Croatia votes on Sunday (September 11) in an early election that seems likely to prolong political uncertainty in the EU’s newest member, at a time of strained ties between Balkan neighbours.
Some 3.8 million Croatians will cast ballots less than a year after an election last November which yielded no absolute winner and resulted in a barely-functioning coalition government.
The right-wing alliance was led by the HDZ party, which fell in June over a conflict of interest scandal, weakened by constant internal wrangling.
During its five-month rule Croatia saw a growing climate of intolerance, including attacks on independent media and minorities, and a far-right surge to which authorities appeared to turn a blind eye.
Aside from sparking international concerns, such developments brought already frosty ties with former foe Serbia to their lowest level since Croatia’s 1990s independence war. During the conflict Zagreb fought against Belgrade-backed rebel Serbs.
In recent months the two former Yugoslav republics have exchanged bitter accusations over their wartime past, with Belgrade accusing Zagreb of a “rebirth of Nazism”.
Less than a week before the vote Serbia jailed an alleged Croatian spy for three years in jail.
The conservative HDZ however goes into the election campaign with a new and more moderate leader, Andrej Plenković, who has promised to move the party away from populism and extremism.
“I’m changing the HDZ… I want it positioned in the centre-right,” said the 46-year-old former Member of the European Parliament, who is seen as untarnished by previous corruption allegations against the HDZ.
No big victory
Surveys and analysts give a slight lead to the rival “People’s Coalition” led by the Social Democrats (SDP) of former prime minister Zoran Milanović, who was in power for four years until November.
But his centre-left alliance is not forecast to win an absolute majority in the 151-seat assembly, meaning prolonged negotiations on forming a government are likely – and another election is possible.
“It is hard to expect a big victory of either the ‘People’s Coalition’ or the HDZ,” political analyst Berto Salaj told AFP.
“We might expect a similar scenario to previous elections.”
The HDZ’s former junior partner in government, the “Most” party (meaning “Bridge” in Croatian) seems likely to play kingmaker once again.
Though it is trailing behind the SDP in surveys, the HDZ is seen as having better coalition potential as its views are closer to those of Most.
Moderate Plenković could also count on the backing of minorities, notably Serbs, as well as Croatians living abroad who traditionally back the HDZ.
Rival Milanović, 49, has meanwhile sharpened his populist rhetoric after disappointing voters with his lack of reforms while in power.
At a meeting with veterans of the 1990s conflict, according to recordings leaked to the press, he labelled Serbians a “bunch of miserable people” and slammed their Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucić over his ultranationalist wartime stance.
Need for reform
Almost a year of political deadlock has blocked reforms badly needed in Croatia, which emerged from a six-year recession in 2015.
The economy, relying largely on tourism along the country’s Adriatic coast, remains one of the European Union’s weakest despite some recent positive indicators attributed to membership of the bloc.
The central bank has forecast growth of 2.3% this year, after seven consecutive quarters of GDP growth based on exports and household spending.
But the head of the Croatian Employers’ Association Davor Majetić warned this was “not a sign that we have created conditions for long-term and stable growth”.
Unemployment stands at more than 13% and public debt has reached 85% of GDP, while the investment climate remains poor.
“Brussels is now preoccupied with other issues… but if political instability continues we will face huge economic problems and become a problem for the EU,” Salaj warned.