The first round of the Croatian presidential election on December 22nd saw Zoran Milanović (pictured) of centre-left SDP-S&D and centre-right Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović (*-EPP) moving on to the runoff with 29.6% and 26.7% of the votes, respectively. With an upset victory over the incumbent Grabar-Kitarović, all eyes are on former Prime Minister Zoran Milanović to see if he can capitalise on his first-round victory to be elected the President of Croatia on January 5th.
Before the campaign for the presidency began, Grabar-Kitarović maintained a healthy lead over the rest of the candidates in opinion polls; head-to-head polls against Milanović gave her a significant lead as well. As the incumbent—and a relatively popular one considering the unpopularity of the rest of the HDZ-led (EPP) government—she had a strong advantage entering the race. However, since the beginning of the official campaign period and through the first round, Grabar-Kitarović has seen a steady decline in support.
The decline can be attributed to several gaffes and minor scandals, but she has also been the casualty of a broader conflict in Croatian politics. Up until the first round of voting, the big story of the election was the candidacy of a popular folk singer Miroslav Škoro (*-ECR). He came in third place, just a little over two percentage points behind Grabar-Kitarović, which essentially split the conservative vote in half giving Milanović the opportunity to come out on top.
Škoro, while nominally independent, was supported by the various conservative parties in Croatia, which are extremely fractured. He campaigned strongly in opposition to the ruling HDZ, which has been the dominant party in Croatia since the country gained independence in 1991. Unhappy with the more centrist Prime Minister Andrej Plenković (HDZ), conservative and right-wing factions in the HDZ have either split off of the party or publicly voiced their discontent. In many ways, this culminated with the candidacy of Miroslav Škoro, who garnered endorsements from current and former HDZ politicians, drawing hundreds of thousands of their voters away from Grabar-Kitarović.
Škoro’s absence makes the second round unpredictable. Many of Škoro’s supporters are not guaranteed to vote for Grabar-Kitarović due to the increasingly bitter conflict on the right. A large portion of his voters was voting in protest of the ruling HDZ. A recent poll from Ipsos found that 28% of Škoro voters plan to vote for Milanović in the second round, while many more could simply not vote altogether. Škoro himself has not endorsed either candidate, declaring he will write in a third option instead. Of the voters of other eliminated candidates, nearly all overwhelmingly favour Milanović, putting him in a very strong position heading into the second round.
In the only Ipsos poll since the first round, Milanović holds a 7% lead over Grabar-Kitarović. Not only that, but over 10% of respondents indicated they were undecided, the largest number ever recorded in a Milanović–Grabar-Kitarović runoff poll, and more than double any number recorded leading up to the campaign. Since Milanović gained several percentage points from previous polls, this means many who previously would have supported Grabar-Kitarović in the runoff are now unsure.
All this indicates a momentum strongly favouring Milanović. His victory would be a major victory for the country’s troubled centre-left SDP (S&D), which has dropped to record lows in recent elections ever since, ironically, Milanović was voted out of office in 2015. Grabar-Kitarović is not yet defeated but—considering she has been on a strong downward trend throughout the election—her campaign has every reason to worry.