The immediate context in which the elections for the European Parliament were held in Croatia was determined by two events – catastrophic floods that hit the region, and corruption affairs which destabilised the ruling coalition, or rather its strongest party, the SDP (social democrats). Due to the floods, the official campaign was all but suspended by the candidates. It may be that this decision had some impact on turnout: at 25%, it was slightly better than during last year’s European parliamentary elections, organised upon EU accession, but only by a percent or two at best. The other factor, corruption, has been the dominant topic in the media and public debates over the last few months, and most of the analysis and predicted results were articulated within this perspective. As expected, the coalition in power lost the elections, but not to such a degree as to enable the opposition to issue a call for early parliamentary elections. However, any deeper analysis of these results and party dynamics in Croatia requires taking into account the country’s almost six-year-long economic recession (with no signs of recovery), as well as the ideological status of the EU in the Croatian public imagination and political field.
Just like last year, the conservative party, HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union), won the elections for the European Parliament. The party was also caught in a corruption scandal few years ago, but on a much more serious scale (compared to what is currently known about the SDP's affairs), with their prime minister Ivo Sanader ending up behind bars. As a result, they lost the national elections two and a half years ago before undergoing a process of so-called 'catharsis'. This essentially meant a rhetorical move to the right by invoking anti-communist and war rhetoric, together with an organisational consolidation of logistics and infrastructure. The outcome of such political dynamics was easy to predict – the SDP, together with their coalition partners, would not be able to pull the country out of the crisis, while HDZ would actively wait for a fresh round of elections whilst simultaneously attacking the social democrats for their incompetence and ideological deviations, mostly by instigating cultural wars around gay rights and similar topics. This also enabled them to win two European elections in the meantime.
Both of the two main parties, in a vein similar to their smaller competitors, were not only unwilling, but also unable and lacking the skill necessary to address crucial EU problems during the campaign, be it the architecture of the EU, its notorious democratic deficit, the relations between the core and the periphery, or any other substantial issues regarding EU policies and structural constraints. The reason for this is the status and the role that the EU has had on the Croatian political scene since the break-up of former Yugoslavia. The country was never treated as an individual political entity, with its own dynamics, conflicted interests and structural contradictions, but as an eschatological goal that had to be reached in order to escape from the communist past and a geographical destiny. Questions regarding the EU and Croatia's accession to it have never been articulated in a political sense within the broader political mainstream. This had an impact on the topics and debates which took place during the campaign; almost none of them included debates on fiscal monitoring or the transatlantic trade partnership. Debates and interventions were mostly concerned with daily, ephemeral political affairs. The Centre for Peace Studies, a Zagreb-based NGO, did a study of the topics covered by the campaign. The most vivid example of a politically-misleading campaign is the statistic on the prime minister’s media appearances: out of 317 individual appearances, he referred to the EU only once.
Besides the two main parties, brief remarks should also be made on the remaining four parties/coalitions. The biggest surprise was the newly founded ORAH (Sustainable Development for Croatia) Party which won almost 10% of the vote and a seat in the European Parliament. The party’s success is wholly linked to the political capital of its president, Mirela Holy, who previously served as environment minister in the current government, but was kicked out of the cabinet for a minor corruption scandal. As bigger corruption affairs have begun to appear without such consequences, her political rating as an honest politician started to rise. Her ideological programme is a mix of classic, middle-class sustainable development ideas and mild anti-neoliberal rhetoric. The further development of the party depends on logistical and infrastructural changes; however, it is likely to turn out to be a one hit wonder, as was the case with the Croatian Labourists who became the country’s third party almost overnight, and who vaguely flirted with anti-neoliberalism. Another one man show without an articulated political or economic programme, the Labourists, failed to win any seats in this election. The Association for Croatia coalition – a coalition of small right-wing parties, further to the right than HDZ, but with their manoeuvring space fully dependent on HDZ's rhetorical shifts and logistical work – was on the brink of winning a seat. Finally, the newly founded technocratic 'no left, no right' National Forum, a party led by a capitalist owner of a health clinic, did not manage to cross the 3% threshold, apparently marking an end to their political project in spite of the media attention they received.
To sum up: the dual party system is still more or less stable, with minor surprises that are mostly symptoms of system dynamics.
Marko Kostanić (co-founder and member of Centre for Labour Studies from Zagreb and executive editor of the newly founded critical regional web-portal Bilten)
IN POWER: SDP (left)
Radical left party in the EP: 1 seat of 12
The Croatian Labourists (HL) came in third in the general elections of December 2011.