Croatian politics: a game played by many, won by the HDZ

photo of the outside of the Croatian parliament

The 2021 landslide victory in the Zagreb mayoral elections for Tomislav Tomašević was akin to a coronation for the ‘new’ progressive forces in Croatia. The green-left platform ‘Možemo!’ (We Can!) showed that they can reach out to a wide audience. At the same time, a world-renowned physicist, Ivica Puljak, won the mayoral race in Split, Croatia’s second-largest city. Puljak’s centrist party managed, with the help of a wide array of coalition partners ranging from the greens to the catholic centre-right, to overthrow a right-wing-populist coalition  made of Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica – Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and Hrvatska građanska stranka – Croatian Civic Party(HGS) founded by controversial entrepreneur Željko Kerum.

Although Croatia has seen a dramatic change on the liberal-left political spectrum in the last few years, HDZ is still by far the biggest party in Croatia, and no matter the scandals that are piling up, year-by-year, it still does not have a challenger in sight on a national level. The 2021 local elections have indeed announced a change in Croatian politics, but this change might also prove to be limited to the local ballot, whereas the parliamentary elections exhibit a different ball game. The new parties lack infrastructure and strong candidates in many of the constituencies, while on the other side the ‘old’ parties still have a loyal army of voters and a wide clientelist network. The new progressive forces have the potential to change the face of Croatian politics but there are also significant hurdles ahead.

Where does the wind of change blow from?

The root of the major changes at the centre and left of the political spectrum in Croatia, over the past decade, can be traced back to the 2016 parliamentary elections and the clash between the then new centre-right heavyweight and HDZ party resident, Andrej Plenković, and then president of the centre-left Socijaldemokratska Partija Hrvatske – Social Democratic Party  (SDP), Zoran Milanović. Plenković, a fresh-faced, well-mannered, well-spoken and polished eurocrat, defeated Milanović at the polls and dominated in TV debates. Milanović – his ego hurting – abruptly left politics and the party. His strict rule over the party left a power vacuum that multiple factions and groups tried to fill. Today, the infighting is ongoing, two party presidents later.

The SDP remains the biggest political party in the centre-left political spectrum, although the opinion polls from December 2021 put them on 2% above ‘Možemo!’ (at 18% and 16% respectively). The SDP has repeatedly missed opportunities that the HDZ had offered them on a plate, with various corruption scandals since 2016, including a final court judgement from October this year where the HDZ as a legal entity has been found guilty of embezzling public funds. The electorate has punished the SDP in successive polls given their inability to act and react, and to offer innovative and sustainable solutions to the country’s problems. The younger, often more progressive and left-leaning electorate found a new home with ‘Možemo!’, while centrist and even centre-right voters, many of whom had gone with the Social Democrats because they could not stomach voting for the corruption-ridden HDZ, found other political parties to vote for including the centrist ‘Centar’ or the catholic centre-right party ‘Most’ (The Bridge).

A star is born (on the left)

The biggest (rising) star of progressive politics in Croatia is, without doubt, the aforementioned green-left platform ‘Možemo!’ formed in 2019 by Nova ljevica (New Left), ORaH (Održivi razvoj Hrvatske – Sustainable Development of Croatia), Zagreb je naš! (Zagreb is ours!), Za Grad (For the City) and the now departed hard-left Radnička Fronta (Workers’ Front), which was ousted from the platform as one of the conditions for the formation of a coalition with the centre-left SDP at the 2021 local elections in Zagreb (discussed below). The ‘Možemo!’ platform had its first major political success even before its official formation, when at the 2017 local elections in Zagreb, when the new-born coalition won 4 seats on the city Council.

Promotional Mozemo image

The people who formed this new progressive alliance were relatively new to party politics but by no means political rookies. The group’s leaders were all seasoned political and civil activists with experience of many battles against corruption, the erosion of civil liberties, environmentalist struggles and the fight against Zagreb’s urban decay. In 2010, Tomašević was arrested at a protests against a sprawling construction project that ended up benefiting then-mayor Milan Bandić and his business associates, while, demolishing historical buildings in the process.

In a political environment tainted by almost two decades of entrenched clientelism and corruption under Milan Bandić’s time in office, the four new city councillors gained recognition as a voice for change. The group proved itself as a well-organised and vocal opposition, something that Zagreb had not seen in two decades. The way the small green-left coalition opposed Bandić in the City Council, with sharp interventions backed-up by data, caught the attention of the national media. Later, this would prove to be the party’s biggest asset.

Tomašević and ‘Možemo!’ have enjoyed the support of Croatia’s liberal media in occasion of two significant electoral battles: the 2020 parliamentary elections, at which they won seven seats (markedly exceeding expectations), and the 2021 local elections, when Možemo! positioned themselves as the biggest party in the Zagreb city Assembly. The support came mainly from the likes of the news websites Index and Telegram, but also from some of the big mainstream media outlets. Index played also a central role in the victory of Ivica Puljak in Split. Puljak’s former party Pametno (‘Smart’) received open support from the media mogul and influential political opinion-maker, Matija Babić. Babić also supported other ‘Centar’ candidates at parliamentary elections, including Dalija Orešković, the former president of the Conflict of Interest Commission (Povjerenstvo za odlučivanje o sukobu interesa). The Commission is an independent body selected by the parliament, whose function is to examine reports of misconduct of public officials and to decide whether a certain activity is in compliance with the principles of public office.

Scope for more progress?

In Split, the capital of the region of Dalmatia, no mayor has ever been re-elected since the introduction in 2005 of the direct elections for the mayor (Neposredan izbor) where voters choose the new mayor from a separate list using an election method similar to the one used for the president of state. Moreover, no incumbent mayor has ever reached the second, run-off round. Forthcoming elections in this region will present a major test for progressive politics given the region’s politically unstable and conservative-leaning electorate. The coalition between ‘Možemo!’ and ‘Centar’ in Split has the potential to grow into something bigger. In a recent interview, Ivica Puljak admitted to holding talks with Tomašević for a shared platform at the next parliamentary elections.

Meanwhile, the SDP has managed to hold onto only one of the big cities in Croatia: Rijeka. The country’s third largest and most important port, Rijeka and its wider region have been an SDP stronghold since Croatian independence in 1991. However, the SDP has been losing support there for a decade now, almost halving the votes from 44,67% in 2013 to 28,05% in 2021. While the SDP still holds power in the city of Rijeka, the party relies on a fragile coalition, while in the Regional Assembly they do not hold a majority anymore, although they do hold the position of directly elected regional President.

No space left on the far sides of the spectrum

On the far-left end of the spectrum, Croatia has for the first time ever a hard-left parliamentary party, the former ‘Možemo!’ platform member Radnička Fronta (Workers’ Front). Elected in the Rijeka constituency, in a major blow for the SDP in the party’s biggest stronghold, the Radnička Fronta president and university professor, Katarina Peović, has been vocal and effective in the defence of workers’ rights and she has proposed and (mostly unsuccessfully) lobbied for some high-profile legislation and amendments which has garnered a lot of media exposure. But, as it stands, Radnička Fronta will not manage to get re-elected without support from ‘Možemo!’. Notably, since being ousted from ‘Možemo!’ in preparation for a coalition with the SDP at the local 2021 elections in Zagreb, Radnička Fronta has not managed to sell its radical message to a wider audience.

Meanwhile, the right and far-right hold a very difficult position in Croatia. It is complicated to operate in an environment where the HDZ holds a near monopoly on ‘patriotism’. Every election cycle the hard-right makes big promises, performs relatively well in opinion polls and then typically fall flat on election day. Such failure usually pushes the hard-right flavour of the month into a situation of merciless infighting for the post-election leftovers and then when they wear themselves down, HDZ comes and seduces any MPs from that party that reach parliament as well as their electorate. The only half exception is ‘Most’, the only coalition partner HDZ did not manage to destroy, probably only because they ousted them from the government so quickly in April 2017.

What next?

Since Croatian independence, the left has managed to form a government only twice. Both times, this was only made possible by troubles engulfing the HDZ. The first time this occurred was in 2000, when the death of the country’s first president, Franjo Tuđman, marked the end of a despotic political system, and voters felt the need to open up to democratic changes. This government coalition folded after three years due to internal disputes. The second time the left rose to power was in 2011, after the incumbent HDZ PM, Ivo Sanader, was charged with corruption.

If the HDZ manages not to shoot itself in the foot again, Croatia will be election-free up until 2024, when the country will face a ‘super election’ year. Croats will then go to the polls three times in less than twelve months: for the European Parliament elections, for the Croatian parliamentary elections and, towards the end of the year, for the presidential elections. Three years are not enough for the newcomers in Zagreb and Split to build a solid party network to challenge that of the HDZ or SDP. If they want to leave a serious mark, parties like Možemo! and Centar will likely need to come to compromises.

To win, the centre-left will need to use its synergies wherever it can: being able to rely on the SDP’s party infrastructure, alongside the energy of the new challengers, could make a real difference to the final outcome. The SDP will likely ask a lot in return, but the party presidency also desperately needs a win to tame the infighting. This might give some negotiation power to ‘Možemo!’, especially if they continue to poll as high as they do now.

If you enjoyed this piece you might enjoy the rest of our ‘Spotlight on the Western Balkans’ series. The previous piece, on the authoritarian crisis in Serbia, can be found here.