News | State / Democracy - Political Parties / Election Analyses - Europe - Southeastern Europe Parliamentary Elections in Croatia

The Right is firmly in power, despite a breakthrough for the Left



Josip Jagić,

Current Croatian prime minister Andrej Plenković and his conservative HDZ continues to hold power after the elections, beating their biggest adversaries—the Social Democrats—decisively. The elections were also marked by an electoral breakthrough for the green-left coalition, winning seven seats in the parliament and making it the first elections after the break-up of Yugoslavia in which the new Left won seats independently of Social Democrats. There will be a new political force in the Croatian parliament that is committed to taking politics further to the left in order to find political solutions which work for the many instead of the few.

Josip Jagić is a project manager and political analyst at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Southeast Europe Office in Belgrade. He is also a member of Zagreb je naš!, one of the groups in the Možemo! coalition.

Conservatives Still Firmly in Power

Andrej Plenković and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) are the winners of the parliamentary elections held in Croatia on 5 July. Plenković, the current and the next prime-minister, and his HDZ won 37% of the total vote which got them 66 representatives in the parliament. They need the support of 76 representatives in order to form a parliamentary majority, which they will almost certainly gather in the ucoming days. As it stands now, they will have the support of the minority representatives and liberals that barely made it to Parliament. The victory has enabled somewhat liberal Andrej Planković to form a government independently of the far-right “Domovinski pokret” (Homeland Movement) around Miroslav Škoro, former presidential candidate and popular nationalist singer.

After these elections, Plenković finds himself in a much more favourable position. After a setback and the loss of the presidential elections for the HDZ in the beginning of the year, Plenković managed to decisively defeat the right-wing opposition in the HDZ internal elections. He now defeated the far-right ”Domovinski pokret”, which underachieved, winning 10.89% of the vote and 16 parliament seats. No matter the harsh criticism of HDZ during the campaign, Škoro counted to win enough seats so that his support would be needed in order to form a government. As it stands now, their support will not be of the essence for Plenković and his HDZ.

The exclusion of Škoro’s far-right ”Domovinski pokret” from governmental power is good news for Croatia. The centrist right of the conservative HDZ gathered around Plenković remains firmly in power with no other contender currently at the horizon for taking the government. As Zagreb based analyst Nikola Vukobratović wrote in an article on the regional platform Bilten, “it is a sad, but important conclusion that even after 30 years the political dynamics [in Croatia] still depends more on the outcome of fractional struggles inside the dominant party than on the struggles between various political options”.

It remains to be seen what is in store for Croatia after the summer. From this vantage point, where the Covid-19 cases are all-time high and the sinister predictions of the socio-economic conditions worsening further, things look challenging for the current and future HDZ government.

The voter turnout was quite low at 46.9%. This low turnout was due to the worsening of the epidemiological conditions during the second part of the campaign and the inability of major parties to generate enthusiasm amongst the voters for their politics.

Downfall of the Social Democrats

Polling before and during the campaign did not predict such a decisive win for the HDZ. On the contrary, polling continuously (and somewhat surprisingly) suggested that the Social Democratic Party (SDP) were becoming more popular. The polls suggested a tight race between the HDZ and SDP. That made the results of the election more dramatic and the defeat more unexpected for the SDP. The coalition around the SDP named “Restart” won only 41 seats. Only 32 of these belong to SDP representatives. As a result of the elections, the (now former) SDP president, Davor Bernardić, resigned, and the SDP now has to go through a restart of its own.

The SDP caught some momentum after their candidate for president, Zoran Milanović, won at the beginning of the year. After that win, the SDP improved in the polls. But everything else was just a disaster. It was rather clear that the SDP would not be able to motivate voters by basing its campaign on incompetency and corruption charges against the current HDZ government. Once the epidemiological situation began to worsen in the second half of the campaign, the public space and interest for such topics shrunk. This kind of bleak focus with almost dilettante criticism of the current pandemic measures, with key figures of the SDP moving in and out of self-isolation as they deemed fit, led them from a fairly favourable situation to ultimately lose the elections. The reactions of SDP leader and contender for the prime-minister position Davor Bernardić did not help, either. Both electoral debates between the two leaders Andrej Plenković of the HDZ and Davor Bernardić of the SDP demonstrated that Bernardić was the lesser of the two. It was really tragic seeing Bernardić accuse Plenković and his government of incompetency while he himself showed up with bundles of papers, repeatedly getting lost and demonstrating at least inadequacy if not incompetence.

A few days before the election, panic kicked in as the SDP felt they were losing. It seems they were continuously losing votes to the new player in the political landscape of Croatia: the green-left coalition gathered around six small activist parties in the regions where they were present. The SDP desperately tried to portray the green-left coalition as a marginal political project and promoted themselves to the left-voting constituents as the only Left that could actually win. It was too little, too late. Green-left coalition was already gaining support from poll to poll and when the votes were in the result was seven parliamentary seats for the green-left coalition. What was most impressive was that the green-left coalition almost beat the SDP in that what they thought was heir stronghold: Zagreb. In the first electoral district, which mostly covers the western and central parts of Zagreb, the coalition won 21.12% of the vote while the SDP had 22.27%.

The Return of Politics

The green-left coalition won 6.99% of the vote, earning them seven seats in parliament. At the beginning of the campaign the coalition polled in the area of the statistical error, and from that vantage point one seat in the parliament looked like a complete win. Winning seven seats was a surprise even for the most optimistic among them, although the relatively constant rise in the polls during the campaign pointed to a good result. It is evident that along with the HDZ, which won the elections, the green-left coalition was one of the two clear winners of these elections.

The green-left coalition was gathered around six parties (Možemo!, Zagreb je naš!, Radnička fronta, Nova ljevica, Za grad and Orah) based on activism and progressive politics ranging from democratic socialism and green to centre-left. It is the first successful push to establish a political force to the left of the centrist Social Democrats and also present in the mainstream political instances from local to national parliaments. Its members came from various grassroots struggles for public space, tuition-free education, women’s and worker rights that transpired in Croatia over the last ten years. The coalition itself was formed in 2017 for the local elections in Zagreb in which they won four seats in the city’s parliament. This breakthrough on the local political level was impressively seized by the coalition, especially Tomislav Tomašević from Možemo! and Zagreb je naš!, who managed to profile themselves as the only authentic opposition to the city’s six-term mayor Milan Bandić. This became increasingly evident during 2020 and is a product of constant and committed political work in the last few years in the city’s parliament and the ability to be present on the city streets and engage constituents.

The coalition’s seven seats were distributed in a way that the Worker’s Front and New Left won one seat each. One seat was won by the independent partner and former SDP member Bojan Glavašević. The rest of the four seats went to Možemo!, which is a national political platform connected to municipal political platform Zagreb je naš! This distribution represents the relations inside the coalition, with Možemo! and Zagreb je naš! being the ones with the biggest infrastructure and resources. This infrastructure was built predominantly in order to take Zagreb on a local level. The relationship demonstrates the organizational and infrastructural logic behind the politics of this emerging Left. Local issues and initiatives were used to organically gather and attract activists from various social struggles. This activist body, coming from different NGOs, groups, initiatives, and subsequently different political positions (but still within the broad Left) slowly grew into a political subject of its own based on the politics of inclusiveness and participation. This political process acknowledged the current marginal position of progressive Left forces and the need for a concentration of political efforts. Although not without challenges, this political subject was ultimately forged through joint political struggles before and after formation of Zagreb je naš! As it grew in relevance it slowly expanded to other parts of Croatia, connecting with popular struggles for public space in cities like Dubrovnik and Pula. Expanding the political infrastructure outside Zagreb and a few urban centres remains one of the biggest challenges facing the coalition.

The coalition around Možemo! entered the campaign fully mobilized. The first half of 2020 saw the coalition gain more ground in the mainstream politics. The Workers’ Front and their candidate for president, Katarina Peović, gained nationwide attention during the presidential elections, which raised their relevance and the relevance of the democratic socialism on which they base their politics. Also, the beginning of the year witnessed thousands of people protesting in the main square in Zagreb against Milan Bandić and his management of the city. This massive turnout was a product of consistent and public opposition to the (criminal) way that Zagreb was and is run by NGOs dealing with communal issues and the struggle for public space as well as the coalition’s city representatives. The protest demonstrated massive oppositional potential in Zagreb and helped to solidify Tomislav Tomašević (Možemo and Zagreb je naš) on the national level as, at least currently, the only relevant candidate for the upcoming local elections in Zagreb capable of taking down Milan Bandić, a mayor that won the elections six times. Then the Covid-19 epidemic followed. and in the midst of the lockdown Zagreb was hit by an earthquake of a magnitude of 5.3 on the Richter scale that killed one person and devastated housing in the city and its outskirts. The comprehensive response from the national and city governments was meagre. Instead they both rushed into the elections, leaving the issue of rebuilding Zagreb for after. The coalition called out the government for its political cynicism and entered the campaign with mobilized network of activists protesting in front of the government and engaging citizens across the city. It was the third political action in a row that certainly attracted local attention but now also enjoyed national coverage.

Once the campaign started, the initial activist base of the coalition expanded. A campaign that was centred around real-life issues like rebuilding Zagreb, reproductive rights, workers’ rights and democratic participation attracted numerous citizens. The coalition insisted on decentralized, participative and inclusive infrastructure that could use and communicate the enthusiasm of the activists promoting its progressive positions. It was encouraging to see the resolute response of women in and out of the coalition, standing up decisively for reproductive rights after Škoro’s statement that a raped woman should consult her family before making the decision to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Positions were held confidently and have demonstrated how much ground the broad Left in Croatia has gained over the years. Reproductive rights marked the first half of the campaign, and the coalition’s parliamentary candidates as well as activists held firmly, advocating for reproductive rights and a woman’s right to choose. This response that combined official candidates presenting clear pro-choice positions and activists raising banners and lighting flares is uncommon in the mainstream political space of Croatia. All of this was unfolding as women across the country took to social media, giving the middle finger to Škoro and anti-abortionists of all shapes and sizes. This kind of communication helped the coalition to get its message across, promising a change in the social relations of power and moving towards a society that works for all. It was something different and at least the number of people needed for seven seats have heard those messages.

New Chances, New Challenges

This momentum shows the basic dynamics of politics, which in the age of social networks still fundamentally relies on collective actions in the real physical space, which basically means old-school political organizing. Politics has a number of levels that combine to engage constituents. As a political underdog coming from the margins, in order to have a successful PR campaign one needs to have people that understand the tricks of the trade (and the coalition had the right people unselfishly contributing their time and skills). But before that, one really needs to have politically relevant content and enthusiasm to communicate. To collectively gather behind a certain idea and in that way demonstrate collective commitment to the goal has the unique potential to rip through the mainstream public space no matter the media atmosphere. There is no alternative when it comes to politics that aim to change the status quo. All of the aforementioned actions first and foremost relied on an experienced and committed activist base. But the process of setting up a progressive political subject capable of even contesting the relations of power is a laborious and unpredictable endeavour.

Before and during the campaign, the coalition mustered all of its capacities. Tomašević told us on election night that four out six parties in the coalition did not even have an office. Concentration of this limited infrastructure was a key prerequisite for electoral success. The coalition concentrated its daily political work around real life issues that mattered to people. This time the coalition also saw a growing relevance of its prominent figures like Tomašević, Peović, Sandra Benčić, and Rada Borić who drew people to join the campaign with unique enthusiasm. Expansion of the activist base and the coalition’s insistence on inclusive and participatory politics helped them to be ever-present in some key electoral units like Zagreb and Istria, where they had previously existing organizations which then paid off in the form of votes. The coalition basically won seats in the districts where it was organizationally present. They have politically cashed in all of the years of political work done in Zagreb, winning a representative in all four of its electoral districts and steamrolling current mayor Milan Bandić, encumbered by various indictments and scandals, who did not get more than 5% of the vote. The only currently confirmed contender for the mayoral position at this point is Tomislav Tomašević, who won more preferential votes than the current mayor of Zagreb along with the two presidents of the SDP on the national and Zagreb level combined. These are more than favourable conditions heading into local elections in the first half of 2021.

Now, however, the challenge grows much bigger. Entering the field of mainstream politics, the green-left coalition will face much greater pressures to fold under the hegemonic ideological narrative based on the free market economy, meritocracy and Croatian nationalism. A glimpse of that pressure could be seen in this campaign, and the threat of break-up exists. The main challenge for the left coalition lies in trying to fight that pressure off and maintaining its political avant-garde role in the mainstream political space. The influx of new sources of funding, mainly provided by the winning of parliamentary seats, will be channelled to build stable and lasting institutional frameworks and should help in fending off these pressures. An immediate challenge is also to try to consolidate the gains made in this campaign. The constituent parties are overwhelmed by the huge interest of ordinary people wanting to join the ranks. This is a positive development since the coalition needs to expand from its base in Zagreb and a few urban centres, but does not come without risks for the political programme of the coalition.

Thirty years after the disastrous defeat of the Left in the break-up of Yugoslavia, these challenges are something to look forward to. The Left in Croatia still remains an underdog, but it has made a huge leap forward and every bit of the enthusiasm surrounding it is completely legitimate and welcoming.