Can Europe Make It?

Elections in Croatia: Conservatives retain the parliamentary majority

By contrast to Serbia and the overwhelming predominance of SNS, though, the composition of Croatia’s Sabor is considerably more even and pluralist.

Vassilis Petsinis
7 July 2020
Legendary Croatian band Hladno pivo, whose frontmen supported the Možemo party list.
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Wikicommons/romanski. Some rights reserved.

Less strictly than Serbia, the Croatian government nevertheless proclaimed a countrywide lockdown in mid-March. However, on July 5, 2020, Croatia became the second post-Yugoslav country after Serbia to hold elections for its national parliament (Sabor). Around 46.62% of the registered electorate turned out to cast their vote. Contrary to the predictions of several opinion polls for a tight race, the (centre-right conservative) Croatian Democratic Union/HDZ won a decisive victory and elected 66 MPs to the Sabor (as compared to 61 seats in 2016).

What hot-button issues dominated the pre-electoral campaigns of the political parties? What should one expect ?

Constitutional provisions and electoral legislation

Following a string of constitutional amendments between 2000 and 2001, a unicameral arrangement was established at the Sabor. Although the Presidential Office maintains certain areas of political authority, as well as vetoing competencies, under its auspices (e.g. the proclamation of a state of emergency and the high command of the armed forces), the Constitution vests the bulk of legislative and executive functions in the parliament. Nevertheless, the victory of former PM Zoran Milanović (endorsed by centre-left Social Democrat Party/SDP), in the presidential elections of January 2019, sufficed to inflict an early blow on the erstwhile firm predominance of HDZ over the country’s political landscape.

The electoral procedure was conducted in 12 districts applying the proportional d’Hondt system with a threshold of 5%. As stipulated in the Constitutional Law on the Rights of National Minorities/CLRNM (2002), 8 seats are reserved for the representation of national minorities (District 12) on a proportional basis and in accordance to their size (3 seats for the Serb minority; 1 seat for the ethnic Hungarians, the Italian community and smaller ethnic groups such as the Czechs, the Slovaks and the Albanians).

Moreover, an additional ‘special’ district (District 11) has been set up for the votes of Croatian citizens who are resident abroad. These provisions are of particular significance in light of: (a) the frequent participation of the Serb Independent Democratic Party/SDSS as a partner in several governing coalitions since 2003; (b) the reliance of HDZ on the support of voters who are resident outside Croatia (those originating from the ‘stronghold’ of Western Herzegovina, in particular).

Hot-button issues

The urgent priority to combat the spread of Covid-19 dominated the platforms of Croatia’s political parties – albeit in a different fashion in comparison to neighbouring Serbia. Primary attention was paid to the impending repercussions of the pandemic on the tourist industry, especially in those regions (e.g. Istria and coastal Dalmatia) that produce the bulk of the national GDP stemming from tourism. In this regard, the currently stagnating state of the tourist industry in adjacent Montenegro, a country very little affected by the coronavirus, generated rather pessimistic expectations this summer.

Nevertheless, the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on Croatia’s tourist industry and economy as a whole should always be correlated with certain socioeconomic pathologies that have persisted for more than a decade. All the political parties, each from their own angle, also sought to assess the potential impact of the pandemic on: (a) the increase in youth unemployment and the brain-drain; (b) 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; (c) the deterioration of living standards especially for the social layers that were most heavily affected by the six-year recession (2009-2015) and the ensuing introduction of austerity measures.

Amid persistent allegations over the maltreatment of refugees and other migrants along the Croatian-Bosnian borderline by the police authorities, migration issues formed a secondary area of interest. HDZ’s ‘right-wing faction’, as well as the (national conservative) Homeland Movement Led by Miroslav Škoro/DPMŠ, endeavoured to link freedom of movement to the potential spread of the coronavirus and incorporated references to Covid-19 into their earlier calls for the establishment of ‘harder’ borders.

At the other end of the spectrum, the ‘Restart’ coalition (built around SDP) and the (green/leftist) Možemo/’We Can!’ initiative juxtaposed calls for a more humanitarian management of the migration crisis – irrespective of the pandemic and its evolution.

Lastly, minority issues also formed part of the public debate in these elections, but to a lesser degree than in the past. This debate consisted in the renewed endeavour by nationalist actors (e.g. DPMŠ) to call for the revision of the CLRNM (mainly on the proportional representation of the Serb minority) and the attempts by SDSS to resist it.

Parties and performances

Contrary to various opinion polls and signs of public discontent over the more recent increase of Covid-19 cases in Croatia, HDZ won 66 seats at the Sabor. As in the latest victory of the Serbian Progressive Party/SNS in Serbia, this success speaks of HDZ’s efficiency in mobilizing a wide network of supporters in the public sector and state-run institutions, who are highly dependent on the party, along the lines of political clientelism.

HDZ’s enduring grip on power also hints at the party’s capacity to mobilize its target-groups among the more socially conservative layers, especially in such parts of the country as Dalmatia and Slavonia, as well as the diaspora voters (HDZ won all 3 seats in District 11). To these, add the external endorsement of party-chairman Andrej Plenković by prominent figures within the EPP group at the European Parliament (most importantly, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen). In the long run, the aggregate of these combined factors has enabled HDZ to transform allegations over the defective handling of the coronavirus emergency into a ‘success story’ in the party-friendly media outlets.

Despite this initial encouragement in the opinion polls, as well as Zoran Milanović’s victory in 2019, SDP and its ‘Restart’ coalition occupied the second spot with 41 seats. ‘Restart’ proved rather efficient in mobilizing SDP’s target-groups in its ‘traditional’ strongholds (e.g. Greater Zagreb, Zagorje and Istria). Former SDP-chairman, Davor Bernardić, and his close associates promoted an electoral platform entrenched in the programmatic commitment to: (a) EU values and the project of European integration; (b) anti-corruption, digitalization and transparency in the system of public administration; (c) respect for the collective rights of ethnic and sexual minorities as well as migrants and refugees.

Nevertheless, and amid the new challenges posed to Croatia’s socioeconomic realities by the Covid-19 crisis, the social welfare component in the coalition’s electoral manifesto did not seem to be adequately developed – also taking into consideration the involvement of partners with a more centrist/liberal, instead of a social democrat, profile in ‘Restart’ (e.g. the Croatian Peasants Party/HSS and the Istrian Democratic Assembly/IDS).

This, in turn, granted the newcomers of Možemo an opportunity which materialized into 7 seats at the Sabor. Initially fashioning themselves as a grass-roots, grand coalition of the left (along the lines of early Podemos in Spain), this initiative soon incorporated a green component into their platform with a powerful stress on environmental themes. By contrast to the inadequate elaboration of socioeconomic issues by ’Restart’, the electoral programme of Možemo offered an anti-austerity core which promptly hinted at the intersections between the Covid-19 crisis and pre-existing socioeconomic pathologies, as well as their negative repercussions on the more disadvantaged segments of the society.

Furthermore, Možemo did not face 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. In the long run, this strategy facilitated the party to extend its appeal beyond the left-leaning circles of Zagreb-based academia and intelligentsia. To these one might add the endorsement of Možemo by prominent figures among the European radical left (e.g. Yanis Varoufakis and the MeRA25 initiative).

At the other end of the spectrum, the national conservative DPMŠ was an even more successful newcomer. Under the leadership of, former singer and television host, Miroslav Škoro, this party appointed 16 deputies to the Sabor and occupied the third spot. The electoral platform of DPMŠ largely revolved around themes which HDZ has assigned to its ‘right-wing faction’ such as: (a) the safeguarding of national and Christian values; (b) stricter control of immigration and tougher ‘law and order’ measures; (c) revision of certain prerogatives in the legislation on minority rights. The party benefited from the relative weakening of HDZ’s ‘right-wing faction’ on the municipal and local levels. This was particularly the case with the departure of Vukovar mayor, Ivan Penava from HDZ (May 2020) and his subsequent decision to join forces with Škoro. The state of disarray further along the far-right angle of the political spectrum (e.g. the feebleness and electoral insignificance of actors such as the Croatian Party of Rights/HSP) additionally enhanced the chances of DPMŠ to consolidate themselves as the most potent force to the right of HDZ.

What next?

As in Serbia, the results of Croatia’s parliamentary elections hint at the intersections between the Covid-19 crisis and political, as well as socioeconomic, pathologies that have been persisting for a rather long time.

By contrast to Serbia and the overwhelming predominance of SNS, though, the composition of the Sabor is considerably more even and pluralist. In addition to the aforementioned parties, the Croatian parliament currently also comprises: the (fiscally conservative and soft Eurosceptic) party of MOST/’Bridge’ with 8 deputies; the (centrist and allied to HDZ) Croatian People’s Party/HNS with one seat; the (centrist liberal) party of Pametno/’Clever’ with 3 deputies as well as the (centrist liberal) People’s Party-Reformists/NS with one seat.

The participation of an invigorated DPMŠ to the right of HDZ poses a crucial challenge to the endeavour by Andrej Plenković to shift the official party-narrative more firmly towards the centre. This, in turn, is likely to readjust, to varying degrees, the intra-party equilibrium between the more liberal and the more conservative factions – especially with respect to policymaking areas such as minority rights, migration issues, gender-related themes and the semi-formal partnership between the Catholic Church and the state.

In a comparable vein, the entry of Možemo to the parliament may also function as an urgent reminder to SDP over the timeliness and high relevance of social welfare and the extent to which Croatia’s main centre-left party has overlooked this policymaking area.

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