International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses developments in the Middle East and the Balkans. On the occasion of the parliamentary elections in the Republic of Croatia, scheduled to take place on 5 July 2020, IFIMES published an analysis of the pre-election developments. We bring the most interesting excerpts from a comprehensive analysis titled “2020 Parliamentary Elections in Croatia: Croatia in-between the past and the future”.
On the occasion of the 10th (early) parliamentary elections in the Republic of Croatia, since its declaration of independence, which are scheduled to take place on 5 July 2020, the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) prepared an analysis of the pre-election developments.
The last regular parliamentary elections were held on 8 November 2016.
Representatives in the Croatian Parliament are elected directly, by secret ballot and application of the proportional system according to which each party or candidate, get a number of parliamentary mandates that is proportionate to the number of votes won. The election threshold is 5%. A total of 140 members of the Parliament will be elected from the territory of the Republic of Croatia, which is divided into 10 geographical electoral districts, which means that 14 representatives are elected from each electoral district. These are the third parliamentary elections at which the preferential voting can be applied. So far, little has been done on promotion of preferential voting.
A total of 192 candidate lists, including 95 independent party lists (90 at the last elections), 92 coalition of parties lists (84 at the 2016 elections) and 5 independent candidates (3 at the last elections), will participate at the elections. Only 69 parties have lists in all 11 electoral units. A total of 2,669 candidates will run at the elections, of which 59% are men and 41% women. The average age of candidates is 48.6 years.
The population of the Republic of Croatia is around 4.1 million of which 3,859,481 are eligible to vote. Out of the total number of eligible voters 3,674,695 have permanent residence in Croatia, out of which 10,978 are pre-registered voters. There are 184,786 actively registered voters with no residence in Croatia (diaspora- expatriate Croatians). The largest number of them was registered in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany, Serbia, Switzerland and Austria. The diaspora will vote as a part of the 11th electoral district, while members of ethnic minorities have a right to elect eight representatives and will vote in the 12th electoral district.
The current Government of the Republic of Croatia was appointed on 19 October 2016. At the time, Andrej Plenković, President of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), who had previously served as a representative in the European Parliament, became the Prime Minister. The Government was established by the HDZ, Bridge of Independent Lists (Most) and several smaller parties and representatives. The Most Party, headed by Božo Petrov, played a key role in the establishment of the new government. However, in April 2017, it withdrew from the coalition and was replaced by the party of Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandić, Bandić Milan 365 – Party of Work and Solidarity and the Croatian People’s Party (HNS). Plenković is not an autonomous politician as he had not come to the helm of the HDZ on his own. Namely, those in the know believe that the political life is strongly influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, which is exceptionally influential in Croatia and has a strong position in social and political life in the country. During the mandate of the current Government of the Republic of Croatia 14 ministers had been replaced. HDZ tends not to understand antifascism, because if it did it would demonstrate support to preservation of antifascism and antifascist tradition and would not cause excesses, which sometimes can be characterized as neo-fascist and anti-Semitic. Rehabilitation of ustashism, Holocaust denial and the opposition to the Istanbul Convention is attributed to the HDZ. Croatia should draw on the experience of the countries which had bad experiences with Nazism, primarily Germany. Instead of resolving the problems, Plenković’s Government accumulated or postponed resolving them, in order to curry favor with the voters.
Although officially identified in the Croatian constitution as the diaspora or expatriate Croatians, the Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina are not expatriate Croatians but a constituent people that participates in the government at the state level in Bosnia and Herzegovina on the basis of parity with the other two peoples- the Bosniaks and the Serbs. Furthermore, this also raises the issue of permanent residence and primarily payment of taxes and other duties to Croatia. The Croatian diaspora does not participate in that. The number of polling stations in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been reduced, which has deprived numerous Croats in BiH, who formally are entitled to vote, of their democratic right and the opportunity to exercise it.
Frequent references to the establishment of the so-called Third entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina once again put the focus on the role of the HDZ Croatia and the then President of the Republic of Croatia Franjo Tuđman. Resolution of the so-called Serb issue in Croatia in the way in which it was done resulted in abolition of the so-called Croat Republic of Herzeg Bosnia. Hence, a wider agreement, which was accepted by Tuđman, had also resolved the Croat issue in BiH- with respect to a third entity- at the cost of BiH Croats.
Croatia has difficulties in its relations with neighboring countries, resolution of border issues, relations towards Serbs and in relation to its established participation in the joint criminal enterprise (JCE) (as established by the ICTY). In 2016, shortly after it come to power, the government stopped using the term “region” and introduced the term “neighborhood” as a new term in the context of cooperation. Following that criterion, Albania, North Macedonia and Kosovo became neighbors of Croatia. This creates an impression that when Croatia strives to distance itself from the Balkans, it becomes more close to it and more “Balkanic.”
Croatia has an inherited and established national border only with Hungary, while its does not have a defined border line or signed interstate border agreement with Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro.
The Croatian national leadership is trying to strengthen its relations with Montenegro and the regime of Milo Đukanović (DPS). Even during the pandemic, in less than a month Gordan Grlić Radman, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of Croatia, and Zoran Milanović, President of the Republic of Croatia, made official visits to Montenegro and extended support to the regime of Milo Đukanović. These visits did not come as a surprise, because all Croatian leaders have had close relations with Đukanović, as well as with Kosovo leaders, believing that to be a matter of a “natural coalition” with respect to Serbia. Namely, they have a common adversary in Serbia and its leader Aleksandar Vučić (SNS). Currently, pilot project of Unionization of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church in Montenegro is underway. The project envisages that orthodox believers of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church in Montenegro would maintain their “Eastern religious rituals” and the Roman Pope would become their chief pastor. This would resolve the canonical recognition of the canonically unrecognized Montenegrin Orthodox Church. If this model would succeed in Montenegro, Croatia would then try to apply it also on the remaining, generally decimated Orthodox population in Croatia. Furthermore, Croatia and Đukanović are also linked through the element of joint criminal enterprise, as after the issuing of indictment against Hashim Thaci, Kosovo President, Đukanović has remained the only highest ranking official directly involved in war crimes, who had not been prosecuted. The fact that positive legislation of specific countries incorporates the principle of universal jurisdiction for war crimes and crime of genocide creates a window of opportunity for Đukanović’s arrest, bearing in mind that some countries abroad have already opened a case on Milo Đukanović.
A renowned Croatian attorney at law Anto Nobilo stated: “attacks on the Serbs in Croatia are a consequence of the crawling fascistization of the society and a logic consequence of the flirting of the politicians with the NDH /Independent State of Croatia/ and relativization of crimes committed by Ustahas”
The Croatian national helm had publicly expressed its disagreement with the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia) judgment against in the Case of Jadranko Prlić (HDZBiH) et al., which established the aggression of the Republic of Croatian on Bosnia and Herzegovina and the criminal joint enterprise headed by Franjo Tuđman, Gojko Šušak, and others. In such a way they publicly negated a judgement of the UN war crime tribunal (ICTY), on the occasion of what even the European Union reacted. The prevailing, and almost the only opinion (among Croats) is that Croatia is a victim of the “great-Serbia policy”, that the homeland war was a defensive war and no crimes could have been committed in it, that Croatia supported the Croats in BiH and was not an aggressor, despite the fact that the ICTY has established in five of its judgments that it was an international conflict and labeled Croatia as an aggressor in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In numerous reports presented to the UN and the EU, Croatia is often defined as a state which uses, that is abuses its full-fledged membership in the EU and NATO for violation of all UN and EU conventions related to application and protection of international humanitarian law. Furthermore, in the IRMCT (International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals)/ICTY reports it is defined as a counterpart to Serbia, which has been known to the international public from before for its negation of the genocide in Srebrenica and rejection of the judgments of the ICTY/IRMCT. In 2015, the Government of the Republic of Croatia adopted a decision suspending cooperation with BiH, which was aimed to protect the military-political helm of Croatia from criminal prosecution. It is also known that the Croatian parliament had previously adopted a decision, the so-called Law on nullity, which suspended cooperation with Serbia in prosecution of war criminals.
The latest report of the IRMCT/ICTY Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz to the UN Security Council (UNSC) detects the Republic of Croatia as a state that obstructs processing of war crimes and prosecution of war criminals in Croatia and the region.
The HDZ constantly attempts to take exclusive credit for the results of independence of Croatia, ignoring the fact that, in addition to the wish of the Croatian people for independence and separation, it was primarily a result of the historical international situation and favorable international context. Specifically, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR. The HDZ did not manage to decriminalize itself and break free from idealizing Franjo Tuđman. Although Croatia is an independent and sovereign country, the HDZ is still “looking for” enemies in the Serbs, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Yugoslavs, migrants/refugees, Jews, Muslims, etc. International human rights and humanitarian organizations warn of inhumane conduct towards and treatment of migrants by Croatian repressive bodies. Croatia violates the European Convention on Human Rights because it sends illegal migrants to Bosnia and Herzegovina, knowing that their human rights will be violated. While Croatia should cooperate and assist Bosnia and Herzegovina, serious violations of human rights are taking place in Croatia. Furthermore, the HDZ and VMRO-DPMNE in North Macedonia are the only two political right-wing parties (members of the European People’s Party - EPP) in the region that had been tried prosecuted and whose former presidents, Ivo Sanader and Nikola Gruevski, who also served as prime ministers, have been convicted.
The withdrawal of Croatia from the Arbitration Agreement on the Border with Slovenia (Piran Gulf) was an additional impulse to increase the homeland and nationalistic rhetoric not just towards Slovenia, but primarily towards Serbia, and partly towards Bosnia and Herzegovina. Croatia must not forget that it joined the EU with great difficulties, that is thanks to France and with the pressure by Germany.
According to relevant researches both leading political blocks-coalitions, the Restart coalition, led by the Social-Democratic Party (SDP), which is headed by Davor Bernardić, and the HDZ, have rather equal chances to win. In fact, the Restart Coalition has a slight advantage. The final phase of the campaign will decide who will be the relative winner of the upcoming parliamentary elections in Croatia. Mobilization of voters of the two leading political blocks in the last phase of the campaign can also affect smaller political parties, which could then not pass the 5% election threshold.
At these elections an opposition emerged within the political blocks. Namely, the opposition to the SDP, that is the Restart Coalition, is the Možemo (We can) political platform, which is a left-wing coalition, while the right-wing oriented Domovinski pokret (Homeland movement) headed by Miroslav Škoro is a strong opposition to the HDZ.
The votes of representatives from minority ethnic communities and smaller parties, provided that they make it to the Croatian Parliament, can “tip the scale” in the process of establishment of the new ruling coalition. In the current convocation of the parliament specific representatives of minority communities had abused their position. Namely, they had neglected the constitutional role of minority representatives and acted as if they were HDZ representatives.
Without an increase in the birthrate and stopping of the trend of emigration, which is already alarming, Croatia will face additional problems. The EU and the role of Croatia in it is the preferred topic in the election campaign. Nevertheless, Croatia has still not positioned itself clearly within the EU, and only constantly “parrots” that Croatia must tap more funds from the EU funds. Croatia must also have a stronger role in NATO. The growth of tourism and increased foreign investments are largely a result of membership in NATO, as a joint security umbrella. This is also a strong message to the Croatian neighborhood about what membership in NATO means for economic development and foreign investments of a country. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has definitely stopped this trend.
Experts believe that Croatia needs constitutional changes. However, their opinions differ with respect to the contents and scope of such constitutional changes. Croatia must face rationalization of the number of its counties (21), cities (127) and municipalities (428).
Judging by everything, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, by the end of 2020 Croatia’s public debt will exceed 90% GDP. Croatia is in a deep crisis. It covers the deficit primarily from three sources: tourism, remittances from Croats living abroad and sale of its own immovable property. Tourism is a very vulnerable sector that can be shaken by an economic crisis, climate and political situations, including instability, etc. The Covid-19 pandemic has inflicted enormous damage to the Croatian tourism. The current Government of the Republic of Croatia did not adequately face the consequences of the devastating earthquake that had hit the Zagreb capital. Furthermore, while initially Croatia had achieved encouraging results in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, it later transpired that its response to the pandemic is devastating, which raises the issue of possible manipulation with the number of coronavirus cases and deception of the people because of the tourist season and the upcoming parliamentary elections. As the chair of the EU, at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Plenković held partisan elections in the HDZ on 15 March 2020, while hundreds of people were dying in Italy on daily basis. Croatia’s presidency of the Council of the EU passed unnoticed.
Analysts believe that the upcoming parliamentary elections are a major opportunity for Croatia because, due to political instability and the Covid-19 pandemic, the unfavorable developments in Croatia, the region and at the international scene can take the country in an unwanted direction. Croatia has to decide whether it will continue to live in-between the past and the future or will it definitely opt for development of a modern state and a more certain future. This will be decided by Croatian voters. The Croatian political helm tends to forget that Croatia is an EU and NATO member, which requests implementation of high political standards and appropriate political culture, particularly towards countries in the neighborhood. Croatia has the potential for political changes at the upcoming elections. However, because of the fragmentation of the political scene, the results of parliamentary elections could result in a situation in which it will not be possible to establish a new government, which would lead to new early parliamentary elections.
Ljubljana/Zagreb, 2 July 2020
 IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative status at ECOSOC/UN, New York, since 2018.