Croatia: return to polls unlikely to break political deadlock
Croatia is going through a period of political turbulence due to the next round of parliamentary elections which are scheduled on Monday, September 11th. Croatians went to the polls less than a year ago, but the Oreškovic administration has not lasted long, and this is becoming ever more frequent in Europe.
During last elections, held on 8 November, 2015, two major coalitions run for the seats in Hrvatski Sabor. The first one, the Patriotic Coalition was made up of the HDZ, the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), the Croatian Party of Rights (HSP), the Party of Rights-Dr Ante Starcevic (HSP AS), the Pensioners’ Bloc (BUZ), the Social Liberal Party (HSLS), the Growth Party (HRAST), the Christian Democratic Union (HDS) and the Democratic Party of Zagorje. On the other side, the “Croatia is Growing” coalition, a successor of the Alliance for Change (KUKURIKU) which won the 2011 elections. It was made up of the SDP, the Croatian People’s Party (HNS), the Croatian Party of Pensioners (HSU) and the Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS) but the IDS left the coalition prior to the 2015 elections. In 2015, in addition to the SDP, the HNS and the HSU, the Croatian Labourists – Labour Party (RADA), Authentic Croatian Peasant Party (A-HSS) and Zagorje Party (ZS) joined the SDP-led coalition. The 2015 elections were the first to be held since the country joined the European Union in July 2013, under the country’s first woman President, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic. At the time of the elections, the overall feeling was that Croatian politics was dominated by a rooted bipolar system. Nonetheless, while the polls had pointed out a clear advantage for HDZ, the results showed that the gap between the two coalitions was so tight that none of them won an outright majority. Besides, the political actor which seems to have benefitted from 2015 elections has been Most. Most nezavisnih lista (Most), i.e. Bridge of Independent Lists, is a new actor in the Croatian political arena. Last year, it won 19 seats in the Sabor. Led by Bozo Petrov, Most is more a group made up of a wide array of local politicians seeking to gather protest votes than a consistent political party. The outcome of the elections was quite unexpected, as Most turned out to be a relevant minority and a key element for the formation of the parliamentary majority. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s PARLINE database, the Patriotic Coalition, led by former intelligence chief Tomislav Karamarko’s HDZ, came first, winning 59 seats in the 151-member parliament. The “Croatia is Growing” coalition, led by Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic’s SDP, narrowly followed. As a result, either the coalitions around SDP and HDZ were going to form a government together as it happened in Italy or in Germany, or one of them was going to appeal to Most to get a majority. After long talks, on 22 January 2016, the HDZ and the MOST formed under the leadership of Tihomir Oreškovic, an independent who served as CEO and corporate manager in a big pharmaceutical company. Oreškovic has been presented as the right man to restoring the Croatian economy: the successful businessman, who spent a lot of his life abroad, becoming the first non-partisan Croatian Prime Minister and the first one holding dual Croatian-Canadian citizenship. And that would have been astonishing if Petrov and Karamarko had not hold the deputy PM positions in the government. Indeed, they had the actual political power.
The relationship was more a coexistence than a coalition. After a few months, a scandal broke out involving a company belonging to Ana Saric Karamarko, wife of deputy PM and head of the HDZ, Tomislav Karamarko, which has been charged with having received over 60,000 euros to counsel a lobbyist for the Hungarian energy firm MOL (Milekic, 2016). A motion of no confidence against the Prime Minister was held on June 16, 2016, leading to the fall of a cabinet that seemed to be doomed since the beginning. Meanwhile, Karamarko resigned as the president of HDZ. The new elected president of HDZ, Andrej Plenković, distanced himself from Karamarko’s strategy of utilizing extreme right-wing, trying to turn HDZ in a centrist party.
The 2015 elections were held in a period when the migrant crisis in Europe had reached the peak, with thousands of people crossing Croatia’s eastern border since mid-September. During the election campaign, the major parties focused on employment, economy and the need to address the migrant crisis. In 2016, Corruption is a prominent theme, with candidates taking on each other’s moral credentials. But, it is the economy that is dominating the agenda. The country’s economy turned out to be more susceptible to shocks than that of the EU-28 average, and the economic crisis affected Croatia strongly. In 2009, the GDP shrank by 6.9 per cent, and the prolonged crisis has led to Croatia losing over 12 per cent of its output (Haase, 2015). In 2015 (Eurostat data), the GDP of Croatia was EUR 43,897.0 million (at market prices), and its GDP per capita (in PPS) reached 58 per cent of the EU-28 average (in 2008 it was 63 per cent of the EU-27 average). The economy of Croatia is service-based with this sector accounting for 70 per cent of total GDP (the industrial sector accounts for 25 per cent of GDP, whereas agriculture, forestry, and fishing for 5 per cent). Both in the case of imports and exports, the EU market represents more than 60 per cent of Croatia’s total foreign trade activities. The main partners (accounting for 58 per cent of trade) are: Italy, Germany, Slovenia, Austria, Bosnia and Hercegovina and Hungary (Haase, 2015). According to the CIA’s World Factbook, Croatia’s public debt exceeds 89% of its GDP and its deficit. Tourism is a dependable but volatile sector, not least due to the refugee crisis. In the last two months, Croatian police has observed an increase in the number of attempted illegal crossings. Another matter of concern regards the worsening relations with neighbouring countries, fuelled by the political leaders’ rhetoric. Early August, Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic wrote to Jean-Claude Juncker to complain of “anti-Serb politics” in Croatia. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, expressed concern over the latest developments in relations between Serbia and Croatia, urging a return to a constructive bilateral engagement.
In the last week of August, a heated debate exploded after audio was leaked of Croatian SDP leader Zoran Milanovic saying that Bosnia and Herzegovina was a chaotic state. “Bosnia is not a [real] country… you don’t have anybody to talk with there,” Milanovic said on the tape (Toe, 2016).
Against this backdrop, the Bridge of Independent Lists keeps on being seen as the alternative to the traditional parties, but without any reformist achievements to speak of, MOST has lost half of its following on the polls (Pavelic, 2016).
Thus, it’s plausible that we could witness a very similar situation as in the elections held in November 2015. As a result, on Monday coalition bargaining and political instability could continue in Croatia.
Croatia goes to the polls again (2016, September 8), New Europe, retrieved from bit.ly/2cF1P48.
Haase, D. (2015) Economic, Social and Territorial Situation in Croatia, In-Depth Analysis, European Parliament, Directorate General for Internal Policies, Policy Department B: Structural and Cohesion Policy, Brussels. Retrieved from bit.ly/2cF4icf.
Milekic, S. (2016, May 11) Croatia’s Vice PM Quizzed Over Wife’s ‘Links to MOL’, Balkan Insight, retrieved from bit.ly/2cfPJxk.
Pavelic, V. (2016, September 1) Polling Update: Polls for Sixth and Seventh Constituency Released, Total Croatia News, retrieved from bit.ly/2cvbdp9.
Toe, R. (2016, August 25) Croatia Ex-PM’s ‘Chaotic Bosnia’ Comments Spark Debate, Balkan Insight, retrieved from bit.ly/2bX5WZs.