes (67.3%) in the second round of the mayoral elections, while his chief rival, nationalist conservative Miroslav Škoro, garnered 106,300 votes (32.7%).

What were the deeper reasons behind the success of the Možemo candidate in Zagreb and the party’s increasing popularity as a whole? And what are the broader and longer-term implications?

Organisational infrastructure

Možemo was officially launched on 10 February 2019. The party declared its commitment to the political values of egalitarianism (social solidarity and gender equality), as well as environmentalism and the use of renewable sources of energy.

In the party’s founding principles, the leadership of Možemo define themselves as: “people who dedicated their lives to the social and common interest – for a better education, public health, justice, culture, workers’ and human rights”. Možemo was initially set up as a horizontally arranged and ‘devolved’ coalition of political forces, along the lines of early Podemos in Spain.

The founding assembly has decreed that the party is not run by an official president, but instead has two coordinators and functions under a collective leadership. Alongside the two coordinators (Sandra Benčić and Teodor Celakoski), Možemo has succeeded in hosting under its wings a wide network of social scientists and other Zagreb-based academics, political activists, artists and opinion formers originating from Croatia’s broader Left (Danijela Dolenec, Urša Raukar, Tomislav Tomašević, Mima Simić, and Dario Juričan – to name but a few).

Beyond the Left

At first, this multifaceted arrangement enabled the party to concretize its political programme and reach out to a wide range of social segments and interest groups. In the longer run, this strategy has enabled Možemo to extend its appeal beyond the left-leaning circles of Zagreb-based academia and intelligentsia. Although formally affiliated with the Greens/Europe Free Alliance group in the European Parliament, the party has also succeeded in gaining the endorsement of prominent figures among the European radical Left (including Yanis Varoufakis and the MeRA25 initiative). As result of its ambitious and successful engagement, Možemo entered the Sabor (National Assembly) with seven seats following the parliamentary elections of 5 July 2020.

Euro-alternativism

By contrast to the inadequate elaboration of socioeconomic issues by the (centre-Left) Social Democratic Party/SDP, the economic programme of Možemo consists in an anti-austerity core that criticises socioeconomic pathologies such as: the increase in youth unemployment and the ensuing brain-drain; the intensification of regional disparities between the more (e.g. Greater Zagreb, Zagorje, and Istria) and the less developed (e.g. several districts in eastern Slavonia and the Dalmatian hinterland) parts of the country; the deterioration of living standards especially for the social layers that were most heavily affected by the six-year recession from 2009 to 2015 and the ensuing introduction of austerity measures.

Throughout its campaign, since 2019, Možemo has not faced serious competition from smaller actors with an anti-austerity profile. The erstwhile increasingly popular party of Živi Zid/Human Shield, suffered a steady decline in its public appeal after one of the founding members seceded and set up the Party of Ivan Pernar in July 2019. By contrast to Živi Zid’s vocal and almost rejectionist Euroscepticism, Možemo counter-proposed the refashioning of European integration with a greater emphasis on social cohesion and equality.

Možemo has called for the adequate representation of minority communities in the governing structures

For instance, Možemo does not object to Croatia’s accession to the Eurozone but holds that this objective should be materialized in a gradualist fashion with the primary emphasis on the expansion of job opportunities and the upgrading of social welfare – not solely the stabilization of prices. In this light, the party seems to opt for a greater stress on social cohesion and equality all over Europe, in accordance with what academic experts on left-wing populism have termed the doctrine of ‘Euro-alternativism’.

From a broader and ‘cross-regional’ angle, it appears that the long-term impact of economic malfunction can, if only temporarily, efface the centrality of ethno-cultural cleavages in societies that have been subject to ethnic polarization or, even worse, marred by interethnic conflict (as Croatia was during the first half of the 1990s). In addition to the Croatian case and the success of Možemo in Zagreb, the victory of the coalition of the centrist Development/For! and centre-Left Progresīvie parties in the 2020 Riga City Council snap election (26-29 August 2020) provides a highly comparable precedent from Latvia’s capital.

As in the case of Možemo, the programmatic standpoints of the victorious coalition placed primary importance on the resolution of economic issues (administrative transparency and social welfare) and its appeal has cut across ethnic lines, especially among the younger generation of voters.

Taking into consideration that, like Zagreb in Croatia, Riga is the absolute political and economic decision-making centre of Latvia, this development clearly hints at the not always successful endeavour by ethno-nationalist actors to extract political capital out of inter-communal cleavages in multi-ethnic environments. It also suggests an increasing awareness of instances of corruption and non-transparency – irrespective of the minority/majority divide (ethnic Russian and Latvian respectively).

‘Leaving the 1990s behind’

In addition to socioeconomic issues, the political platform of Možemo has issued calls for the alleviation of ethnic tensions and the adequate representation of minority communities (also migrant groups) in the governing structures.

This is of great importance in a country where a string of ethno-nationalist political actors has been striving to extract political capital out of inter-communal cleavages. One appropriate example was the joint mobilization of the HDZ’s ‘right-wing’ faction (e.g. the mayor of Vukovar, Ivan Penava, when he was a HDZ-affiliate) and extra-parliamentary actors (such as the Croatian War Veterans Association/UHRV) in a series of mass protests against the public use of Serb Cyrillic script in Vukovar (2013-16).

Despite such ‘continuities’, though, it remains equally true that a large percentage of the Croatian population would opt for ‘leaving the 1990s and their legacies behind’. Comparable to neighbouring Serbia, this shift is particularly valid for the younger, better-educated, and more ‘extroverted’ segments of the electorate – resident in the capital city of Zagreb as well as in other urban centres.

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In this light, the staunchly nationalist contender opposing Tomislav Tomašević in the mayoral elections for Zagreb, Miroslav Škoro, largely might have appeared to as a pure embodiment of the turbulent 1990s. Having built a stronghold in the war-ravaged territories of Slavonia (namely, the Virovitičko-podravska county and the Osječko-baranjska county), Škoro and his Homeland Movement (Domovinski Pokret) chose as their top preoccupations: the safeguarding of national and Christian values; a stricter control of immigration and tougher ‘law and order’ measures; and revision of certain clauses in the legislation on minority rights (especially concerning the ethnic Serb community).

What next?

Following the results of the first round of the mayoral elections for Zagreb, which took place on 16 May 2021, Škoro denounced Možemo along the lines that the party was aiming at ‘conquering the city of Zagreb’. He added: “It is neither Green nor Left, it is extremely Left and it is going to be stopped in the second round, so help me God!” Within the next couple of weeks, Škoro intensified his smear campaign against Možemo, aided by the leader of Bloc for Croatia and former affiliate of HDZ, Zlatko Hasanbegović, who openly dubbed the party: ‘apologists of Titoism and theorists of lesbian syndicalism’.

Nevertheless, as became clear in May’s electoral results, these reproofs ultimately backfired for Škoro and his allies. The argument that the rising popularity of Možemo can also be interpreted as sign of a desire to leave the 1990s behind, is confirmed by the Green-Left coalition’s satisfactory performance in the ethnically diverse, north-western region of Istria. Especially in the Istrian town of Pazin, the nominee of Možemo, Suzana Jašić, won the local elections and became the new mayor on 30 May.

At this moment in time, it is not an easy task to make any sound predictions regarding the immediate prospects of Možemo as a new and ambitious actor in Croatia’s political scene.

In so far as the Green-Left coalition is extending its appeal in the ‘traditionally’ more liberal and left-leaning constituencies (namely, the Greater Zagreb area, Zagorje, Primorsko-Goranska, and Istria), the ‘right-wing faction’ of ruling HDZ, as well as the newcomers of Škoro’s Homeland Movement, seem equally successful in maintaining the cohesion of their electoral support in the more socially conservative parts of the country (e.g. the victory of Ivan Radić, nominated by HDZ, in the mayoral elections for Osijek in eastern Slavonia).

In all of this, however, the victory of the Možemo candidate in Zagreb and the party’s increasing popularity as a whole underlines the growing relevance of the economy not solely for anti-austerity initiatives in southern Europe (e.g. Greece, Spain, and Portugal) but also for a new generation of political actors in the ‘new’ Europe. It may also serve as one more sign that a considerable percentage of the population in Croatia and across the former Yugoslavia is eager to leave behind them the painful legacies of the 1990s.

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