Croatia goes to the polls: the tightest call in a generation

Croatia goes to the polls on Sunday, November 8. Given that elections were called on Monday, October 5, this is by far the shortest electoral campaign in the country’s history. The unusually short 15 days and 9 hours campaign is a “surprise attack” on the incumbent social democratic government, a tactical move by President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, who was elected in January 2015 from the ranks of the sovereigntist right opposition, HDZ. The conservative HDZ is leading the polls, but the gap has been narrowing to less than 1% difference.

These are the first legislative elections since 2013, when Croatia acceded to the EU, and following six consecutive years of recession and a cumulative 13% decline the GDP and unemployment currently standing at 16%. The economic agenda of the campaign has been dominated by the pressure felt by thousands of households that have taken Swiss-franc denominated mortgages; the Swiss franc has surged while real estate prices have been tumbling, with foreclosure being a real possibility for thousands of Croatians.

HDZ promises rapid growth, but not how it will be achieved. The government has achieved a return to growth for this year, but timid and only after six years or recession. Once again, Croatian youth is immigrating by the thousands.

Another issue featuring prominently in the campaign is dealing with the 120,000 refugees that have crossed Croatia’s border. The issue has been raising tension both vis-à-vis Hungary, from where migrants have been diverted, and with Serbia, from where migrants transit. The government’s relatively positive attitude in dealing with asylum seekers, in contrast to Hungary, has been well received by a share of the electorate that still remembers the suffering of the Yugoslav wars.   Also, Prime Minister Milanović has used his standoff with Viktor Orbán to boost his leadership image as a strong national(ist) leader.

The campaign has taken a note of personal encounter between the incumbent Social Democrat Prime Minister, Zoran Milanovic, and the former intelligence chief and leader of the HDZ, Tomislav Karamarko. The campaign has taken a tonne of personal confrontation, and the atmosphere is marred by mutual accusations of political association with organized crime. Also, there is a sense that there is no level-playing field in terms of media coverage. These perceptions are reinforced by the Transparency International 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index (Croatia ranks 61st of 174) and the 2015 World Press Freedom Index (Croatia ranks 58th of 180 countries).

There are approximately 3,8 million eligible Croatian voters, some of whom belong to a sizable Diaspora, most prominently in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Germany. National minorities have a quota of eight representatives in a 140 seat parliament.

Because the result will be close for the two leading parties, the President will once again play a key role. He will be the one to give mandates to leaders for the formation of a government. In this context, smaller political parties will be the ultimate king-makers:   the Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS), Croatian Democratic Alliance of Slavonija and Baranja (HDSSB), Successful Croatia, the Party of Labour and Solidarity, Human Blockade, Most, Sustainable Development of Croatia (OraH) and national minorities representatives.

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