Croatia goes to the polls (again)

ANTONIO BAT

A Croatian man casts his ballot for the Croatian parliamentary election at a polling station in downtown Zagreb, Croatia, 08 November 2015. Croatian parliamentary elections are set to be the closest since the country claimed independence a quarter century ago, with the final outcome hinging on too many factors for a clear-cut forecast. Incubent Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic seeks a second consecutive term for his Social Democrats (SDP) and the third overall for the party since Croatia split from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. The SDP trailed the oppositional Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) in months leading up to the election but have since closed the gap to less than 1 percentage point.

Croatia goes to the polls (again)


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Croatians are returning to the polls on Sunday, September 11.

political system

3,8 million Croatians will chose between 177 electoral lists competing in 10 (+2) constituencies for 151 parliamentary seats.

There are two additional constituencies. One is reserved for the nearly 60,000 Croatians that live abroad (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Germany, Serbia, Switzerland and Austria) and one for national minorities. Both of these additional constituencies are always the subject of contention. A sizable chunk of the 60,000 strong registered and voting Diaspora are citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with a peculiar overlapping effect; they also tend to vote right. Traditionally, the center left benefits from minority support.

Unstable government

Croatians went to the polls less than a year ago, in November 2015. Short lived administrations are becoming ever more frequent in Europe. Croatia is coming out of a prolonged recession with double-digit unemployment. Socially, the country was ripe for instability.

It took parties little over a month to elect a government under Prime Minister Tihomir Orešković in January 2016. Orešković was supported by the nationalist HDZ (Coalition Croatian Democratic Union) and the Bridge of Independent Lists (“MOST”). He made his name as a CEO in the pharmaceutical industry, but alas he resigned on allegations of corruptions.

The previous government owed its existence to a newcomer in Croatian politics. MOST entered the stage as a kingmaker, as the HDZ came first in November over the SPD will barely one seat in parliament. Given the narrow margin of victory for HDZ, MOST set the terms. The first term was a Prime Minister of its choice. Some say the marriage of MOST and HDZ took the encouragement of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) that wields significant influence in Croatia.

Right versus left

The HDZ list comprises of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and two minor parties (HSLS and HRAST). Although HDZ is rebranding itself as a Christian Democratic party, it still takes pride in the legacy of Croatia’s first president Franjo Tuđman.

That legacy is somewhat divisive. But, in Croatian politics divisive lies at the core of politics. The Church does not help. Time and again Cardinal Josip Bozanić has often publically hinted on the right vote, from a religious point of view, standing for HDZ’s anti-abortion, anti-contraception, and sufficiently nationalist when it comes to veterans and the Diaspora. Suffice to say, no one wonder what he will vote for.

Theoretically the right HDZ and left-of-center SPD play their parts in a traditional European pendulum between social democracy and a popular party. But, they are divided by history, which provides an ideological foundation that is anything but obsolete in Croatia. Over the last nine months, a number of ministers hailing from HDZ embarrassed Croatia will their insistence in celebrating the Ustaše regime, that is, the fascist puppet states of the Second World War.

The 2016 campaign

During their campaign, HDZ focus on an economic program that is full of objectives but short of ideas. With the slogan “Trustworthiness,” HDZ promises 5% GDP growth, the creation of 180,000 new jobs, and VAT reduction that will go hand-in-hand with wage increases, and debt relief. Meanwhile, a number of its high ranking members are facing corruption charges, including the former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader.

The centre-left “People’s Coalition” list comprises of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Croatian People’s Party (HNS), the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), and the Croatian Party of Pensioners (HSU). The platform is running a campaign that is very much focused on individual and social rights: minorities, gender equality, media freedom, and healthcare. In opposition to HDZ, it brands itself as the anti-fascist choice. But the SPD still have to deal with the legacy of their 2011-2015 administration, tainted both by scandals and poor economic performance.

In the middle stands the Bridge of Independent Lists (“MOST”), without much of a history. Its leader Božo Petrov, continues to diagnose Croatia’s ailments addressing them like a doctor. But, without any reformist achievements to speak of, MOST has lost half of its following on the polls.

Issues

Corruption is a prominent theme, undermining the dominance of Croatia’s traditional political pendulum, as elsewhere in Europe. This campaign too is very personal, with candidates taking on each other’s patriotic and moral credentials. Croatia is ranked 50th among 167 countries on the Transparency International index, higher than Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece, and at par with Hungary and Slovakia.

But, it is the economy that is dominating the agenda. Croatia’s public debt exceeds 80% of its GDP and its deficit. Tourism is a dependable but volatile sector that addresses the deficit, not least due to the refugee crisis. However, last year still saw a 24% surge in tourism that is key to growth, deficit, and employment. Still, many Croats still make their way to the rest of Europe in search of work.

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