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Croatian Presidential Election: Three Candidates Down to the Wire

Featured title picture: Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, President of Croatia (2015-2020)
Photo credit: European People’s Party on Flickr with Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

On December 22nd, Croatians will head to the polls to elect (or re-elect) the President of Croatia. It is, however, far more likely that the President will not be elected on the 22nd of December but rather on the 5th of January when the second round of voting takes place as a run-off between the two most popular candidates. As it stands, no candidate is polling even close to the absolute majority required to be elected in the first round. And, with three major candidates polling nearly the same, the runoff is up for grabs.

Croatian presidential Elections take place every five years, with each President allowed to serve two terms in total. The Presidency itself is largely a ceremonial position, as Croatia has a parliamentary system where the Prime Minister is the most important person in the country’s constitutional framework. The President is the nominal commander-in-chief of Croatia’s military as well as its main representative at home and abroad. However, the ceremonial role of the Presidency is being challenged by two major candidates who are seeking to return Croatia to a more Presidential system, which it had during the rule of the first Croatian president and founder of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ-EPP).

The incumbent President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, affiliated with the centre-right HDZ (EPP), has been leading the race in the polls for quite some time, but her lead has been diminishing steadily as we approach the election day. In one recent poll she has been overtaken by Zoran Milanović, the former Prime Minister and a long-time leader of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP-S&D). Kitarović’s recent fall has been largely thanks to the independent candidacy of a Croatian popular folk musician Miroslav Škoro, as the two battle for control over the country’s conservative voters. Apart from the three above, the only other candidate to break 10% in any polls has been Mislav Kolakušić, who was recently elected to the European Parliament on his own independent list, but he has thus far failed to pose a threat to the three main candidates.

Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović of HDZ-EPP was once a longshot candidate herself, just barely scraping by a victory against the former incumbent President Ivo Josipović (SDP-S&D). Opinion polls in the run up to the 2014 presidential election were extremely inaccurate, giving Josipović around a 12-point lead over Grabar-Kitarović both in the first round and in the second. In the end, Josipović indeed did come on top in the first round, by just over 1 percentage point, and lost in the second by a similar margin.

Opinion polls in Croatia have historically missed the mark quite often, likely due to relatively low turnout in the country. The 2014 Presidential election had a turnout of only 47% in the first round and 59% in the second. As far as elections in Croatia go, these numbers are relatively quite high. The most recent elections held in Croatia—the European Parliament elections last May—garnered a turnout of just 30%.

Low turnout benefitted Grabar-Kitarović in 2014 when she was running against the incumbent President Josipović in a deeply unpopular government, whereas now she is in a similar position as the incumbent affiliated with the unpopular ruling party, the HDZ (EPP). Milanović especially is campaigning hard against the HDZ (EPP) and their time in government, channelling the frustrations of the country’s liberal and left-leaning voters.

The strategy of Miroslav Škoro, the independent candidate, also revolves around picking up votes from people dissatisfied with the current Croatian political establishment, especially of the HDZ-EPP’s leadership of the country. This puts Grabar-Kitarović in a difficult position as she is personally far more popular than her party, let alone her party’s governance. Like Milanović, Škoro has emphasized that a vote for Grabar-Kitarović is a vote for Prime Minister Andrej Plenković. In other words, that a vote for Grabar-Kitarović is a vote of support for the ruling party HDZ (EPP).

Both Škoro and Kolakušić, the other independent candidate, are proposing extensive constitutional amendments should they become President, effectively asking for a mandate to restructure the entire political system of the Croatian state. Škoro has stated that he expects the government to call new elections if Grabar-Kitarović loses and from there on he would launch a bid to gain control of the Croatian Parliament as well. Škoro and Kolakušić are both also proposing for the President to have the power to call referendums without Parliament’s approval.

Though Škoro is politically unaffiliated, he has declared himself a “sovereigntist” and has been endorsed by parties affiliated with the mentioned ideology, which in Croatian context largely belong to the ECR group in the European Parliament. Many of his positions were developed by the conservative and reformist party MOST (ECR), which played a prominent role in Croatian politics up to 2016, after which it has lost much of its support. Additionally, Škoro is drawing support from the conservative wing of the HDZ (EPP) and has even had prominent members of the party attending his rallies, including the son of Croatia’s First President. His supporters include members of the earlier conservative wing of HDZ (EPP), which already split off and formed several smaller right-wing parties.

Despite this, Miroslav Škoro maintains that he is not the right-wing candidate but rather a candidate for all. This strategy or seeking to surpass political labels has worked well precisely because he already has the support of conservatives, while Grabar-Kitarović must go out of her way to garner their support at the expense of a broader appeal. According to a recent poll, 60% of supporters of the centre-left SDP (S&D) would support Škoro over Kolinda, should it come to a runoff.

Meanwhile, Milanović, the candidate of SDP (S&D), has a rather different political profile than the other candidates. As the former Prime Minister, he is already very familiar to the Croatian people, which does not always play in his favour. His time in government saw disapproval ratings of up to 80% and although he has the advantage of being the only major centre-left candidate, such position is no longer a large enough of a share of voters for him to rely on to be elected. He has been unable to reach the absolute majority in a single runoff poll against Grabar-Kitarović or Škoro, giving him a much steeper hill to climb than the other candidates.

Polling average of Croatian political parties

An important voter base not reflected in polls is the significant Croatian diaspora around Europe and the world, which could play a major role in the outcome of the election. Record number of polling stations will be available in Bosnia and Herzegovina with some 44 locations to vote in. This is more than three times as many as were available in 2015. The timing of the elections near Christmas might also be meaningful, since the fact that both election dates are so close to holidays means many Croats who otherwise reside abroad will be in Croatia. This could mean more people living in the diaspora will vote than would otherwise.

In the Presidential elections of 2014 Grabar-Kitarović won by a total of 32,000 votes, whereas she received over 33,000 votes from the diaspora. The votes she received as a proportion of the diaspora vote in overall was incredibly high, 91%. Half of these came from Bosnia and Herzegovina, meaning the diaspora was key to Grabar-Kitarović’s success. Miroslav Škoro is aware of this and has been campaigning hard for the diaspora vote, spending time abroad in places like Switzerland and Germany, attempting to draw the support of the Croats abroad.

Mislav Kolakušić, the other independent candidate, has so far served only as a candidate for protest votes as he has been unable to break into the support bases of the three major candidates. On top of the difficulties in gaining a steady base to build on from, his role as the anti-establishment candidate has been significantly overshadowed by the far more well-known Miroslav Škoro.

Milanović (SDP-S&D) should feel quite secure in reaching the second round as the only major centre-left candidate, if he does not it would be an enormous blow to the Croatian left. The most important competition in the first round will be between Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović (HDZ-EPP) and Miroslav Škoro (Independent). The real question is whether one of them will be able to build up a proper lead over the other before election day, lessening the chances of a close three-way race. Either way, it is almost certain that no candidate will achieve the required 50% of votes in the first round and that two of the three major candidates will hence face off in the second round on January 5th.

Featured title picture: Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, President of Croatia (2015-2020)
Photo credit: European People’s Party on Flickr with Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)