Croatia is (un)fortunately a small enough country not to be on the radar of the world’s major media most of the time, but what has been unfolding on the political scene in recent weeks and months has provided the public with some truly engaging political theater, resembling something between an overwrought Shakespearean drama and a Mexican telenovela.
The second round of Croatia’s local elections was held on June 4, and played out in the shadow of the political crisis triggered over a month ago when the populist newcomer party MOST left the ruling coalition with the conservative, right-oriented Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). HDZ, being short on votes, maneuvered, traded and threatened skillfully with independents to replace MOST’s President of the Croatian Parliament (Sabor) with their man. This bought them a small measure of stability until the local elections.
But let’s take a few steps back. On April 20, opposition parties, among them the Croatian People’s Party (HNS), who you should start paying attention to at at this stage, invoked the recall of the Minister of Finance, Zdravko Marić, due to his links to the scandal-ridden corporation Agrokor, which had accumulated debts of $6.11 billion by the end of March. MOST, a partner in the ruling coalition, sided with the opposition’s request, which got four of their ministers fired on live TV during a government session. At this stage, the government had no majority and was walking a thin line between the possibility of keeping power and a new round of parliamentary elections (which would be the third in less than two years).
Luckily for HDZ, the two rounds of scheduled local elections gave them some breathing room and enough time to do some outreach with potential coalition partners. The second round of local elections for the mayor of Zagreb saw a runoff between opposition candidate Anka Mrak-Taritaš of the liberal HNS and the five-term incumbent Milan Bandić. The polls predicted a tight race. Then, a few days before the second round, HNS President Ivan Vrdoljak hinted that his party might consider negotiating with the ruling HDZ. This did not bode well for Mrak-Taritaš’s chances for the mayorship, and she ultimately lost, albeit by a very slender margin (Bandić won with 52 percent of the vote). Vrdoljak’s flirtations with HDZ were ill-timed, but the rumours of a coalition turned out to be true, which caused outrage among many senior HNS members, most notably former Foreign Minister Vesna Pusić, who see their party’s position on the socially liberal side of the political spectrum, and therefore considered a coalition with HDZ unacceptable. On June 6, Vrdoljak, who in the past said on a few dozen occasions that under no circumstances would HNS support HDZ, resigned as HNS president with the proclamation “we are not taking part in this government”. Less than 24 hours later, the HNS presidency changed its mind and decided to start negotiations with HDZ, raising the question of whether Vrdoljak’s resignation was just a little bit of (in)explicable stage-managed political showmanship, when it was clear he was laying the groundwork for a place for HNS in the government for months.
The coalition has just been confirmed, and HNS gets two very important ministries: Predrag Štromar becomes Minister of Construction and Vice PM, while Blaženka Divjak becomes Minister of Science and Education. These are two very important ministries. The Ministry of Construction is full of resources and capital infrastructure projects (such as the recently approved Pelješac bridge mostly financed by the EU), and HNS is rumored to enjoy strong links to the construction lobby. The Ministry of Education will likely enable HNS to remove right-wing extremists from educational reform efforts, a major issue in Croatia right now. Critics of HNS have suggested the party is using the issue of educational reform as a mere “fig leaf” to obscure its real desire: control of the Ministry of Construction, along with its continued accumulation of directorships of large state enterprises in oil and energy, as well as other resources. In one telling episode, Srecko Ferencak, the eminence gris of HNS, obtained land to build a sports arena which he later sold to Agrokor to build Konzum, and then pocketed the money for himself.
For its part, HDZ also replaced and reshuffled a few of it ministers and they will have a relatively stable majority, with between 79 and 81 seats out of 151 members of the Sabor.
This agreed upon stability between HNS and HDZ isn’t necessarily the worst possible outcome for Croatia, especially considering that new elections would be unlikely to dramatically change the composition of the parliament. The Social Democratic Party of Croatia (SDP), the country’s biggest opposition party, appears to be imploding under weak leadership and various internal struggles.
It remains to be seen if serious friction between two ideologically divergent parties — the liberal HNS and conservative HDZ — will arise any time soon. What is working in the coalition’s favor is the fact that ideology seems to mean less and less when opportunities to control resources and policies proliferate.
HNS accepted a calculated short term political gain and long term risk by entering into a coalition with HDZ, and it is uncertain what will happen with them in future election cycles. On two previous occasions, when smaller liberal parties joined the HDZ government, it did not work out for them in the long term. Two such liberal parties, HSLS and HSS, have electoral results that are nowhere near those they enjoyed in the 1990s and early 2000s, and with each election they tread closer to the edge of political oblivion.
Ensuring stability will not be a walk in the park for the government, what with the upcoming unfolding of Agrokor’s bankruptcy, educational reform, negotiations concerning the territorial dispute with Slovenia, and the expected influx of millions of summer tourists critical for the beleaguered Croatian economy. Prime Minister Andrej Plenković has come out on top for now, and HDZ, for the first time in 17 years, controls the three most vital levers of political power: the government, the parliament and the presidency. Putting ideology aside might just work out if the clientelist stakes are high enough.
Cover photo credit: YouTube/still.