Croatia at a crossroads between the past and the future


The International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses events in the Middle East and the Balkans. IFIMES has analysed the election campaign in the Republic of Croatia in the light of the forthcoming early parliamentary election scheduled for 11 September 2016.  The most relevant and interesting sections from the comprehensive research entitled Croatia 2016 early parliamentary election: Croatia at a crossroads between the past and the futureare given below.


Croatia 2016 early parliamentary election:


Croatia at a crossroads between the past and the future


The IFIMES International Institute has prepared an analysis of current pre-election situation in the Republic of Croatia in view of the 9th (early) parliamentary election since the country proclaimed independence, scheduled for 11 September 2016. The last regular election was held on 8 November 2015.


Croatia's incumbent government was appointed on 22 January 2016. The new Prime Minister was Tihomir Orešković, a Croatian-Canadian and a non-partisan candidate of HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) who used to be a financial director of the Israel-based pharmaceutical multinational TEVA (Pliva).


The government was formed by the HDZ-led “Patriotic Coalition” that unites several minor parties and deputies. The key role in the formation of the new government was played by the Bridge of Independent Lists (“MOST”) presided by the former mayor of Metković Božo Petrov. Although it seemed at first that post-election parliamentary majority would be formed “Croatia is Growing” coalition led by SDP (Social Democratic Party), a last-minute change was made in the coalition partner by MOST. Experts believe that such decision was made under strong influence of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) which is extremely powerful in Croatia and holds a strong position in the country’s social and political life.




Members of Croatian Parliament are elected directly by secret ballot according to the proportional system whereby each party or candidate is entitled to the number of parliamentary mandates proportional to the number of votes obtained, with a 5% threshold. A total of 140 MPs are elected to the Parliament from 10 constituencies making up the territory of the Republic of Croatia, each constituency providing 14 MPs. This will be the second election with an introduced element of preferential voting. There has been very little promotion regarding preferential voting. However, due to some renowned candidates such as former Croatia's President Stjepan Mesić it is expected that the voters will pay more attention to the possibility of preferential voting.


177 electoral lists will compete at the election, of which 174 are registered by political parties and three by independent candidates. There will be a total of 2,456 candidates, of which 1,480 (60.26%) are men and 976 (39.74%) women. The average age of the candidates is 47.4 years.


The Republic of Croatia has around 4,4 million inhabitants of which 3,799,609 million are entitled to vote. 3,740,200 voters are Croatian residents of which 11.267 have registered in advance. In the diaspora (Croat nationals not residing in Croatia) 59,409 have registered as active voters, most of them in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany, Serbia, Switzerland and Austria. The diaspora will vote in the 11th constituency and the members of national minorities who will be entitled to 8 MPs will vote in the 12th constituency.


It is diaspora voting that is disputable. Although in Croatian Constitution they are officially recognised as the diaspora, Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BH) represent a BH constitutive nation which participates in the government authorities at the state level on equal terms with the other two nations – the Bosniaks and the Serbs. Another issue is permanent residence and the payment of taxes and other dues to the Republic of Croatia, which is not complied with by the Croatian diaspora. Moreover, since the number of electoral places in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been reduced, this prevents numerous Croats in BH to realise their formal right to vote.




Croatian society has deep ideological divisions that are mainly based on past history, especially the World War II. The political scene is distinctly polarised with two powerful political blocks – HDZ and SDP (the People's Coalition).


HDZ is the main centre-right political party whose list contains the candidates of Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) as well as independent candidates of minor parties such as HSLS and HRAST.


The centre-left “People's Coalition” is led by the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and unites Croatian People's Party (HNS), Croatian Peasant Party (HSS) and Croatian Party of Pensioners (HSU).


The space between the two existing political blocks has been occupied by the Bridge of Independent Lists (“MOST”), the party that basically criticises both political blocks and both leading political parties (HDZ and SDP) which it believes to be the source of almost all the problems in Croatia since the country gained independence.


HDZ's programme focuses on economic growth, new jobs and social justice, their slogan being “Trustworthiness”.HDZ's promises include a 5% economic growth, creation of 180,000 new jobs, VAT reduction, wage increases, debt relief for citizens with frozen accounts and changes to the Enforcement Act. They have promised to increase the employment rate to 68% by 2020 and to develop Croatia into a prosperous and regulated country in the next four years. However, HDZ is burdened with numerous encumbrances from the past. It is regarded responsible for the improper transformation of social ownership and for its patronising attitude towards the rise of numerous Croatian tycoons who have devastated the country's economy. HDZ is the only political party facing trials for corruption, with its former president and former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader sitting in court with corruption charges. It is HDZ that has caused the forthcoming early election due to the dubious activities of its previous president Tomislav Karamarko and his wife. The party was once again involved in non-transparent financing operations when it took a loan from a private company, which was only subsequently revealed by the public. The new president Andrej Plenković has already been criticised for not having duly presented his property. While HDZ is using “Trustworthiness” as the slogan for the election race, it is obvious that its trustworthiness – with synonyms such as authenticity, uprightness, truthfulness, accuracy, reliability and confidentiality – is at stake . Before Croatia carries out lustration which is so very much promoted by HDZ, the government should pass the law regulating the origin of property, bearing in mind that most of the state's property was plundered during the long years of HDZ's leadership. HDZ is still in the process of decriminalisation of both the party and its individual members. Plenković is facing a difficult task of HDZ's Europeanization, as this party isstill a movement with Balkan manners rather than a modern European people's party. HDZ is trying to present itself as a demochristian party that follows the policy of its founder and first president of independent Croatia Franjo Tuđman, although he had never wanted his party to become a Christian democratic party.


The programme of the People's Coalition which presents itself as a progressive coalition of the left, centre-left, centre and centre right parties, is bases on creating the country of satisfied citizens who will live and express themselves in line with their beliefs and free understanding of their identity. Its fundamental goals are freedom, equality, solidarity and fair pay for honest work. Under the slogan “Safe Direction for Croatia” the People's Coalition would like to bring Croatia back to the path that leads towards stability and growth, protection of human rights, media freedom, public health care and implementation of educational reform. It promotes a safe direction for Croatia and all its citizens regardless of religion, race, nationality, wealth, sex and sexual orientation. The main past encumbrance burdening SDP is its 2011-2016 government whish is regarded as one of the worst Croatian governments.


The programme of the Bridge of Independent Lists (MOST) is based on the coalition conditions sent by its leading members to the two strongest parties HDZ and SDP.  Those conditions include the adoption of the Act on Rights and Duties of the Members of the Croatian Parliament, proposed changes to the Act on the Croatian National Bank including the demand for state auditing of the Croatian National Bank, the waste management strategy, changes to the Act on the Financing of Political Parties and the first part of the reform package for local administration and local government. Petrov has introduced a psychiatric approach to Croatian politics – he confirms a diagnosis and sets the conditions for treatment.  The critics of MOST and Božo Petrov believe that as soon as MOST joined the incumbent Croatian government and gained the opportunity to take a leading position, it forgot all about its programme and solutions and focused only on political recruitment and plotting. MOST has lost significant public support due to its behaviour after gaining power and also because of unsuccessful formation of coalition with HDZ. The number of its supporters among the electorate has halved. MOST has shown to be an inconsistent and unreliable political partner.


In addition to the two leading political blocks – the People's Coalition (SDP) and HDZ – and MOST, there are also some minor parties that may play a decisive role, such as the Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS) and Croatian Democratic Party of Slavonia and Baranja (HDSSB) as well as the Human Blockade coalition and representatives of minorities.


Croatian society is torn by the debates about World War II and the role of the Partisans and Ustashas as well as the divisions stemming from the recent Homeland War and the role of certain individuals in it. This has paved the way for numerous lies (e.g. Headquarters for the defence of Croatian Vukovar) that are fetishized, with certain leaders of Croatian veterans playing the key role and manipulating the facts. It is not surprising that one of the veteran leaders wants to participate at the potential talks with Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić only for his private business interests in Serbia while presenting himself in Croatia as “an example and symbol of being a proper Croat”.


Since a very narrow election result is anticipated between the two leading coalitions (parties), other minor parties passing the 5% threshold are expected to play an important role. According to estimates made so far the People's Coalition holds more chances to form the post-election coalition, bearing in mind the complete fiasco of coalition formation between MOST and HDZ. The President of the Republic of Croatia Kolinda Grabar Kitarović will play an important role in the formation of the new Croatian government, depending on whom she will first entrust with the mandate to form the new government.




Although Croatia has gained significant results in fighting crime and corruption, the process of decriminalisation of the state has still not reached the expectations. Organised crime and corruption are still the "cancerous wound" of Croatian society, while the media and the economy are only partly free.


According to Transparency International 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) Croatia is ranked 50th of all together 167 countries, sharing its place with Bahrain, Hungary and Slovakia. According to the Freedom House assessment of media freedom (2015 World Press Freedom Index) Croatia ranks 63rd among 180 countries and belongs to countries with partly free media. The 2015 index of economic freedom published by Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal has ranked Croatia on 103rd place, which represents a significant fall and a serious warning that the state should take numerous measures and efforts to improve its economic freedom. 


Croatia is one of the few EU countries where crime and corruption reach up to the level of the highest state representatives including the prime minister, deputy prime minister and some other ministers who are facing judicial proceedings or prison.

Ever since it gained independence the Republic of Croatia has not been able to find appropriate economic solutions to the accumulated economic and social problems, and not much has been done to this end by the incumbent government led by Tihomir Orešković (HDZ) which has marked modest progress mainly due to favourable economic trends within the EU and a successful tourist season. Croatia's public debt has long exceeded the permitted ceiling of 80% of GDP. Croatia is suffering a deep crisis and its deficit is mostly covered from three sources: tourism, transfers from Croats living abroad and disposal of its immovable property and companies. However, economists recall that tourism is a very vulnerable sector which can be negatively affected by the economic crisis, the current refugee/migration crisis, climatic or security/political circumstances as well as instability and the presence of terrorism in the region.




Political polarisation has turned into personal confrontation between SDP leader Zoran Milanović and HDZ president Andrej Plenković (HDZ) as well as – to a lesser degree – Božo Petrov (MOST).


The current election campaign has been marked with numerous insults, accusations, cases of disinformation and personal attacks, mostly between the two leading political blocks and their leaders Milanović and Penković. The campaign is relatively short, which is mostly due to summer holidays, and lacks clearly articulated political content and messages, especially regarding the economic revival and improvement of living standards for the citizens.


Attitude towards anti-fascism still represents an issue of dispute among one part of Croatian society. HDZ has often shown a wrong understanding of anti-fascism – if it understood it correctly, it would safeguard anti-fascism tradition instead of making statements that can sometimes be understood as neo-fascist behaviour. SDP still has not developed into a party advocating the deprived citizens of the Republic of Croatia, especially the workers and the lower social classes. Neo-fascism in Croatia was further spurred by Serbia's rehabilitation of Draža Mihailović, the commander of the Chetnic movement in Serbia during World War II. This has triggered similar processes in Croatia, such as the reincarnation of the Ustasha movement and the historical revision of World War II, which represents a case of informal co-operation and support between (neo)fascists and their followers in Croatia and Serbia.




The secularism of modern Croatia has been jeopardised by the dominant position of the Roman Catholic Church over other religious communities and its involvement in numerous social and political issues. Unlike the Jews and other groups, the Roman Catholic Church has had almost all of its property returned. In their sermons representatives of the Roman Catholic Church advise the citizens/voters on how to vote at elections, almost regularly suggesting them not to vote for the left oriented parties.

Cardinal Josip Bozanić often publicly stressed that “for a believer it is easy to decide who to vote. It is enough to choose the political option that is willing and able to defend human life from conception to natural death, that supports freedom of religion, understands marriage and family as a union of man and woman, respects and helps large families with several children, incorporates Christian and universal human values in upbringing and education instead of being guided by new ideologies that represent a serious threat to Croatia, shows respect of the important institutions of the state and society, and responds appropriately to complaints of Croatian war veterans, which all shows that it will promote economic progress and general wellbeing instead of following narrow party and personal interests and that it has the will and the power to unite the Croats in Croatia and abroad”.

Religious education in schools, crucifixes in state offices, blessings of public investments etc. legitimately raise doubts regarding the separation of the church and the state in Croatia.

Facing the economic collapse Croatia will undoubtedly no longer be able to fulfil enormous financial obligations arising from the agreement with the Holy See, which means it will have to redefine its agreement with Vatican.

As early parliamentary election is regarded primarily as Croatia's internal political issue, HDZ can not benefit from the political support shown by German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) and other reputable European right-oriented politicians (EPP), just as SDP can not benefit from the support of European Social Democrats (S&D).


At the same time it seems to be in the interest of the leading circles in the neighbouring countries, notably Serbia and Hungary, that HDZ wins the forthcoming election and that Andrej Plenković becomes the new Croatian Prime Minister. Viktor Orbán (Fidesz) and Aleksandar Vučić (SNS) and their parties are members of the European People's Party (EPP) and therefore stem from the same political family of right and centre-right parties.  EPP is making a great effort to bring closer Plenković and Vučić. It is estimated that if Zoran Milanović is re-elected as Prime Minister, it would be much easier for him to parry Aleksandar Vučić and Serbia's politics as well as Hungarian and Slovenian Prime Ministers ViktorOrbán and Miro Cerar. Croatia shares a thousand kilometre border with Bosnia and Herzegovina and it would be unwise to believe that BH is irrelevant. Quite the contrary, BH is much more important for Croatia than any other country, since the situation in BH most directly influences the situation and the economy/tourism in Croatia.




Analysts have noted that Croatia needs a government that is not burdened with any extremist left or right ideology but instead aims to unite the nation and achieve general social consensus for numerous urgent reforms as well as to regain citizens' trust in politics and modern state institutions. It is of great importance that the new government strives to reach national reconciliation regarding the issues from World War II (1941-45) and the divisions arising from the recent Homeland War (1991-95). It is too late now for any lustration – 26 years after the implementation of the multiparty system in Croatia such processes would be harmful and probably misused for narrow political goals. It is much more important for Croatia to examine the origin of property gained during the period after the country gained independence and to implement appropriate legal solutions to compensate for the damage caused to the state.


Unification and cooperation between different political actors with the aim to bring Croatia out of the economic crisis, achieve economic prosperity and reduce unemployment especially among the young generation are the fields in which the President of the state can play the key role.


During the campaign some political groups and individual candidates have tried to manipulate patriotic issues for their own gain. Bearing in mind that patriotism has often been used as a veil for criminal activities and for plundering the national (state) property, it is urgent to redefine the role of patriotism in Croatian society.


Croatia should end the period of romantic nationalism – the Croats have created their own country, but now they have to ensure its future for the next generations. The new government will have to deal with numerous problems. The politics that stress historical divisions among the Croats will bring the country back into the past, but what Croatia needs now is the future. Other nations also have their historical divisions and traumas, but they rarely stress the past at the expense of their future, as has been the case in Croatia, which is harmful for the Croats and the region.




Orešković's and Karamarko's political adventure was very costly for Croatia. Croatia's withdrawal from the arbitration agreement with Slovenia (the Piran Bay) further contributed to increased patriotic and nationalistic rhetoric not only in relation to Slovenia but even more towards Serbia and partly also towards Bosnia and Herzegovina. Immediately after having gained power at the beginning of this year Croatia's incumbent government abolished the notion of the region and introduced neighbourhood as the new term for co-operation. According to this criterion Albania has also become Croatia's neighbour. It seems that whenever Croatia tries to distance itself from the Balkans it comes even closer to it.

Milanović's verbal conflict with Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić (SNS) was used to make a strategic move in the election race. HDZ is no longer the standard for “patriotism”. Those standards were changed by Milanović. Although with a somewhat lesser intensity, Milanović also had a verbal confrontation with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (Fidesz) – besides the ideological differences they have to resolve the issue of INA oil company's ownership.


Relations with the neighbouring states will remain a challenge and a test for the new Croatian government, bearing in mind that Croatia has lost its influence and the leading position in the region. This leadership has been taken over by Serbian Prime Minister Vučić, therefore it is important whether the new Croatian prime minister would be able to parry Vučić and others in the neighbourhood.


Croatia has only regulated its border with Hungary while the borders with Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro are still undefined and it has no border agreements signed with those countries. Experts agree that Croatia needs constitutional changes, but their opinions diverge when it comes to the content and extent of those changes. Croatia has to perform the rationalisation of the number of its counties (21), cities (127) and municipalities (428). Croatian city and town mayors can be elected as MPs, which is a rarity in developed democracies where local government is separated from the legislative branch of power.

Relevant researches have shown that the leading political blocks (the People's Coalition and HDZ) anticipate a rather narrow result at the upcoming parliamentary election with the People's Coalition having a slight advantage, whereby the relative winner will be decided in the final part of the campaign. A lot would depend on eventual television confrontation between the two coalition leaders Milanović and Plenković. Mobilisation of voters by both leading political coalitions in the last moments of the campaign could prevent small political parties from passing the 5% election threshold. 

Representatives of national minorities and small parties that will pass the election threshold could eventually tip the scales during the post-election formation of the coalition for the new government.

Unless Croatia increases the birth rate and stops emigration of its citizens from the country it will face further problems. The EU and Croatia's role it has been only a marginal topic in the election campaign. Croatia still has not clearly designated its place within the EU, apart from constantly repeating that it should draw more from the EU Funds. The country should also intensify its role in NATO. Tourism has marked an incredible 24% growth and foreign investments have increased – this is mostly due to membership in NATO which provides a common security umbrella. This sends a strong message to the neighbouring countries that NATO can contribute to economic growth and foreign investments.

The forthcoming early election is perhaps the last chance for Croatia –unfavourable development of the situation within the country, in its neighbourhood and at the international level due to political instability may take the country in the wrong direction. Croatia has to decide whether it will stay at a crossroads between the past and the future or definitely decide for the future.  It is the Croatian voters who will make this decision.


Ljubljana, 7 September 2016