News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Southeastern Europe Zagreb Goes Green-Left

Who are the new progressives running the show in the Croatian capital?


Nina Đurđević, Možemo! – politička platforma

The second round of local elections in Croatia ended on Sunday, 30 May 2021, with Tomislav Tomašević from the Green-Left Coalition confirming a significant advantage from the first round and thus becoming the mayor of Zagreb.

In the second round, Tomašević won 65.25 percent of the vote and defeated his far-right rival, Miroslav Škoro of the Homeland Movement. The Green-Left Coalition led by the Možemo! (We Can!) party won 23 of the 48 seats in Zagreb’s City Assembly in the first round. A coalition is expected to be formed with the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which has five members in the Assembly. So, in addition to Tomašević as mayor, the Green-Left Coalition will have a comfortable majority in the Assembly, which should guarantee the smooth running (to a certain extent) of political processes as they were envisaged.

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.

Basic information about the Green-Left Coalition and the Možemo! party as its strongest partner was given in a brief review of the first round of elections. In this somewhat more extensive review, we will try to sketch the history of the party, the reasons for its success, its political and ideological profile, and its management capacities and ideas. The basis for this sketch will be the accusations made by far-right opponents against Tomašević and his associates in the campaign for the second round of elections.

The general consensus in Croatia is that we have never witnessed such a dirty campaign: full of lies, fabrications, and manipulations in an attempt to demonize the Green-Left Coalition. There were allegations that the Coalition had a “murky past” as well as being guilty of ideological “extremity” and managerial incompetence. By examining these supposed "revelations", we will be able to better explain the very political nature of the party.

The Birth of Politics via NGOs

According to a narrative put to the public by right-wing rivals, Možemo! is actually a project of “professional activists” who are not authentic fighters for the public interest and social justice. In this telling, it is actually all a disguise with which they secured the money from foreign foundations and, inevitably, George Soros. The accusations went in the direction of a “foreign franchise” and members of the Coalition were accused of not genuinely being local grassroots activists.

In other words, Tomašević and his associates are not an organic political response to Croatia's political problems, but an accidental by-product of the plans of international financiers. On one point, the right-wing critics are correct. Most of the key members of Možemo! began their political journeys in various NGOs, the so-called “third sector”. These included environmental NGOs, those dealing with human rights, anti-gentrification and cultural NGOs, and NGOs dealing with trade unionism and the issue of workers’ rights. In addition to that fact, the right wing is also correct to harbour a principled scepticism towards the political action of the third sector. However, everything beyond that was completely wrong.

In this case, the activists were not people who understood the third sector as their closed niche, but rather as an opportunity to concretely act politically and also influence the political process. In other words, they not only gave reports of their work to donors, but also to the communities in which they operate. The most famous episode was the mass mobilization of citizens against the privatization of public space in the city of Zagreb, but they were also active on a number of other fronts: from the fight for the rights of workers at the Kamensko factory, destroyed through real-estate speculation, to the fight against the privatization of publicly-owned highways.

Some members sought to frame their political activism as stemming from the fight for free education and the massive student occupation of the faculty buildings in the University of Zagreb in 2009, which introduced explicitly-leftist rhetoric into the wider public sphere for the first time since the break-up of Yugoslavia. In that process, a moment of political innovation occurred. The specific structure of the NGO sector, and project funding generally, function as a disincentive for concrete political work in the community. These people who today make up Možemo! have found a way to turn the resources and protocols of that sector into an advantage—not, as the right imputes to them, to take advantage of these resources for personal gain, but to use them in the fight for certain goals in the broad public interest that go beyond those written in the project proposals. In a sense, they took the project language of the NGO sector seriously.

At one point, it was recognized that activist engagement was insufficient to achieve real change. They therefore entered the political arena. Although the parameters of action were changed, the basic pattern remains the same as from the “activist era”, and it is based on listening to the needs of the community and engaging people at the local level. Inspiration was drawn from various examples of municipalism across Europe, but it was primarily drawn from the need for a response to specific local needs. This approach, in addition to the specific political history of Zagreb over the last 20 years, which was marked by the long-serving mayor Milan Bandic—a symbol of corruption in the country—was key to the stellar rise of the Coalition in this last election and its incredible victory.

Involvement in disseminating political ideas created a wide base of engaged people who toured the city for months, talked to people, invited them to participate in policy creation, and, most importantly, offered them a level of political persuasiveness which they had never encountered before. As the results themselves show (Tomašević got the highest-ever number of votes in a Zagreb mayoral election): people have realized that behind activism is a commitment to community issues, rather than being a front for the acquisition of political power and financial gain.

A Divided Society and Major Challenges

The political-ideological dimension is somewhat more complex, both when it comes to the Green-Left Coalition, as well as when the right tries to debunk their ideas. On the right, there were two opposing theories about what Možemo! actually is. The first claimed that the colour green was just a disguise and that they were in fact extreme communists. The other claimed that green was not a disguise but proof that Možemo! and the Coalition was not a part of the “real” historical Left, but was instead a leisurely, hipster variant.

As the campaign heated up in the second round, the first theory began to dominate and was increasingly the subject of caricature and exaggeration. Although both theories in different versions were quite insane, they relied on the ideological ambivalence of both the Coalition itself and that of the Možemo! party. They do not hide the fact that they are on the Left, but the kind of left-wing politics they represent is broad enough that someone who is ideologically centrist can identify with them. The fact that their political path is crucially related to urban and communal topics which lack strong ideological dimensions also contributed to this.

Furthermore, Možemo! was engaged in avoiding any kind of symbolism or positions which could be seen as radical or explicitly leftist. This made sense in the campaign because they were pursuing wide popular support in the elections, but it will provide a challenge in the next political stages. This symbolism did not come into being organically, but is the result of various former struggles over concrete social problems. Some of these struggles were based on social background and class issues.

Možemo! explicitly advocates for economic and social equality, but (for now) it is not entering into the political mechanisms of how these goals will be achieved. More precisely, it relies on solutions that should seem rational for everyone regardless of social background. This helped them secure popular support for a landslide victory in the elections, but the social background of voters remains quite diverse and future moves could introduce a certain type of political tension. That is the risk of running a broad and all-inclusive campaign.

In an effort to “grab” some of the voters in the centre, in the last days of the campaign the right began to publish the financial reports of associations whose members are also members of the Green-Left Coalition. In doing so, they did not pay too much attention to facts and figures but had only one goal: to portray their rivals as parasites, leeching off public money.

It was claimed that some members had used NGOs to improperly extract money from the budget for their personal benefit, and that now they will directly do the same as a government. The right tried to play on people’s financial fears, whether the ideological fear of high taxes and public spending that prevails in the Croatian mainstream media, or a concrete fear of craftsmen and small entrepreneurs. This tactic did not bear fruit for two reasons. The first concerns the ideological sensibility of urban liberals who cannot so easily swallow unconvincing far-right rhetoric. The second is related to the ideological profile of the Green-Left Coalition that has actually brought together a broad anti-corruption coalition among voters. Some of them see anti-corruption policy solely as a tool to put a brake on public spending, while others see it as a first step in the fight for a more just and equal society. Although the political programme of Možemo! leans towards the latter, it remains to be seen whether it will move in that direction convincingly enough.

The further political success of the Coalition depends on this balancing act. All of the new options so far, which began their political path with the fight against corruption, had the same ideological scope: transparency of public finances and the cutting of public spending. Možemo! must show that they can go beyond that. The criterion for their success will be measured by the change in the ideological climate in the country. They must prove and demonstrate that the pinnacle of public governance is not merely when it serves as an ouster of corruption. Their task is to succeed in the transformation of public administration and public institutions into being places of economic and social innovation and universal protection from the whims of the market.

This task will not be easy at all because of the sorry state in which the city’s administration, institutions, and companies currently find themselves: inert employees, legal hurdles, murky business interests, or outright sabotage. Just as it will not be easy because of the diverse composition of voters and sympathizers for whom some interests coincide (such as the transparency of city finances) while others diverge (such as the redistribution of public funds and resources). Also, power and stronger ambitions at the state level will bring the necessity of a more explicit ideological positioning towards nationalism.

The success in the transformation of Zagreb’s enterprises and institutions, by far the country’s most important political and economic local administration, could provide the Coalition with a better position in that upcoming confrontation with nationalism on a national level.