Local elections in Croatia are a tricky matter when it comes to declaring an overall winner, as the government is elected in cities, municipalities, and counties of different sizes and with divergent local political histories. The whole affair is somewhat reminiscent of adding up different currencies without knowing their exact exchange rates.
Marko Kostanić works as an editor at Bilten, an online magazine based in Zagreb. He is also a member and co-founder of the Center for Labour Studies in Zagreb.
Irrespective of that, however, the very nature of Croatia’s county-dominated administrative divisions (20 counties along with the city of Zagreb) guarantees that the largest party in the country, the conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) which currently holds power at the national level, can always win. As an administrative unit, counties have relatively little influence on the politics and daily lives of citizens, but are eminently suitable for maintaining a stable hold on power through clientelist means: specifically, by hiring party supporters and favouring the loyal petit bourgeoisie, a strategy the HDZ has relied on for over 20 years now.
A Major Success for Možemo!
Yesterday’s local elections in Croatia again permitted the HDZ to declare victory, relying on their hold in the aforementioned counties. The party abandoned trying to win in capital Zagreb some time ago, and do not even include it in their account of victories and defeats. But this time around, it was in Zagreb that a key change took place which could significantly affect the political landscape across Croatia: Tomislav Tomašević from the political platform Možemo! [“We Can!”], which is in coalition with several smaller liberal and left-wing parties, won an overwhelming victory in the first round of the city’s mayoral election.
Tomašević won 45.15 percent of the vote, while the second-place candidate, Miroslav Škoro from the far-right Domovinski pokret [“Homeland Movement”] won only 12.16 percent. The result of the first round guarantees that the prospect of uncertainty in the second round is all but ruled out, meaning nothing short of an unprecedented miracle would have to happen for Tomašević not to become mayor. The coalition led by Možemo! also won the equally important elections for the City Assembly, taking 40.83 percent of the vote and thus winning 23 of the 47 seats in the Assembly.
Criticism of Clientelism and Corruption
The success of Tomašević and the Možemo! platform did not come overnight—it represents the result of long and dedicated work. They first proved themselves in the struggle against gentrification and corruption in the city, which they led as activists. That political credibility earned on the street was first translated into four seats in the last local elections in 2017, followed by seven seats in last year’s national elections.
It should be noted that the recent political history of Zagreb, where the platform was created, is itself quite unique. The city was ruled for 20 years by Milan Bandić, who passed away suddenly at the beginning of this year. He first governed for two terms as a member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), for years the main opposition force in the country, and later as an independent with his own political network and a populist agenda.
Bandić gradually became a symbol of corruption in the country and a significant number of lawsuits were filed against him. His form of government was based on three key factors: a clientelistic relationship with select entrepreneurs in the city, selective social transfers through which he secured support at the polls, and a coalition with the HDZ. Given that Zagreb is by far the wealthiest city in Croatia, the city budget functioned as a political cash machine for negotiating deals with coalition partners.
Jockeying for Ideological Position
Over the years, Tomašević and his associates have established themselves as the most convincing opposition to Bandić—and would have won if Bandić were still alive. After gaining credibility on the street, they were equally convincing in the City Assembly. Moreover, the campaign was marked by the continuation of the strong organizational work that ensured mass support.
The very fact that they have established such a profile at the city level, largely on communal issues and anti-corruption activities, has enabled the platform to avoid more controversial ideological issues. Consequently, they managed to achieve a result that would not have been possible for a more stridently left-wing political force.
The political substance of their programme is composed of different elements. In terms of traditional left-wing terminology, it could be classified as social democracy with a pronounced ecological component. The programme also includes advocacy for strengthening workers’ rights and the prominence of trade unions, as well as proposals for progressive taxation and a more generous welfare state. However, the realization of these proposals is not framed as the result of social conflicts, but rather as a rational idea that is acceptable to all regardless of social and class background.
Prospects for the Second Round
Despite such a cautious image, Tomašević and the platform were denounced as being of the “extreme left” during the campaign. This obviously did not harm them, but in the second round these attacks will be further intensified, as his opponent comes from the ranks of the far right.
Možemo! did not achieve results close to those in Zagreb in the rest of the country, but it made notable steps forward in several cities. If we define the “Left” as the left of Croatia’s nominal Social Democrats, whose profile is the same as that of their colleagues across Europe, then this last election is without a doubt the greatest success of the Left in Croatia in the past 30 years.