Croats chose former Social Democrat Prime Minister Zoran Milanović as their new president in a run-off ballot on Sunday, denying conservative incumbent Kolinda Grabar Kitarović a second five-year mandate and setting the stage for a tense cohabitation with the ruling centre-right government.
The result is a major surprise at the start of Croatia’s first EU Council presidency and makes the future of the current PM Andrej Plenković and his HDZ party (EPP) uncertain. Milanović (SDP, S&D) won 52.7% over Grabar Kitarović’s (HDZ, EPP) 47.3%. She ends her term in office in February.
Croatia’s president cannot veto laws but has a say in defence, foreign policy, and intelligence matters and is generally seen more as a moral authority and upholder of the constitution.
Milanovic, whose main campaign motto was that “the war is over and we must return to normal life“ is generally not expected to meddle in Croatia’s EU presidency. But on the domestic level, he will be a thorn in the side of Plenković.
In the early stage of the campaign, Grabar Kitarović made several controversial statements which went viral and damaged her popularity, including a pledge to secure lucrative ‘work from home’ jobs for Croat IT specialists, whereby they would receive €8,000 a month from unidentified Western countries.
Nationalist pop singer Miroslav Škoro, who finished third in the first round, narrowly behind Grabar Kitarović, refused to endorse either of the remaining candidates in the run-off, which cost the conservative candidate more crucial votes.
Her defeat is also a symbol of a ‘silent war’ simmering in the right-wing camp between Plenković’s group of the moderate centre-right and party hardliners who publicly supported Škoro and believe the party is moving too much to the centre.
Plenković’s destiny as party leader remains unclear given the fact that the HDZ is going to hold internal elections this spring and his hard-line political opponents have already announced their candidacies.
Asked what the defeat means for Plenković’s future, one of the key HDZ figures, parliament speaker Gordan Jandroković said the party had drifted to the right during the campaign and achieved an even worse result, which could be interpreted as a hopeful sign for the current PM.
However, a handful of powerful party members say the results are a direct consequence of ‘the government’s unpopular policies’, which has to be tested in inter-party elections.
“Now begins a war in the party, with everyone against Plenković,” HDZ sources told EURACTIV’s partner Jutarnji List daily.
But there are also rumours that Plenković will go for parliamentary elections immediately after the end of the EU presidency. If, as expected, he wins, he will have no problem staying at the helm of the party.
(Tea Trubić Macan, EURACTIV.hr)