Croatia European Parliament 2013
Special European parliamentary elections were held in Croatia on April 14, 2013 to elect Croatia’s 12 members of the European Parliament for the remainder of the EP’s 2009-2014 term. Croatia’s MEPs are elected in a single nationwide constituency using open list proportional representation. Croatia will formally become the 28th member state of the European Union (EU) on July 1, 2013.
Two-thirds of Croatians voted in favour of joining the European Union in a referendum in January 2012, although turnout was only 43.5%. Croatia’s accession process formally began in June 2004 when it became an official candidate country and negotiations between Zagreb and Brussels were launched in October 2005 and lasted until June 2011. Public opinion had generally been strongly supportive of EU membership, with the exception of a brief period in April 2011 after the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) sentenced Croatian war hero Ante Gotovina to 24 years in jail for war crimes/crimes against humanity in the Croatian war of independence in the early 1990s. Gotovina and fellow general Mladen Markač were later found innocent on all charges and their convictions overturned by the ICTY’s appeals panel in November 2012.
The Kukuriku, a centre-left multi-party alliance led by the Social Democratic Party (SDP), won the December 2011 election defeating the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) which had been in power since 2003. In the 1990s, the HDZ was a hard-right nationalist party led by Franjo Tuđman, a controversial strongman whose policies during the war years and the turbulent 90s isolated the country diplomatically. The HDZ was voted out of office in 2000, replaced by a heterogeneous reformist coalition around Prime Minister Ivica Račan (SDP) and President Stjepan Mesić (left-liberal HNS). Račan’s government, rapidly crippled by divisions between coalition members, only lasted until 2003 but under his and President Mesić’s leadership, Croatia gradually emerged from the semi-isolation of the Tuđman era and placed on the road to EU membership. The HDZ, transformed into a pro-European centre-right party under Ivo Sanader, won the 2003 elections by a decisive margin and was narrowly reelected in 2007.
While Sanader’s first term was generally successful because of a strong economy and EU negotiations, the second term proved to be a disaster from which the HDZ has yet to fully recover from. Croatia was hit particularly badly by the onset of the economic crisis in 2009-2010, which wrecked economic growth. Public opinion responded very poorly to the HDZ’s austerity policies, which included a very unpopular hike in the VAT and the introduction of a new ‘crisis’ income tax. Ivo Sanader resigned in the summer of 2009, and he was succeeded by Jadranka Kosor. Around the same time, Sanader himself and the HDZ as a whole were hit by a whole slew of particularly egregious corruption scandals. While Kosor herself was probably not directly involved and she took a hardline stance against corruption once in office, the whole thing blew up in her party’s face once prosecutors started digging and unearthing some pretty big corruption scandals – many of them involving Sanader himself. In January 2010, his ploy to reclaim the party’s leadership was foiled and in December, the Parliament voted to strip his immunity. He initially fled across the border to Austria, but he was arrested on an Interpol arrest warrant within hours. Sanader was sentenced to ten years in prison in November 2012.
Crippled by the stench of corruption and the economic crisis, Jadranka Kosor’s HDZ was handily defeated by SDP leader Zoran Milanović’s Kukuriku centre-left coalition in the 2011 elections. Although he was elected on a vaguely anti-austerity and broadly left-leaning agenda, Milanović’s government has been forced to tackle the economic crisis and the country’s large budgetary deficit – unsurprisingly, in the form of austerity measures and economic reforms which have included major public spending cuts, pension reforms, the sell of state assets (privatizations) and the liberalization of foreign investment. The country’s economy remains in a weak position: it has very low credit ratings, the GDP shrank by 2% in 2012 and it is still projected to be negative this year, unemployment is still rising exponentially (now up to 17%) and debt repayments combined with new EU contributions will frustrate the government’s objective of reducing the deficit in line with IMF recommendations. The IMF projects the country’s deficit will be 4.25% of GDP this year.
The government has also faced a few low-intensity scandals or embarrassing affairs. In November 2012, the Vice Premier and leader of the largest junior coalition party (HNS-LD) Radimir Čačić resigned after he was sentenced to 22 months in jail by a Hungarian court over a car crash he caused in 2010 resulting in the death of two people. In March 2013, the tourism minister was forced to resign after a media investigation revealed details about how his family had profited from a real estate deal in Istria.
In October 2012, the government was rattled by a bizarre affair likely orchestrated by the right-wing opposition which has since blown up in the opposition’s face. The right-wing newspaper Večernji list alleged that Interior Minister Ranko Ostojić had been illegally tapping the phones of intelligence operatives. The left-wing newspaper Jutarnji list countered with claims that the intelligence operatives were tracked because of suspected contacts with the mafia, and accused HDZ leader Tomislav Karamarko and Večernji list of creating a fake scandal to discredit the government. The weird scandal backfired on the opposition – in December, Ostojić ordered an investigation into a spying scandal from Karamarko’s days as Interior Minister. Karamarko is accussed of tracking Attorney General Mladen Bajić and several journalists.
The government has become fairly unpopular, with its approval ratings down to 30% and its polling numbers down nearly ten points from its 2011 result (40%). But, thus far, the HDZ has struggled to profit from the government’s unpopularity. It remains badly tainted with the corruption scandals from its last term in office, and the stench refuses to go away. Indeed, the party itself is currently on trial for corruption. Former Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor lost the party leadership in May 2012, placing third in a leadership election won by Tomislav Karamarko, who appears more right-wing and nationalistic than recent HDZ leaders. Kosor was recently expelled from the party. The main beneficiary, instead, of the government’s declining popularity have been the Labourists (Hrvatski laburisti), a new left-wing party which won 5.1% and 6 seats in 2011. Claiming to represent the working-classes, the Labourists oppose austerity policies.
The SDP ran a common list with the left-liberal HNS-LD and the main pensioners’ party (HSU). The HDZ ran a common list with the nationalistic right-wing Croatian Party of Rights dr. Ante Starčević (HSP AS, one seat in 2011) and a smaller pensioners’ party. The Croatian Peasants’ Party (HSS) and the Social Liberals (HSLS) ran a common list and the right-wing regionalistic Croatian Democratic Alliance of Slavonia and Baranja (HDSSB) ran with smaller allied parties. The small regionalist Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS), although a governing party in the current coalition, ran its own separate list led by IDS leader and Istria County head Ivan Jakovčić.
Turnout in these EU elections was an utterly catastrophic 20.84% – certainly one of the lowest turnouts in any EU election (besides Slovakia). Very low turnout in EU elections is the norm in the newer member states in eastern Europe, where any original enthusiasm for joining the EU has certainly not translated into any interest into the EU Parliament. Besides the fact that basically nobody in Croatia or in the rest of the EU for that matter actually cares about the EU Parliament or actually knows what it does, this particular election was very low-key. The major elections will be local and county elections in May, this election was a dress rehearsal for those elections in which no party placed tons of efforts or attention.
HDZ-HSP AS-BUZ 32.86% winning 6 seats
SDP-HNS-HSU 32.07% winning 5 seats
Labourists 5.77% winning 1 seat
HSS-HSLS 3.86% winning 0 seats
Ivan Jakovčić (IDS) 3.84% winning 0 seats
HDSSB 3.01% winning 0 seats
Croatian Growth 2.55% winning 0 seats
Youth Action 1.49% winning 0 seats
Pensioners’ Party 1.48% winning 0 seats
HSP 1.39% winning 0 seats
Greens 1.16% winning 0 seats
Pirate Party 1.13% winning 0 seats
All others 9.39% winning 0 seats
The centre-right opposition coalition led by the HDZ eked out a surprise victory, taking six of the country’s 12 seats. Whereas sparse polling prior to the election had shown them trailing the governing SDP-led coalition by a fairly substantial margin and on track to win only 4 or 5 seats, it came out ahead by a whisker. At cause here is probably the low turnout. When turnout is so low, elections are even more unpredictable and even good pollsters will have lots of trouble accurately predicting the outcome – because tons of voters lie to them by saying that they will certainly vote when in fact a lot/most end up not voting. Therefore, given the low turnout it is hard to interpret this election as a significant defeat for the governing coalition – their real test will be in the local elections next month, where turnout will be much higher and the stakes fairly high as well. Nevertheless, it remains an unwelcome surprise for the government.
The HDZ’s list was likely boosted by the presence of Ruža Tomašić, the leader of the right-wing/far-right HSP AS, who was sixth on the party’s list but who won the most preference votes of any candidates on the list – she won 26.6% of all votes cast for the lists’ candidates. Tomašić is a prominent anti-corruption crusader who gained notoriety – and controversy – recently by saying that “Croatia is for Croatians” and that the “others” are just “guests”. It is unclear whether she will join her five HDZ colleagues in the European People’s Party (EPP) group.
It also helps that the HDZ tends to be very good at turning out voters and motivating its electorate, something which has allowed it to outperform the SDP in close elections – such as the 2007 legislative election or the 2009 local elections.
The Labourists too will be disappointed by their performance. National polling consistently gives them about 10% of voting intentions and they had a solid chance to win two seats in this election. Their result, barely above their 2011 result percentage-wise, was disappointing for them.
As is usually the case in EU elections, a whole slew of tiny parties and third parties did very well. 29% of voters cast votes for parties or lists which did not win any seats, over 9% cast votes for lists which did not even win over 1% of the vote. In Istria, Ivan Jakovčić’s list won 44.5% of the vote in the county. The HDSSB also did quite well, polling up to 22.5% in Osijek-Baranja County.
Unsurprisingly, the first EU elections in Croatia were marked by apathy and general indifference. Surprisingly, however, the governing party which had been expected to win ended up narrowly losing – the sign of rising discontent with the young left-wing government in the midst of recession and austerity, or just a quirk from low turnout?