Election Croatian Parliamentary Elections 2015. In Search of a Bridge Over Trouble Water
While the ongoing ideological struggle between the right-wing parties in government and the center-left opposition is in full swing, Croatia continues to face an adverse economic climate and an unresolved problem with its neighbors regarding the issue of migrant and refugee movements on the way to northern Europe. It is far from certain that MOST will be able to act as the bridge over troubled waters that it framed itself as during the election campaign.
Published on balticworlds.com on februari 23, 2016
On 8 November 2015, Croatia held parliamentary elections for the eighth time since independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). These were in many ways one of the most uncertain elections in recent years since both Social Democratic Party (SDP) center-left coalition Croatia is Growing and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) right-wing Patriotic Coalition were predicted to win a similar number of votes. The main question was which of the two blocs would be able to win the 76 seats in parliament required to form a government. The elections were held at a time when Croatia’s ideological antagonisms of the 1990s were resurfacing, while many other urgent issues called for an immediate response and urgent attention. Both blocs generally endorse the externally driven neoliberal economic and social reforms. The main dividing line between the two pertains to the memory and understanding of recent Croatian history and its links to the modern Croatian state. The left-wing constituency generally accentuates the legacy of anti-fascist struggle by the Croatian partisans as a part of a larger Yugoslav communist struggle led by Josip Broz Tito and tends to frame contemporary post-independence Croatia as the continuation of that state-building project. At the same time, the right-wing constituency tends to emphasize the positive elements of the fascist Ustasha Independent State of Croatia (NDH), which existed under the leadership of Ante Pavelić during Second World War, framing it as a representation of the Croatian longing for its own state. In the process, proponents of this perspective tend to minimize the magnitude of the war crimes committed by the Ustashe regime in the name of that state, while the major focus is placed on memorializing the crimes and persecution against NDH soldiers and the loyal population committed by Tito and his communist government immediately after the end of the war. While the ideological-identity gap remains unbridged and views remain polarized, Croatia has been faced with a number of pressing issues such as the need to respond to migrant and refugee flows through Croatia, and to address an ongoing economic, social and demographic decline. Thus, the main questions of the election period were over which bloc would assume the power and which issues would be prioritized and urgently addressed in the aftermath of the elections.
The previous 2011 general elections had been won by the SDP-led Kukuriku coalition of center-left and social-liberal political parties (the Istrian Democratic Assembly, IDS; the Croatian People’s Party-Liberal Democrats, HNS; the Croatian Party of Pensioners, HUS; and the SDP). This coalition had managed to channel popular disappointment with the center-right HDZ, which, save for the period 2000–2003, had dominated politics in Croatia since the war of independence. A generally deteriorating economic situation, numerous revelations of high-profile corruption scandals linked to the privatization of state companies, and the discovery of party slush funds prompted many Croats to turn their back on the HDZ and vote for the SDP-led coalition in hope of change. The Kukuriku coalition won on a 21-point plan for reforms, which included a reduction in Croatia’s national debt and creating the conditions for sustainable economic growth, reform and a reduction of state administration, combating corruption, a reduction in VAT for the tourist industry, reform of the pensions system, educational reform, promotion of the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population, and promotion of the rights of national minorities. In addition, an important policy of the center-left coalition focused on promoting the legacy of and memorializing the Croatian anti-fascist struggle during the Second World War as the ideological basis of the contemporary Croatian state. However, although it managed successfully to bring Croatia into the European Union in July 2013, the ruling coalition struggled to improve the overall economic situation, reduce external borrowing or stimulate new jobs during its time in office. In addition, the highly sensitive issue of cuts in public spending, particularly reducing state administration, and reform of local government were ducked by the SDP-led coalition. The lack of tangible economic and social improvements meant that the center-left government entered election year trailing the HDZ in the opinion polls. In order to increase its chances of re-election the coalition reinvented itself and changed its name to Croatia is Growing. The main narrative was that economic reforms were finally resulting in economic growth and should be continued under the incumbent government. In addition, the SDP leader, Prime Minister Zoran Milanović, used the migrant and refugee crisis to play the patriotic card as a leader who is protecting the national interest by frequently engaging in verbal scuffles with the Serbian Prime Minister, Aleksander Vučić, over the direction and size of migrant and refugee flows entering Croatia from Serbia.
In order to challenge the governing coalition, and realizing that external demands for economic reform and austerity measures were not open for negotiation, the HDZ focused its efforts on promoting identity politics and conservative values in Croatian society, displaying some structural similarities to Fidesz in Hungary. To this end, in January 2015 the leader of HDZ, Tomislav Karamarko, launched the idea that the HDZ was waging a Second Homeland War for Croatia. This included revival of the nation-building values and legacy of the first HDZ and of the first post-independence President of Croatia, Franjo Tudjaman. The promotion of the memories and values of the Croatian Homeland War was seen as an intrinsic part of this conservative revival, as was keeping alive the memory of the crimes that Tito’s communist regime committed against Croats in 1945. Finally, through a network of non-governmental organizations and with the tacit blessing of the Croatian Catholic Church, the HDZ was able to muster its constituency and challenge the SDP-led government’s policies on the issue of same sex marriage. In addition, HDZ-related networks of war veterans were mobilized to call attention to the use of the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet in public spaces in the highly symbolic border town of Vukovar, which was heavily damaged during the siege by the Yugoslav army and volunteers from Serbia in 1991. Finally, for 15 months before the elections, an association of disabled Croatian war veterans, which became known as Šatorši, occupied the center of Zagreb, living in tents, to protest against the government’s proposed cuts in social benefits for disabled war veterans.
The HDZ did not set out a detailed plan of action on economic reform, but instead announced that a prestigious German institute, the IFO, was developing a new program of economic reforms on its behalf. In order to successfully challenge the ruling center-left coalition, HDZ instigated the formation of a Patriotic Coalition in September 2015. Alongside the HDZ, the coalition consisted of the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), the Croatian Party of Rights, Dr. Ante Starčević (HSP AS), the Pensioners’ Bloc (BUZ), the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS), the Croatian Growth (Hrast) Party, the Croatian Christian Democratic Party (HDS) and the Zagorje Democratic Party (ZDS).
However, social pressure, especially from the highly indebted middle class, identity-ideological politicking, and the seeming inability of the two main political blocs to offer any answers to economic decline created space for emerging alternatives in Croatian politics. The most influential of thee has been MOST–nezavisnih lista (Bridge–independent lists). MOST started as a loose association of people who did not have any background in politics but wanted to make a difference and bridge existing divisions in Croatian politics and society. Members of MOST came from both the center-right and the center-left of the political spectrum, but shared an idea of how to resolve Croatian economic and social challenges. MOST was initiated in the southern Croatian town of Metković by its major, Božo Petrov. By the time of the 2015 general elections, however, MOST had grown into a considerable political force at the national level. Its program focused on addressing the economic situation, while claiming to be above ideological divisions. To this end, MOST promised, among other things, to invest in communications in order to improve tourist access to the Croatian coast, stimulate food independence and invest in energy independence based on renewable energy. Other important measures included promoting fiscal responsibility in the state and private sector, a depoliticized judiciary, reform of electoral law to support preferential voting, improving connections between the private sector and education, tax reductions in the productive sectors, a reduction in state bureaucracy and the number of members of the state parliament, and reform of local government.
The vote was held on November 8, 2015. Voter turnout was as 61%, six per cent higher than in 2011. According to the Central Electoral Commission there were no major breaches of the rules or incidents of fraud on election day, although in January 2016 the Commission investigated a statement by Karamarko in which he hinted that six seats may have been stolen from his party. As predicted, the elections were inconclusive and produced a hung parliament. The SDP coalition Croatia is Growing won 56 seats and three of the eight seats assigned to national minorities, while the HDZ-led Patriotic coalition won 56 seats and three seats allocated to Croatian citizens living abroad. The rest of the minorities representatives and the Istrian Democratic Assembly joined Croatia is Growing, giving the SDP coalition 67 seats—still nine seats short of a parliamentary majority. MOST came third, winning 19 seats. Placed in the position of deal maker, the MOST leadership initially proposed the formation of a government of national unity with the SDP and the HDZ, while insisting on having a decisive role in the selection of the prime minister. Karamarko rejected the idea of a national unity government and MOST then engaged in shuttle negotiations with the two blocs. During this time, it lost four of MPs due to internal disagreements. After 45 days of negotiations, during which the SDP had seemingly agreed to an extensive list of demands by MOST, the MOST leadership announced that it would support the HDZ-led Patriotic Coalition, apparently after pressure from within the Croatian Catholic Church. With a further two seats of the Zagreb mayor’s own party, Bandić 365, and two from national minorities representatives, the ruling coalition gained a slim majority of 78 seats, two more than the minimum number required. After further negotiations between HDZ and MOST it was announced that a Croatian-Canadian business manager with a background in the pharmaceutical industry, Tihomir Orešković, would be the 11th Prime Minister of Croatia. Orešković took office on January 22, 2016.
The main question is whether MOST will be able to satisfy the expectations of its constituency and impose its priorities of economic, social and administrative reform over the HDZ’s desire to continue its project of national and conservative revival. The initial weeks of the new government have been marked by political scandal rather than the elaboration of an economic reform agenda. The minister for Croatian Homeland War Veterans, Mijo Crnoja, resigned after six days after a journalist discovered that he was registered at a false address and living elsewhere for tax purposes; and had previously been imprisoned for violence against a bus driver. Apparently, MOST insisted on resignation while the HDZ leadership was more reluctant, fearing a reaction from the war veterans’ network. This scandal had barely subsided when a journalist discovered that the minister of culture, Zlatko Hasanbegović, a historian by trade, had worked as a correspondent for the ultra-right-wing magazine Independent State of Croatia (NDH) in the mid-1990s. The then editor-in-chief of the magazine, Srećko Pšeničnik, was the son-in-law of Ante Pavelić and the President of the Croatian Liberation Movement (HOP), a pro-Ustasha organization founded after the Second World War by Pavelić. In his early articles and public statements the minister had reportedly adopted a revisionist and apologetic stance towards of the Ustasha regime, and considered the idea that anti-fascism is the pillar of the contemporary Croatian state to be a platitude.
While the ongoing ideological struggle between the right-wing parties in government and the center-left opposition is in full swing, Croatia continues to face an adverse economic climate and an unresolved problem with its neighbors regarding the issue of migrant and refugee movements on the way to northern Europe. It is far from certain that MOST will be able to act as the bridge over troubled waters that it framed itself as during the election campaign. Any new scandals in relation to HDZ appointments or further delays to economic and administrative reforms could force MOST to seek out alternative governing constellations, spelling an end for the current HDZ-led government. Time will tell whether the HDZ leadership can muster enough pragmatism to focus on the required reforms instead of its ideological conservative revival. If not, it is in all likelihood destined for one of shortest spells in government in contemporary Croatian political history.
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 The Istrian Democratic Assembly eventually opted out of the coalition to run in a coalition with two other smaller regional parties.
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 For a good summary of some of the Tudjman’s main ideas see Dulić, T. “Mapping Out the ‘Wasteland’: Testimonies from the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees in the Service of Tudjman’s Revisionism”, Holocaust and Genocide Studies 23/2 (2009): 263–284.
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