After the previous government was brought down, the snap election on September 11th was expected to produce a stalemate between the centre-right coalition headed by the Croatian Democratic Union, and the centre-left coalition led by the Social Democratic Party (see previous article). However, the new centre-right alliance leader, MEP Andrej Plenković, managed to turn around the sinking ship of his party, the Croatian Democratic Union, and achieve a relative victory, gaining 61 seats, ahead of the 54 seats garnered by Social Democrats and their allies.
The newcomer party at the previous, 2015, election, Bridge (Most), managed to retain most of its seats. The party is a loose coalition of local independent lists and mayors that advocates decentralisation, judiciary reform and the fight against corruption, as well as a populist opposition to established centre-left and centre-right party elites. Bridge’s number of MPs fell from 19 to 13 yet they retained sufficient seats to continue to act as kingmaker in the post-election negotiations about forming a new parliamentary majority. In line with most expectations, Human Shield (Živi zid), an anti-systemic, Eurosceptic party that wishes to completely change the monetary policy and abolish the current loan system, jumped from one to eight parliamentary seats. The centrist Coalition for Prime Minister, led by a former Social Democrat-turned independent mayor of Zagreb Milan Bandić, won only two seats, despite being touted as a potential kingmaker in the post-electoral period.
The power of preferential voting
This was the second election to the Croatian Parliament that gave voters the ability to cast preferential votes. Voters could indicate a preference for a single candidate, but these preferences could affect the final ranking of candidates (i.e. change the ranking submitted by political parties and printed on ballots) only if the share of preferential votes for a given candidate passed the ten-percent threshold within each party list. While the previous (2015) parliamentary election mostly saw preferential votes go to candidates who were already placed on the top of their respective lists, this year’s election demonstrated the power of preferential voting. Several low-ranking candidates gained seats because they managed to receive high percentages of preferential votes, whilst more than a few party veterans (both in the Croatian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party) did not return to parliament due to low numbers of preferential votes. This election therefore marked a certain changing of the guard in Croatian politics. However, despite many young and new faces among the MPs of the new, ninth Croatian Parliament, the percentage of female parliamentarians fell to a mere 12.6 percent. This makes the Croatian national legislature one of the parliaments with the greatest gender misbalance in Europe.
The Brussels boys
This year’s election was marked by the fact that both main contenders for the Prime Minister’s post – MEP Andrej Plenković, leader of the EPP member Croatian Democratic Union, and Zoran Milanović, leader of the PES member Social Democratic Party (Prime Minister from 2011 to 2015), were former members of the Croatian foreign service. After taking over the party leadership from Tomislav Karamarko (Deputy Prime Minister, January – June 2016), Plenković surrounded himself with other former diplomats and/or MEPs, such as Davor Ivo Stier, Davor Božinović, Gordan Jandroković, and Ivana Maletić. In addition, he started emphasising the moderate centre-right, Christian Democratic and modern conservative character and direction of his party, in line with its European People’s Party membership. This is in stark contrast with the previous leadership, which allied itself with small, far-right parties and promoted a strongly nationalist and ultra-conservative vision of the party, alienating it from centrist voters.
While Plenković pursued a very calm, polite campaign, with a strong pro-EU message and an emphasis on economic reform, Zoran Milanović tried to present himself as a more resolute, experienced leader who had already been Prime Minister. Yet, instead of going for personal reshuffles, Milanović put forward the same candidates that enjoyed low popularity and had problems with numerous political scandals and accusations of corruption while serving in his cabinet. Finally, the leader of the Social Democratic Party adopted a curious tactic of trying to cater to more nationalistically bent voters, instead of speaking to his own electorate. By doing so, he made many left-wing and centre-left voters simply stay at home on Election Day, leading to an all-time low turnout of 53 percent.
Milanović engaged in personal attacks on Plenković’s family and made several rude comments about Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the government in Belgrade, causing much uproar in Croatia’s neighbouring countries. Although Plenković managed to paint a different picture of his party and present it in a fresh, and more moderate fashion, some of the right-wing “hawks”, inherited from Karamarko’s times, found their way back to parliament thanks to popularity among citizens who cast preferential votes for them. The new leader has enabled both moderate and “hawkish” members who left in the previous period to renew their party membership. Plenković has promised to “eradicate extremism” from his party and offer a new, constructive foreign policy course towards both the European Commission, and Croatia’s troublesome South-east Europe neighbourhood. Yet it remains to be seen whether the new leader of the Croatian Democratic Union can truly initiate a trickle-down effect of moderation and Europeanisation from the new leadership to the party at large.
Losers, left and right
Despite the fact that neither the centre-left, nor the centre-right coalition can form a government majority without the Bridge party, which has thus shifted the patterns of party competition in the country, this election has actually reinforced the rather consolidated character of the Croatian party system.
Further left from the Social Democrats, the Labourists – Party of Labour – ran alone and suffered a terrible defeat, staying well below the five-percent threshold in all ten electoral districts. The green party ORaH (Održivi Razvoj Hrvatske – Sustainable Development of Croatia) changed its leadership and refashioned itself as a centrist green party, as opposed to its previous green-left outlook. The founder of the party, Mirela Holy, not only renounced her membership, but left politics altogether, stating that she was deeply disappointed with the people who entered ORaH’s ranks. The new, young leader Luka Keller, allied the Greens at this election with off-shoots of the Bridge and the Human Shield. Despite previous popularity among members of the academic community and in the NGO sector, ORaH lost almost all voter support and did not manage to win its way back into parliament. When ORaH started, it attracted numerous people who wanted an authentic left-of-the-centre party as the core environmentalist base was too narrow to sustain the party. Thus, when internal, often personal, conflicts in ORaH emerged in the public, disappointed voters who previously supported the party returned to the fold of the Social Democrats.
Yet, the September 11 snap election was not just a catastrophe for left-wing parties. The right-wing nationalist Croatian Party of Rights – Dr. Ante Starčević – hoped to attract rightist voters who would be disappointed by the change of course of the Croatian Democratic Union after Plenković took over from Karamarko. However, they sustained a major loss of votes and did not return a single seat in parliament. In addition, the strongly nationalist and regionalist Croatian Democratic Alliance of Slavonia and Baranja also incurred great losses, falling to just one MP, as opposed to the six they had in 2011 and two in 2015.
Soul-searching on the left
Despite the fact that the majority of votes went to the two mainstream, established centre-left and centre-right parties, and that the Social Democratic Party is still the second-strongest force in the country and one of the most successful centre-left parties in post-communist Europe, its leader, Zoran Milanović, is probably the biggest loser of this year’s election. His aggressive tone, haphazard policy shifts and communication style, as well as a general disregard for benevolent criticism coming from left-leaning journalists and public intellectuals, has led him and his party into electoral defeat and failure. Milanović’s decision not to run for re-election at the November intra-party one-member-one-vote elections for party president marks the end of an era in the history of the Croatian left and centre-left.
While many public intellectuals want to see the new Social Democratic leadership shift to the left, prominent party members might want to continue Milanović’s legacy of ideological ambiguity and tough rhetoric. For years, the Social Democrats have been more of a centrist, liberal left party, than a social democratic one. They mostly attracted urban, middle and upper-middle class voters, while neglecting the old (industrial) and new (service-based precariat) working classes.
The list of candidates competing for the post of president of the Social Democratic Party is long. Ranko Ostojić, former Minister of Interior, Orsat Miljenić, former Minister of Justice, and the 35-year-old Domagoj Hajduković (party branch leader in the Osijek-Baranja County, in the eastern part of the country) all carry the label of candidates supported by the pro-Milanović party wing. Yet Milanović himself, although officially neutral on the issue, most probably wishes to see Miljenić, his close co-worker, as his successor. There are two strong anti-Milanović candidates – MEP Tonino Picula, and the young leader (born 1980) of the Zagreb party branch Davor Bernardić. Both Picula and Bernardić want to promote a modern social democratic outlook of the party, with an emphasis on outreach towards intellectuals (Picula) and work on the ground (Bernardić). Finally, there are three female contenders, Vesna Škulić, president of the party’s women’s branch, party veteran Gordana Sobol, and young and highly critical Karolina Leaković. Škulić, herself in wheelchair, has a reputation of helping disabled and marginalised groups and wants to promote such a face of the party. However, she is not well known and does not have influence in the party leadership. Gordana Sobol was a prominent MP for two decades, yet has now failed to secure re-election because of an extremely low number of preferential votes. Finally, Leaković wants to see her party follow in the footsteps of Corbyn’s Labour Party in the UK. Although it is too early to pass final verdicts, one can say that Miljenić and Bernardić have good chances of securing the second round of intra-party elections.
This election was a heavy defeat for the Social Democrats and thus for the centre-left and left in Croatia, yet it did not destroy its future prospects. Social democracy in Croatia is in crisis, but the party remains a strong political force and has a relatively numerous and stable membership, as well as core voters who will continue to support it in any circumstances.
New government, newly-won stability?
The new leader of the Croatian Democratic Union and the new Croatian Prime Minister, Andrej Plenković, has many tasks to tackle in a short time span. He has already demonstrated his ability to campaign in a calm and constructive manner and to reinvigorate his party after the scandals and ideological cul-de-sacs left by his predecessor Karamarko. However, Plenković still has to find a way of simultaneously modernising and Europeanising the party, while at the same time retaining members and voters on the right wing of the party.
In addition to intra-party struggles and challenges, Plenković needs to deal with the Bridge, a particularly stubborn negotiations partner. Bridge leader Božo Petrov presented seven “guarantees”, i.e. bills that should be adopted by the new parliament before the formation of a government majority by the Croatian Democratic Union and the Bridge. Plenković has accepted almost all of these proposals, yet managed to postpone some of these bills, as they require longer parliamentary debate as well as a blessing from Brussels. In addition to the Bridge, Plenković has also opened post-electoral talks with the eight MPs representing ethnic minorities. This is not only a tactic of creating a stable majority, but a sign of winds of change in his party’s attitude towards minorities, especially the Serb community.
The previous government, headed by a non-partisan pharmaceuticals manager, was built upon a cooperation of the Croatian Democratic Union and the Bridge. However it suffered from numerous scandals, inexperienced cabinet ministers, and a deep mistrust and misunderstanding between the two parties and their leaders. Now, with a new man heading the Croatian Democratic Union and the Bridge with more experience and without some of its more economically eccentric members, who have since left the party, we can expect a much more stable government. This could mean more stability for Croatia and its struggling economy. Ultimately, this could also have a positive impact on the country’s troublesome neighbourhood.
Besides dealing with administrative reform and the creation of a better business environment, this centre-right government, thanks to the Bridge as junior partner, might show progress on some green issues, such as sustainable water management, waste management in large cities, and a real turn towards renewable energy sources. Although it might take some time for the Social Democrats to recover from electoral defeat and internal conflicts and they might not be a very strong opposition, the Croatian public has become more environmentally conscious and more sensitive to issues of land usage, waste disposal, and energy consumption and production. Therefore, public attention to such issues might push the new government to devote more effort to tackling these burning problems.
 Ante Starčević was the leader of the original Croatian Party of Rights in mid-19th century.