Croatian deadlock

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović during the first round of talks over a new government. Credits: President's Press Office

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović during the first round of talks over a new government. Credits: President’s Press Office

Last week the final results for the parliamentary elections in Croatia held on 8 November were published. Neither of the leading parties was able to achieve victory. Thus, the Patriotic Coalition, headed by the  Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), and the coalition Croatia Is Growing, led by the Social Democrats, must seek the support of smaller political parties. It is not likely, however, that any ruling coalition will last long.

The campaign

December 2014 – January 2015, the HDZ was 6-10% ahead of its rivals. Problems in the economy and with refugees reflected on the ruling Social Democrats, and their leader, Prime Minister Zoran Milanović, was perceived of as a callous, inflexible person. Realising he was hopelessly bound for loss, he was compelled to appeal to the American consulting firm Penn Shoen Berland. Needing development was not only a strategy for the upcoming elections but also a new image for the leader.

However, the work with the foreign consultants proved short lived.  The contract was cancelled in July due to, as reported in the Croatian media, differences of “character and mentality”. According to Maxportal, the parties could not agree on which idea to give precedence to in the campaign or which steps the prime minister himself should take. In particular, he refused to give up the use of his helicopter for personal trips or to appear more frequently in public with his wife (with whom he has a strained relationship). The idea of entering elections with the slogan “Us or Them” was also rejected due to the risk of mobilising the HDZ electorate.

Smear campaign along the roads: the poster says the Croatia is Growing in the sense its public debt rose by 34%. Credits: CROPIX

Smear campaign along the roads: the poster says the Croatia is Growing in the sense its public debt rose by 34%. Credits: CROPIX

The rivals’ ratings had evened out by this time, thanks in part to recommendations to appear more lively in public, and hopes began to rise in the camp of the Social Democrats that there would be a decisive dash home in the final stretch. It should have been ensured by the emphasis placed on the socio-economic successes (economic growth, increased employment) achieved by the government in recent  years. Simultaneously, memories of the corruption scandal from two years ago should have undermined the position of the HDZ and its leader, former Minister of Internal Affairs Tomislav Karamarko; as a result of this scandal the previous head of the party and ex-prime minister Ivo Sanader had been sentenced to imprisonment.

The problem was just that the Patriotic Coalition waged a very similar campaign in terms of subject matter. Their promises were often distinguished only by the word “more”, which carried the simple idea of “good, but could be better”: higher economic growth, increased jobs and investment. The HDZ also promised to lower the tax burden on enterprises and capital and reduce the salaries of the prime minister, ministers and deputies.

Furthermore, a mudslinging campaign was deployed against Croatia is Growing; it used negative examples from themes the coalition was presenting as achievements. So, roadside billboards reported on the growth of public debt, immigration and unemployment in 2014 in comparison with 2011.

However, the main negative campaign, as subsequently made clear, was not run by the two main parties but the party Most (“Bridge”), a newcomer to Croatian politics formed out of independent candidates by the 36 year-old former psychiatrist Božo Petrov. The idea behind Most was very basic: changing the names of the political parties in government does not bring any real change; promises made during elections are forgotten; the HDZ and Social Democrats are one and the same. Dissatisfaction with the traditional elites guaranteed the loudest success.


The preferential system was used in the 2015 parliamentary elections for the first time in Croatia. This system allowed citizens to vote not only for parties and their coalitions but also for specific candidates. 2,311 candidates participated in the race. The battle for mandates was waged in 12 electoral districts (ten standard, one abroad, and one for national minorities).

Turnout in the elections was 60.8%. 128 men and 23 women will serve in the new parliament. The youngest deputy is 25 and the oldest is 70.


Negotiations about the government

In order to form a government, parties need to have a minimum of 76 deputies. But nearly a month since the elections, no one has succeeded at this task. Haggling for coalitions is underway, primarily for the sympathies of Most members. The situation is complicated by its specific nature, however. As the party is basically a volunteer association consisting of highly varied politicians, the background to Božo Petrov ‘s solo statements has been since the very beginning of the coalition negotiations marked with its inconsistent and disunited behaviour.

A copy of the written promise from Božo Petrov. Credits: Most's official Facebook page

A copy of the written promise from Božo Petrov. Credits: Most’s official Facebook page

Prior to the elections, Petrov produced written and signed promises not to enter into a coalition with any one leading party if reforms are not conducted in the country. Three days after the election, Petrov proposed forming a “large” coalition – with the participation of the HDZ, SDP and Most.

The unrealistic and simultaneously principled nature of the proposal caused many to suspect that his real aim is to derail the negotiations and have new parliamentary elections called. In this case the party would receive an irrefutable advantage with its agenda directed against the traditional political elite: it would be easy to accuse them not only of failing to bring real positive changes to the country but also of the inability to even agree.

However, this scenario caused contradictory reaction in Most itself. Reports surfaced that some of its deputies are not ready for such an uncompromising struggle and may switch over to the side of their opponents, especially considering they have been promised attractive positions in parliament and government.

The embodiment of these moods was the expulsion of political heavyweight Drago Prgomet, a former HDZ member and parliamentary deputy who joined Most only in September 2015. He was accused of secret negotiations with the Social Democrats. Although Prgomet denied the secret nature of these meetings, he admitted he was willing to support the leading party in exchange for a post in one of three ministries (administration, justice, or health). Two more people later left Most after him.

The first surveys after the elections indicated that the population was more inclined to think that the Social Democrats would be able to retain power. In the research done by the market research company Ipsos for Nova TV, 48.6% supported a coalition between Most and Social Democrats while 33.% supported Most with the HDZ. Moreover, 25.5% expected to see Milanović as prime minister; 18% expected to see Karamarko; and 8.7% expected Božo Petrov.

But the situation changed by the end of the month. According to the newspaper Telegram, the HDZ and Most now have the best chance of agreeing on the creation of a coalition, and it is expected that an agreement will be signed any day now.

Even so, the formation of  a coalition will not bring stability to Croatia’s political life. The government will depend entirely on minor parties which are currently exchanging their votes for administrative and political concessions, so their continued support will certainly be subject to fresh bargaining.

After the elections there was a lot of discussion on the likelihood of repeating them in connection with the inability of the parties to agree on a coalition. The citizens of Croatia may indeed head back to the polls but only because any alliance is no better than none at all.  The Eighth Convocation of the Croatian Parliament is set to begin work on 3 December.

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