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The Rise and Fall of ORaH

By Marko Popovic

ORaH (Održivi Razvoj Hrvatske – Sustainable Development of Croatia) is the first Green party in Croatia. In 2014, after less than a year, it managed to achieve a 17% approval rating, only to then see a steep drop in ratings, falling as low as 0.6% after the 2016 parliamentary elections, and almost completely disappearing from the political scene. The party which a large portion of the electorate initially saw as a promising option became just another party among numerous others on the Croatian political map, with little hope of returning to former popularity.

The political context and the rise of ORaH

In late November 2013, in Zagreb’s Novinarski dom (Journalists’ House), a new Croatian party was formed under the name of Odživi Razvoj Hrvatske – OraH. There were around 200 members at the founding assembly. The main conceptual originators of the new party were Mirela Holy¸ former Minister for the Protection of the Environment and Nature for the then-governing Socialist-Democrat Party of Croatia (SDP); Vlasta Toth, president of the Zelena lista (Green List), up till then the most successful Green party in Croatia; Vladimir Lay, academic and long-time green activist; and Davor Škrlec, former deputy to the Minister of Environmental Protection and professor at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing. Other founding members and future members were mostly recruited from the academic community, the civic sector, as well as from among the former members of parties of the left such as the SDP, the Croatian People’s Party (HNS) and Labour. The most important determining feature of ORaH was that 80% of the membership had no prior political experience, which was initially perceived as a positive characteristic – both in the public and within the party itself.

ORaH faced its first political test at the European Parliamentary elections of 25 May 2014. Its candidates were mostly unfamiliar names on the political scene, so Mirela Holy’s candidacy as first on the ticket was expected. However, it was public knowledge that if won, the mandate would go to the next-highest-ranking candidate. The decision to have Mirela Holy topping the list turned out to be the right one: 60% of all the votes won were preferential votes for her. As second-ranking candidate, however, it was Davor Škrlec who became the sole Croatian Green MEP. It is important to point out that turnout at these elections was 25%, the third lowest in the EU, while ORaH won 9.42%, or 80,000 votes. After this electoral success in late May 2014, the popularity of the party continued to grow until October 2014, when it reached its historical apex, with a rating of 16.8% in opinion polls.

There are two key factors accounting for this surge in popularity on the Croatian political scene. Firstly, general dissatisfaction with the government of the PM Zoran Milanović was brewing and trust in established political parties was declining. The main opposition party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), is perceived by the majority of the public as the main culprit for the economic and social crisis gripping the state, while its president Tomislav Karamarko was the least popular politician. Such political context made fertile ground for the establishment of a party that could pose a challenge to both blocs. The second reason was the personal popularity and charisma of Mirela Holy, who was perceived as an open, principled and honest politician. The party name itself (in Croatian, ‘orah’ also means ‘walnut’) offered a political idea that drew a large number of young and educated citizens. Social surveys conducted following the European parliamentary elections (in June 2014) confirmed the hypothesis that ORaH’s voters were mostly young, highly educated, dissatisfied, left-leaning and, until then, apolitical, and suggested the existence of additional potential to swell the numbers of its voters.

The political decline of ORaH

A number of different factors influenced the continual downward-slide in the party’s popularity between November 2014 and the parliamentary elections on 8 November 2015. One factor was the left-right polarisation of the Croatian public ahead of the presidential elections in late 2014. The polarisation initially manifested itself in the case of the war veterans’ protests, during which the two major parties, the HDZ and SDP, took advantage of a vulnerable group of disabled war veterans for their own ideological propaganda. ORaH refused to take sides, as the protest centred on ideological issues rather than any real war veterans’ problems. The other determining factor of the polarisation that directly harmed ORaH was media speculation regarding possible coalitions in the following parliamentary elections. ORaH was increasingly frequently mentioned in the context of a “likely” coalition with the SDP, even though Mirela Holy constantly and firmly rejected such an option.

The political decision that determined the political fate of ORaH down the line was the decision made by the party presidency to abstain from the presidential elections to support the incumbent candidate, Ivo Josipović, perceived by the public as a representative of the SDP rather than unaffiliated. In the eyes of the public, this decision confirmed the view of ORaH as an SDP satellite that would enter the elections in coalition with the SDP. There were four candidates in the presidential elections, three of whom were recognised politicians, and one a young computer science student, representative of Živi zid (Living Wall), an anti-system, populist party. The Živi zid candidate, Ivan Vilibor Sinčić, won 16% of votes in the first round, thus establishing the new party as a new alternative on the political scene. Following the victory of HDZ candidate Kolinda Grabar Kitarović, ORaH’s popularity continued to fall at an increasing pace. In the meantime, Živi zid established itself as the new alternative, and within a few months overtook ORaH in popularity. The reason for this political miscalculation lay in the popularity, at the time, of Ivo Josipović and the conviction that after his likely victory, ORaH would stake a claim to being the second political option, with a 20% popularity rating.

The structure of OraH

Apart from the wrong political decision not to field a candidate in the presidential elections, there were also internal factors, such as the complicated structure of the party, and a lack of funds and active members. The statute envisaged ORaH as a party that would enjoy great popularity and have some 5,000-10,000 members, as witnessed by the fact that various political and programme bodies were established at the regional and local level. Due partly to the complex internal structure of the party, and partly to a lack of experience in political management, decision-making in the party was difficult, sometimes impossible. These factors were behind the insufficient direct contact with the citizens, which meant that ORaH started to be seen as a ‘virtual party’. Likewise, the party was slower to react in the media, its comments frequently marked by a discourse that is too hermetic and specialised, and the perception of it being elitist took hold. The problem of elitism is innate to nearly all Green parties in Europe, but nevertheless, the political context at the time, in which there was no stable electoral base, was especially fatal for ORaH, with competing parties’ simpler messages and better work in the field allowing them to reach out to the electorate more easily.

ORaH as a single-person party

From its founding to the defeat in the parliamentary elections, OraH was perceived as Mirela Holy’s party. Even though the remainder of the party executive was wholly unknown to the broader public, the fact that in two years of functioning, the party did not succeed in raising the profile of a single member is worrying. ORaH’s main activities involved designing and publishing sectoral public policies, at whose launches its members and the authors of the policies tried to raise their public profiles. Media interest in the set of policies receded after the first few months, and the members failed to impose themselves in the media space as the party’s experts in specific sectors. Greater media attention was garnered by the internal party conflict that saw three officials leave the party. Although their departure did not cause a further party membership exodus, the noise in the media that surrounded it damaged the party, whose popularity continued to wane. In addition, the media were focused on the unremitting conflict between PM Milanović and Mirela Holy, which resembled a political charade with no real discussion backed by arguments, and no real substance.

The electoral campaign finals

In the final two months of the national electoral campaign, ORaH’s popularity fell to 3.8%, which is below the 5% needed to cross the electoral threshold. The campaign was decidedly populist in character, and the two blocs attempted to polarise the voters to the greatest possible extent, adopting radical positions on values and the legacy of the Second World War, thereby reducing any third option’s chances. Due to its continuous fall in popularity, major news media began to publish fewer and fewer reports related to ORaH’s activities. Likewise, other options emerged during the electoral campaign, such as Most (a coalition of independent lists), Živi zid and the Milan Bandić 365, all of which had staked their claim to the status of third option. Unlike ORaH, all these parties managed to cross the electoral threshold, achieving the status of parliamentary parties. Milan Bandić 365 and Živi zid are both populist parties but the key difference is that Milan Bandić has been mayor of Zagreb for 16 years and therefore has much more experience in high-level politics, and gains votes from centre-right voters.

The elections held on 8 November 2015 did throw up a new third option: the Most Party. It captured 19 parliamentary seats and, after three months of negotiations, formed a government together with the right-wing coalition. Although both Most and ORaH advocated similar reforms, the key difference between the two parties lay in better party infrastructure, clear messages to the citizens and better timed growth of popularity.

The prospects for a Green option?

The prospects for a Green option depend on three key questions: which political context will be favourable to the establishment of Green options; who will establish and run the new parties and which parties might represent possible coalition partners?

The current political context in South-East Europe points to a mistrust of established parties and an increasing penetration of the ‘third options’. Such states’ political systems are usually also weaker as these are young democracies, which makes it much easier for new options, including new Green options, to penetrate the political arena. From the perspective of acceptance of green ideas, there has certainly been a positive shift in Croatia. This can be seen in various initiatives such as stopping oil drilling in the Adriatic Sea, a campaign in which ORaH participated alongside civil society. Likewise, both new and established parties made green ideas part of their programmes. In their negotiations with the right-wing coalition, Most asked for the Environment Ministry since they believed it to be one of the most important ministries, whilst during their campaign Živi zid espoused green issues. There is potential in Croatia and the rest of Eastern Europe for the realisation of a Green Party that would participate at both the local and national level, provided that it emerges from a grassroots movement that will build it up gradually, by founding local chapters, in contrast to ORaH’s top-down approach. Such an approach will allow for a more stable membership and electoral base that would in turn nurture a more long-term future.

Croatia has a developed a green civil sector, and if activists from civil society can be mobilised, a new Green Party can be expected. However, success depends on the committed and continuous transfer of knowledge and experience from western Green organisations to actors both old and new throughout Eastern Europe. Only then will the Greens-EFA group stand a chance of winning more seats in the European Parliament and reinforcing its position on the political map of Europe.

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The Rise and Fall of ORaH

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