Croatia’s ruling conservatives face smooth ride, with scattered opposition

Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic arrives at a Christian Social Union (CSU) party meeting in Seeon, Germany, 15 July 2021.. [EPA-EFE/LUKAS BARTH-TUTTAS]

Fifteen months into his second mandate, Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and his conservative HDZ find themselves in a singularly comfortable position: The fragmented political opposition has sunk to historic lows and is unable to mount any serious challenge.

The second-biggest party, the social-democratic SDP, has splintered and is fighting for survival. Analysts believe that, barring a major economic crisis, Plenkovic can count on a third term, particularly if he succeeds in one or both of his strategic goals: joining the Schengen area and adopting the euro.

But that may come with hidden risks, particularly in terms of the newest EU member’s reform potential.

“As much as it is a comfortable position for the HDZ, it is a danger. The challenge lies in the party underestimating the need for change and adaptation to new generations of young voters,” political analyst Krešimir Macan told EURACTIV Croatia.

“They are in power for a second term and over time, the dissatisfaction and expectations of the citizens are growing. And Croatia urgently needs to move from the bottom of the EU rankings, which requires not always popular moves,” he said.

Short-term revival of opposition

The opposition suddenly showed its teeth on Thursday (14 October), but it was an unexpected flurry – in the words of political analyst Zarko Puhovski, ”the way one mobilises during an earthquake and then quickly returns to normal“ – that yielded little concrete result.

The parliament was scheduled to discuss the election of a new director of the public broadcaster Croatian Radio and Television (HRT) when members of all major opposition parties rushed to the rostrum and obstructed any discussion.

The HDZ gave in and rescheduled the vote for Friday, a rare concession in a parliament it dominates.

It may have been a tactical manoeuvre to appease the opposition and sideline an inconvenient piece of news: A day before, Croatia’s Supreme Court upheld the verdict in the corruption case against the entire HDZ and its former president Ivo Sanader, ordering the party to pay back two million euros into the state budget, as well a penalty of €500,000.

Following the upheaval in the Sabor, the corruption verdict quickly fell off the radar.

As recently as in 2019, things were much bleaker for the HDZ, which lost the battle for the country’s president to SDP’s challenger Zoran Milanović.

The HDZ was torn apart by in-fighting between the right-wing faction and the moderate camp led by Plenković. He decided to gamble by calling – and winning –  internal party elections, which cemented his control of the party.

Plenković then called the parliamentary elections and scored one of the biggest victories in parliament’s recent history, securing an almost absolute majority.

It was at that moment that the erosion of the opposition accelerated.

Disarray on left and right

The Homeland Movement, an up and coming right-wing party that had hoped to become a coalition partner in the new government, expelled its president and best-known figure, singer-turned-politician Miroslav Škoro. Škoro fought back, and the internal battles saw the right-wing party quickly lose its appeal with voters.

SDP, which had led the government from 2011 to 2015 and was the second-biggest party in parliament afterwards, fell prey to internal struggles following the defeat in the 2016 election, after which ex-prime minister Milanović stepped down as party president.

His successor, Davor Bernardić, failed to stabilise the party and suffered another electoral defeat in an election held in 2020. He was replaced by Peđa Grbin, who was humiliated by the poor showing in local elections this spring, including in the two biggest cities, Zagreb and Rijeka.

Grbin decided to play hardball, accusing a group of MPs of sabotaging the SDP in the elections and expelling four main opponents, which triggered a rebellion: 18 SDP deputies decided to leave the party faction in the Sabor and formed their own club, denying their former party, left with only 14 MPs, the status of the second biggest parliamentary faction.

The rebels have decided not to form a new party, convinced that Grbin will fail and they will regain control of the SDP.

Andrej Plenković and HDZ now dominate the centre-right of the political field. Three right-wing parties with only 22 MPs among them do not represent a threat in the elections.

The centre-left is in the same position, bleeding support in every poll.

The Crobarometar survey for September put for the first time Možemo! (We can!), a green-left platform that defeated the SDP in Zagreb, as the second political force in Croatia, behind the HDZ, stable at 30%.

Možemo can count on 13.6% while the SDP sank to 13.4%, compared to 21% three months earlier.

On the right-wing, the Homeland Movement’s support halved to 5,2%, while Most, the other relevant right-wing party, is stable at 8%.

Just as importantly, there is no political figure on either side of the centre that could stand up to Plenković and the HDZ.

“Plenković is really superior to most of the politicians in Croatia… The opposition is completely incompetent,” analyst Puhovski told N1 television.

Croatia will have no elections in the next three years, with 2024 as a super-election year: parliamentary, presidential and elections for the European Parliament, possibly all in one.

The HDZ will, as it is clear from the plans, play it safe, pursuing its plans to enter the eurozone and Schengen and try to make the most of the money coming from the EU funds and NextgenerationEU.

“Experience shows us that when the ruling party is not threatened from the outside, opposition camps are created within the party itself, which makes it difficult to manage it,” said Božo Skoko, a professor at the Zagreb Faculty of Political Science.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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