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Croatian Parliamentary Election: Establishment Challenged From Left and Right

Croatia is about to get a new government. On July 5th voters will brave the pandemic conditions to decide which parties will enter the Parliament. But the final shape of the government may be out of voters’ hands, with polling suggesting an uncertain outcome. Whatever the exact result, the question will remain: will Croatia’s centre-right HDZ (EPP) remain in power for yet another term with the help of an upstart national conservative alliance, or will the centre-left SDP (S&D), energised from a Presidential victory in January, return to government after a five year hiatus? 

The last time the SDP was in government it was in fact led by the current President, Zoran Milanović. After four years in government Milanović was ousted along with his party in 2015, which made his political comeback in the 2020 Presidential election a surprise to many. The 2015 election marked an end to the SDP’s only second stint in power since Croatia declared independence in 1990, and in its place returned a weakened HDZ.  

The HDZ was the party, founded by Croatia’s first President Franjo Tuđman, which ruled Croatia throughout the 1990s and most of the 2000s. Beyond being a dominant political force in the country, it has left an immense mark on independent Croatia’s social, cultural, and economic life. While the HDZ managed Croatia’s transition to free-market capitalism and democracy successfully, it holds much of the blame for the shortcomings of that transition too. Corruption is considered widespread by 97% of Croatians—the highest proportion of any country in the EU—and a problem many trace back to the HDZ itself.

That association of corruption with the HDZ is not unfounded, with numerous corruption scandals tarnishing the party’s reputation over the years. However, that charge of corruption is not unique to the HDZ either, with the SDP frequently accused of the same, leaving it similarly unpopular amongst large swathes of the electorate. But with the HDZ ruling Croatia for 23 out of 30 years of the country’s independence, most of the blame for the country’s structural problems is aimed at them.

Dissatisfaction with the two main parties, broadly representing the right and left sides of the political spectrum, is the key to understanding Croatia’s contemporary political scene. All politics in Croatia is somehow directed at the HDZ and SDP. Both because the entrenchment of the two parties is a barrier to the goals of others and because it is a message that resonates with voters. Either way, the position of every party in relation to the HDZ & SDP is the key to their electoral, and eventually political success.

For the party almost certain to come third in the election and become a powerful force in the process, the central challenge it is mounting is one to the HDZ. And one from the right at that. The party in question is Miroslav Škoro’s Homeland Movement (Domovinski pokret Miroslava Škore, DPMŠ-ECR), a party born out of January 2020’s’s Presidential election. In the election, the eponymous Miroslav Škoro came third behind the candidates of the HDZ & SDP. Škoro has achieved what political conservatives have failed to do for years in Croatia, which is to unite the disparate right-wing forces in Croatia to mount a conservative challenge to the HDZ

Škoro’s message revolves around the HDZ and its perceived moderation in recent years under Prime Minister Andrej Plenković (HDZ-EPP). Prominent right-wing and conservative politicians have deserted the HDZ under his Premiership to form their own minor parties and now they have a popular face to lead them. Škoro is a popular folk singer famous for his patriotic songs since the early 90s which makes him an ideal figure in many ways for a nationalist conservative movement.

Škoro himself was briefly a member of Parliament for the HDZ in 2007, before quitting after 8 months citing the party’s corruption and inaction. His past collaboration with the HDZ has naturally brought criticism, along with questions about what role his party will play in post-election dealings. His party will most likely be kingmaker after the election, and could govern with the HDZ if it chose to, but Škoro has made clear that he would only do so if Plenković was out of the picture.

Meanwhile on the left changes are afoot as well. For the first time in Croatia’s recent history a green-left coalition could be a challenge to the SDP from the left. The coalition of several left-wing and green parties is called Možemo (G/EFA|GUE/NGL) and has found particular popularity in the capital Zagreb. The alliance has been growing rapidly in polls, emerging from relative obscurity to now being projected to get over 5% of the vote. This may seem low, but in a region where new green and left-wing parties struggle to make a mark on politics, just entering Parliament is an impressive result.

Similarly a coalition of three liberal parties S/F/P (RE) has grown in the polls recently and could also enter Parliament with over 5% of the vote. The country uses a proportional electoral system divided into 10 electoral districts, with a 5% threshold per district, but the d’Hondt system means that in some cases passing the threshold is not necessarily enough to win a seat. Croatia’s electoral system favors larger parties meaning that smaller left of centre alliances like Možemo and S/F/P could end up with only a couple seats each, leaving Restart without a strong enough party to enter into a coalition with.

The HDZ by contrast will have not only Škoro’s party, but also the conservative MOST (ECR) which cooperated with the HDZ in the past and will probably finish fourth in Sunday’s election. In addition to the two conservative parties Croatia’s three diaspora seats always vote overwhelmingly conservative, giving right of centre parties an even larger advantage.

But even though these parties may have ideological similarities, that is no guarantee of a coalition. Škoro’s and the right’s dislike of Plenković is reciprocal, making a coalition agreement between the two difficult to envision. With a pandemic now entering a dangerous second spike and Croatia due to enter Schengen and adopt the Euro over the coming year, instability would be particularly damaging for the country’s future.

Could that be enough to nudge the HDZ and SDP together into a grand coalition? Both parties have ruled it out. But crises have a way of forcing opponents together, and the two may be left with no other option.