Legislative elections were held in Croatia on December 4, 2011. All 151 members of the Croatia’s unicameral Parliament, the Hrvatski Sabor, were up for reelection. 140 members are elected in ten electoral districts which each return 14 members. There is no national threshold, but parties must win 5% of the vote in a constituency to qualify for seats there. The districts are meant to be equal in size, but since their creation in 2000 they have become more unequal: this year, 230k votes were cast on average in each but the difference ranges from 206k in one to 261k votes in another. 8 seats are elected in a single non-geographical constituency for national minorities: 3 seats for Serbs, 1 for Hungarians, 1 for Italians, 1 for Czechs and Slovaks, 1 for Austrian, Bulgarian, German, Polish, Roma, Romanian, Ruthenian, Russian, Vlach and Jewish minorities, and one seat for Albanians, Bosniaks, Montenegrins, Macedonians and Slovenians. A fixed number of 3 members are elected to represent the Croatian diaspora, which in practice means Croatians in Bosnia and Herzegovina who often have the dual nationality.
In Slovenia, we had seen that politics are still in a state of flux and that there is no stable, long-lasting party system on the near horizon. In Croatia however, politics have stabilized quite remarkably since 2000 which marks the emergence of the country’s present party system.
Talking of a natural governing party in a country which is only 20 years old is rather ridiculous, but the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has since independence fit that mold pretty well. The HDZ was born as a hard-right nationalist party led by a man, Franjo Tuđman, with some pretty authoritarian tendencies. Under Tuđman’s rule, Croatia suffered from high unemployment, controversial privatization policies, limited press freedoms and isolation on the international scene in the wake of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. By the time of his death in 1999, his charm as the father of the nation had started to wear off. The mood was increasingly favourable to Europeanization and further democratization of the system.
In 2000, the opposition – divided between Dražen Budiša’s Social Liberals (HSLS) and Ivica Račan’s post-communist Social Democrats (SDP) formed a coalition. Ivica Račan, as Prime Minister and Stjepan Mesić, as President entered office in 2000 with high hopes that they would be the reformers who would drag Croatia out of its semi-isolationist, authoritarian and nationalist past. However, Račan’s composite government allying growingly right-wing Social Liberals, the agrarian Peasant Party (HSS), the regionalist IDS and the left-liberal People’s Party (HNS) soon became rift with factionalism between the partners and Račan seen as inefficient. Budiša started appearing nationalistic on the issue of deporting Croatian generals to be tried for war crimes at the ICTY, and the coalition between the two top partners soon collapsed. Račan managed to remain in office until November 2003 with the support of HSLS dissidents who went on to join the HNS.
In the 2003 elections, despite having moved Croatia firmly onto the European scene and benefiting from stable economic growth, Račan was decisively defeated by the HDZ. In the meantime, the HDZ had moved away from the hard-right nationalism of the Tuđman era and, under Ivo Sanader’s leadership, was able to be seen as a modern, moderate pro-European conservative party. While originally firmly against the ICTY indictments, Sanader quickly changed tone and defeated the party’s hard-right faction to place it on a firmly pro-European centre-right axis. Under Sanader’s leadership, Croatia inched closer to joining the EU – that is likely what Sanader will be remembered for. He was reelected in 2007, narrowly defeating Zoran Milanović’s SDP in what was perhaps the closest election to date in Croatia.
The second term proceded to become a massive train wreck. On the one hand, Croatia was a victim of the global recession: unemployment reached 12% in 2010 and is rising, the country’s debt went from 28% of the GDP to 47.5% in 2011, the economy shrunk by 6% in 2010 and recovery is slow and a large deficit. The government was forced to implement unpopular measures to deal with the economic situation of the country.
In July 2009, Sanader resigned from office and was replaced by Jadranska Kosor. Her popularity dwindled almost instantly after the introduction of a new income tax (styled crisis tax) and a 1% hike in the VAT. Simultaneously, the HDZ as a whole became embroiled in a series of corruption allegations. Kosor does not seem to be directly involved in the bulk of them, though whether she knew of them prior to becoming Prime Minister is up for debate. At any rate, Kosor’s more hardline stance on corruption would blow up in her face as prosecutors started unearthing pretty stinging corruption cases against senior HDZ members – especially Ivo Sanader.
Following the HDZ’s thumping in the 2009-2010 presidential election, Sanader – likely because he was starting to sweat from the corruption allegations which were inching closer to him – decided that he wanted to take back the party. In January, his attempts to stage an internal coup failed and he was expelled from the party on Kosor’s orders – giving her a small boost in popularity. In December, right before the Sabor was to remove his immunity, Sanader fled the country only to be arrested hours later in Austria on an Interpol warrant. Deported to Croatia, Sanader is currently rotting in jail awaiting trial on counts of bribery, corruption and so forth. While some have praised Kosor’s politically unfortunate anti-corruption drive, it certainly did not help matters for her party which on top of that suffers the effects of the economic crisis and the unpopularity of the government’s measures.
Starting in November 2010, the main opposition forces coalesced into a single coalition reminisicent of Račan’s SDP-HSLS coalition in 2000. Along Zoran Milanović’s SDP (56 seats in 2007), the other allies were the left-liberal People’s Party (HNS-LD) which had won 7 seats in 2007, the regionalist Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS) which had two seats and the Pensioners Party (HSU) which won a single seat in 2007. Originally known as the ‘Alliance for Change’, it adopted the wonderful name (really, they ought to get a prize for being so original) Kukuriku coalition – named after the restaurant where they first met in 2009 and which literally means ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ (in French, cocorico). Kukuriku’s platform is called ‘Plan 21’.
The HDZ allied with two minor parties of the centre-right in a few constituencies. Besides the two main blocks, there was a new party – the left-populist Croatian Labourists – Labour Party led by former HNS MP Dragutin Lesar. Other parties include the right-regionalist Croatian Democratic Alliance of Slavonia and Baranja (HDSSB), founded by controversial former HDZ defense minister Branimir Glavaš (who is a remnant of the HDZ’s 1990s orientation as a hard-right nationalist party); the far-right Croatian Party of Rights (HSP) and the agrarian right-wing Peasant Party (HSS). The HSLS, formerly the HDZ’s junior ally, entered the election with no seats after its two MPs had defected following the party’s decision to pull out of the coalition.
Apparently the government can’t be bothered to give us the national results, so all results at a national level are my calculations, which seem pretty accurate though perhaps not down to the decimal level. Turnout was 61.8% in Croatia, and 5% for the diaspora – 80% of the votes cast in the diaspora constituency came from Bosnia. The Kukuriku coalition’s results are compared to the combined sum total of SDP, HNS, IDS and HSU lists in 2007. No comparison can be made for HSS, HSLS and PGS as they all formed a single coalition in 2007 (6.5%). Please let me know if the national results are ever published officially.
Kukuriku (SDP-HNS-IDS-HSU) 40.72% (-2.88%) winning 80 seats (+13)
HDZ and allies 23.93% (-12.67%) winning 47 seats (-19)
Labourists 5.17% (+5.17%) winning 6 seats (+6)
HSLS 3.1% winning 0 seats (-2)
HSP 3.07% (-0.43%) winning 0 seats (-1)
HSS 3.04% winning 1 seat (-5)
HDSSB 2.93% (+1.13%) winning 6 seats (+3)
BUZ-PGS 2.85% winning 0 seats (nc)
Ivan Grubišić 2.82% (+2.82%) winning 2 seats (+2)
HSP-dr. Ante Starčević 2.81% (+2.81%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Others 9.56% winning 0 seats
National minorities winning 8 seats (nc) – including 3 SDSS, 1 Kukuriku-HNS
The HDZ was never expected to win, but during the campaign it failed to stop the bleeding and it was unable to keep a bad election from turning into a rout as it did. The HDZ won its worst result ever and for the first time in its history, it will not be the largest party in the Sabor. 2011 really is a bloodbath for those ‘natural governing parties’ around the world. The result, in my eyes, is not entirely Kosor’s fault as she appears to be a fairly well-intentioned person who has been forced to make unpopular decisions (whether they are good is up to you) in circumstances beyond her control and whose tougher stance on corruption only led to the total collapse of the HDZ around her as its former leader ended up canned and other senior members forced to resign for putting their hands in the jelly too often. The HDZ has suffered a rout, which is far worst than the one they had suffered (kind of) in 2000, but yet I have a hard time imagining a scenario where they collapse into oblivion.
Kukuriku has won a convincing victory and a comfortable majority to boot. What I find most interesting is that the combined sum total of all of Kukuriku’s components in 2007 is actually higher than what it won this year. The SDP and HNS probably lost some voters to Lesar’s new Labourist party, which I’d love to find out more about and understand the reasons behind their success. In other cases, some of those parties’ individual voters in 2007 might not have voted for the SDP-dominated Kukuriku coalition this year.
As in so many cases, after phenomenal victory comes the harsh realities of governance. This is especially true these days, where opposition parties often win huge victories over unpopular incumbents but wake up the next day with a deficit, debt and unemployment rate which is just as huge. Croatia’s new Prime Minister find himself in this situation. The anti-corruption campaign was nice, but the main problem in Croatia is unemployment and the general anemic economy. Plan 21 – the coalition’s program – is, as is typical, full of flowery rhetoric and the usual assumptions that governments can do anything they please like in a cocoon. Stuff like ‘re-industrialization’ of sorts towards an export-oriented growth will likely go out the window along with the rhetoric about neoliberalism being negative and the need for a fairer society. For starters, the incoming government has shown itself quite receptive to asking the IMF for a loan – something which the HDZ had resisted. Kukuriku’s leaders otherwise seem pretty lucid about the reality they find themselves thrown into. Milanović will also need to prevent his grand coalition from turning into a mess like Račan’s coalition had ended up as. Will the SDP’s coalition partners, notably the HNS and IDS, stick together with the SDP as the Kukuriku coalition faces the economic crisis?
Another issue which the incoming government will be faced it is that of Croatia’s membership in the EU. The adhesion process is now completed and is awaiting ratification in a referendum likely to be held early next year. Milanović does not seem to be a top fan of European integration, but the HNS which will likely get the foreign ministry is very much pro-European. The local fallout of the Eurozone crisis and the general chaotic state of affairs in the EU will be interesting to follow. Up till this point, opinion is generally comfortably in favour of joining the EU although there was a spike of nationalism in April 2011 following General Ante Gotovina’s sentencing by the ICTY.
In terms of third parties, it was new third parties rather than older third parties which had a good outing. The main surprise was the rather unexpected strong showing of Dragutin Lesar’s new populist left-wing Labourists, who won 6 seats. They performed strongest in more left-wing northern central Croatia and Istria, but did poorly in Slavonia and Dalmatia. The other surprise of the election was the surprise performance of an independent list led by Ivan Grubišić, a former Roman Catholic priest who ran on an anti-corruption and ethics platform. His performance was regionally concentrated in Split and southern Dalmatia (district 10). He won 11.7% of the vote and two seats in that district. On the far-right, the HSP was swept out and replaced on that front by a splinter, the “HSP-dr. Ante Starčević” – which seems even further to the right – which won 6% and a single seat in district 10. Although not as new as either of the three new parties who gained entrance into the Sabor, the election was marked by the strong showing of the right-wing regionalist HDSSB who had ran on a very much anti-HDZ decentralist platform. Likely taking the bulk of its votes from the HDZ and HSP (whose support in 2007 mostly came from Slavonia), the HDSSB won 6 seats with 21.7% in district 4 and 11.5% in district 5.
On the other hand, older third parties performed rather poorly. The HSS, the HDZ’s junior coalition partner, suffered its worst result ever winning only 3% of the vote and being reduced to a single seat (district 2, where it won 6%). The HSLS had found itself without any members in the Sabor after its two members defected from the party in disagreement over its decision to pull out of government. Running alone, HSLS won only 3% of the vote and failed to win a single seat.
The electoral map of Croatia, in particular HDZ’s traditional strongholds, bear a close resemblance to the map of the war zones in the country during the conflict of the 1990s. A similar pattern had been seen in the 2010 presidential runoff. The HDZ performs strongest in those areas which were part of Serbian Krajina or were located close enough to the breakaway Serbian entity to have suffered heavily during the war – namely Lika, Dalmatia and Slavonia. I suspect there may be other factors at play too, but the resemblance is rather striking and becomes even more striking when the HDZ is reduced to its core bases in years like 2011.
Kukuriku’s support was concentrated in Zagreb, northern Croatia and most of northern Croatia. In Istria (to be fair, district 8 which includes Rijeka and some coastal areas which are not Istrian), where the regionalist IDS was party with the coalition, Kukuriku won 57% to the HDZ’s 12.2%. Istria had been a frustration for HDZ in the party’s heyday of the 1990s, when Istria often proved the lone holdout of opposition to the Tuđman regime. It has since remained one of the HDZ’s weakest regions. Istria has a small Italian minority, but what seems to define it as politically unique nowadays is a tradition of inter-ethnic tolerance (at the turn of the century, Istria was much more ethnically heterogeneous) which has bred a strong regional identity and particularism.
Istria also speaks the Chakavian dialect of Croatian, a dialect which is regionally concentrated in Istria and the islands of the Adriatic along the Dalmatian coast. There is another striking resemblance between the electoral map and dialectical map: the areas speaking the Chakavian and Kaikavian dialect of Croatian (Kaikavian is spoken in northern and central Croatia) tend to be the most left-leaning areas, while Shtokavian dialectical regions – Lika, Dalmatia and Slavonia – tend to be right-leaning. The difference between Chakavian areas and Shtokavian areas along the Dalmatian coast was particularly visible in the 2010 presidential runoff. There might be other factors coming into play, but this is another case of pretty interesting resemblances.