Unlike many other post-communist countries which experienced fragmentation and instability, Croatia’s party system has retained its basic stability for a long time. Yet a significant section of the electorate has sought an alternative – and as a result a succession of new political actors have emerged, with varying degrees of success. But how are they likely to fare at the country’s September parliamentary elections?

Three years have passed since Croatia joined the European Union as one of its poorest members. After years of optimism and enthusiasm regarding full membership, once the country attained it, most of its citizens responded with apathy and indifference. In 2015, when most EU member states lifted restrictions on access to their respective job markets, young Croatians began massively emigrating to Austria, Germany, and Ireland, following in the footsteps of Poles, Lithuanians, and Romanians.

When the global economic crisis erupted in 2008, it hit Croatia especially hard, in terms of both economic output and employment, as well as regarding non-performing loans. Croatian politicians claimed that the domestic crisis was just an offshoot of a wider, European, and global downturn. However, while most old and new EU member states have managed to achieve new paths towards growth, Croatia’s recovery was especially slow. Only in recent months did the national economy start showing substantial growth. Again, it is unclear whether this is a result of sound government policy (either of the centre-left Milanović cabinet from 2011 to 2015 or the short-lived centre-right Orešković cabinet in 2016), or just a sign of influence of the European Common Market on Croatia and its enterprises.

For many years, EU membership served as a point of consensus of all relevant political parties, as well as other key societal players, including trade unions, the chamber of commerce, farmers, war veterans, NGOs, media, and the Catholic Church. Yet, once the country achieved membership, ghosts of the past began to haunt the country again, as crucial historic events and periods once again became items of contestation. In addition, new topics pertaining to bioethical and social issues emerged, leading to a series of culture wars.

Left and Right: it’s all about the culture

In Croatia, the distinction between Left and Right is not about big government vs. small government, distribution vs. market or pro-EU politics vs. sovereignist politics. It is foremost about culture and identity. In other words, voters and parties do not differ strongly and coherently in their views about the economy and the role of the state, yet they are divided by deep, historic, cultural cleavages that shape distinct identities and give rise to different parallel cultures of remembrance. Political elites actively emphasise these differences and use them to mobilise voters, maintain cohesion among party members and supporters, as well as to denigrate political opponents. However, these differences are not mere partisan constructs, but are well reflected in the society.

The left-of-centre pole of this cultural divide encompasses citizens that are generally more secularised (in terms of actual religious practice, such as weekly mass attendance, not necessarily in terms of formal church membership) than their right-of-centre counterparts. In addition, such citizens (and voters), on average, more often live in urban rather than in rural areas. The key element of this subculture is an active positive remembrance of the Partisan anti-fascist movement during World War II. In addition, this culture of remembrance emphasises the positive sides of Yugoslav socialist legacy and tends to downplay or rationalise human rights violations and crimes associated with that regime. Finally, citizens belonging to this cultural camp are mostly critical of the rule of President Franjo Tuđman during the 1990s and of some of the aspects of the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995), especially Croatia’s involvement in the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Besides these clear markers of a specific view of history and its impact on present-day Croatia and its institutions and political culture, the left-of-centre pole of the cultural divide is more accepting of religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities. In addition, it supports abortion without restrictions and in vitro fertilisation.

The right-of-centre pole encompasses citizens that are generally more religious and more attached to the Catholic Church. Often, these citizens might conflate ethnic Croat and religious Catholic identities, emphasising the historic role of the Church in Croatia and the development of its modern national identity. This cultural sub-segment of the society includes citizens that, on average, more often live in rural areas. Although people in this subculture might pay some homage Croatian Partisans, they will always exhibit strong anti-communism and reject any positive notion about the Yugoslav state or the communist regime. This culture of remembrance will highlight end-of-war and post-war crimes committed by Partisans and often explicitly or implicitly show understanding and nostalgia for the fallen soldiers of the Quisling Ustasha regime.[1] Some of them portray both the Ustasha regime, as well as post-Ustasha émigré armed national independence fighters as essential positive, because they always emphasise the divide between supporters and non-supporters of Croatia’s independence, notwithstanding their ideology and methods. Therefore, this culture of remembrance stands in direct opposition to the previously mentioned left-of-centre one. Besides that, this subculture places a lot of importance on the links between Croatia and its big émigré communities all over the world, as well as with the ethnic Croat community in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most citizens belonging to this camp have a high regard for President Tuđman and his legacy and see the 1990s as a heroic age of national pride and unity. In accordance with its nationalist overtones, this pole will be less accepting of minorities, while in accordance with its close links to the Church, it will oppose or at least show great scepticism towards abortion and in vitro fertilisation.

The end of the consensus era and the advent of cultural wars

Besides the historical cultural divide, rooted in opposing family and community narratives about World War II, Tito’s Yugoslavia and Tuđman’s Croatia, post-accession Croatia experiences somewhat of a cultural war, akin to the 1980s cultural wars in the United States. While the processes of negotiations and EU accession lead to policy convergence in many areas, especially economic ones, other topics and issues began to emerge. The adoption of new contested policy areas, such as education, LGBT rights and assisted pregnancy, also shows influence from Western European and the United States, where similar battles have either been fought, or are currently being fought. This cultural war began when the Social Democrats-led Milanović government tried to introduce health (and sex) education in schools, reversed the previously restrictive legislation on in vitro fertilisation, and initiated legal changes that enabled registered same-sex partnerships. This produced a huge backlash from the other cultural camp. However, interestingly, at the forefront of the opposition to these changes were not members of the Croatian Democratic Union, Croatia’s main centre-right party, but a network of Christian lay activists and conservative NGOs, often modelled after similar organisations in Anglo-Saxon countries. The government did manage to introduce registered same-sex partnerships, while its opponents campaigned for a constitutional definition of marriage as a union of a male and a female and achieved such a constitutional amendment through a referendum. This victory for the conservative camp gave wings to various other groups and initiatives right-of-the centre and popularised the referendum as an alternative to party politics and contesting of elections.

The school system remains a battleground in this cultural war. The health education program has only seen partial implementation, while the current apple of discord is the comprehensive curricular reform. The new curriculum, shaped after the Finnish model, encompasses a wide-range of changes to both school content and teaching methods. Supporters of these reforms expect them to raise the quality of education, better equip young people for today’s complex and competitive job market, and finally, help raise active and tolerant citizens. Namely, besides health education, these reforms want to introduce civic education as well. While most supporters state that civic education is crucial for development of democracy, critics and sceptics claim that it reeks of indoctrination akin to that of the previous, communist era.

Both the remembrance war and the cultural war are a wide societal phenomenon and cannot be reduced to just party politics, and especially not just the two main parties. Ever since the death of Tuđman in 1999, Croatia has seen a succession of coalition governments led by either the Croatian Democratic Union or the Social Democrats. The Croatian Democratic Union, a European People’s Party (EPP) member was President Tuđman’s party in the 1990s and the main driving force in the Croatian national movement for independence from Yugoslavia. Nowadays, it is a national conservative and Christian democratic pro-European party. The Social Democratic Party, a member of the Party of European Socialists (PES) is a communist successor party that evolved into the main centre-left competitor of the Croatian Democratic Union. It is both a social democratic and social liberal party, pro-European party. As opposed to most other post-communist countries that have seen a great deal of fragmentation and instability of their party systems, the Croatian one has retained its basic stability for a long time. However, a rather large section of the electorate has steadily sought a third option, an alternative, be it a centrist, a leftist, a rightist, or an outright populist one. First, it started with the Labour Party (part of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left), a left-wing alternative to the Social Democrats that have over the years moved to the centre. Then OraH, whose name is an acronym for Sustainable Development of Croatia, literally meaning ‘walnut’, (member of the European Green Party) emerged, a left green party that catered to disaffected centre left urban voters, especially among academics and civic activists, who wished to see a party focused on environment, sustainable development, and minority rights. Yet, both of these parties saw their popularity skyrocket and then rapidly fall. However, other, peculiar parties emerged. One is Human Shield (Živi zid), an anti-systemic, Eurosceptic party that wished to completely change the monetary policy and abolish the current loan system. It evolved out of a group of young activists fighting to prevent home evictions of people with non-performing mortgage loans, mostly in Swiss francs. This party attracts both young and old transition and global recession victims. Although it currently only has one MP, it is expected to rise and become a force to be reckoned with. The other party is the Bridge (Most), a loose coalition of local independent lists and candidates that presents itself as an honest, down-to-earth, centrist alternative to current centre-right and centre-left party elites. It emphasises the fight against corruption, decentralisation, and the reform of the overgrown and inefficient public administration. While in government, they tried to force the Croatian Democratic Union to enact some of these changes, yet failed to reach a consensus in parliament, as well as in cabinet. Both disaffected centre-right and centre-left voters favour it, although most of its members hail from Christian conservative local alternative groups, opposed to the Croatian Democratic Union. The short-lived Orešković cabinet (January-June 2016) was a result of attempts of this party to force old elites into radical change and the inability of the Croatian Democratic Union to come to terms with such a demanding junior coalition partner. The Prime Minister himself, the non-partisan Croatian Canadian pharmaceuticals manager Tihomir Orešković, was an attempt of a compromise between the Bridge and the Croatian Democratic Union. The internal divisions of this shortened its life and led to the first early elections in Croatia since 1995, when Tuđman called for early elections in order to solidify his power after winning the War of Independence.

The September elections: Towards another stalemate?

The Social Democrats, under former Prime Minister Zoran Milanović, and their centre-left partners, are expected to raise their share of seats and have good chances of forming the next government after this year’s September 11 election. Yet, the Croatian Democratic Union has recovered from its internal division and the lacking popularity of its leader Tomislav Karamarko. The new party president, long-time diplomat and MEP, Andrej Plenković, could destroy Milanović’s plans of returning to power. Finally, the Bridge has expanded its range of potential voters. Thus, it could once again play a pivotal role in government formation. It remains to be seen whether this time they will enter a peculiar form of coalition with the centre-left and try to force its leader into concessions and changes. Croatian politics is set for another tight electoral race, with almost equal odds for both the Social Democratic leader Milanović, as well as the Christian Democratic leader Plenković of entering the Prime Minister’s office.


[1] This was a Nazi- and Fascist-supported World War II puppet regime that was responsible for genocidal crimes against the Croatian Jewish, Serb, and Roma populations. At war’s end, the new communist executed without trial numerous soldiers and accompanying civilians supporting this regime.

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