Croatian election win for centre-right: mixed fortunes for populists/nationalists

Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkoviċ (above centre) celebrates victory in this week’s election.

Although the final declarations in last Sunday’s Croatian elections have been delayed by recounts at two polling stations where suspected irregularities have been detected, the final outcome of a poll held under a D’Hondt type system (party lists in big multi-member constituencies) will not be affected by the small number of ballot papers to be recounted.

With more than 99% of the votes cast now counted, the big winner is the HDZ (English translation: the Croatian Democratic Union) which, in the days of President Franjo Tudjman might have been counted as a nationalist party, but has tacked to the centre over the years to please its friends in high places (notably Angela Merkel, of whose CDU party the HDZ is a close ally in the European parliament).  

Opinion polls put the HDZ and the Social Democratic Party (which is much further to the left of centre than its name suggests) running neck and neck, but in the event, the HDZ took 66 of the 151 seats in the Croatian Sabor or parliament, whereas the SDP and its gaggle of left-wing allies took 41, far short of expectations.

The populist campaign of nationalist folk-singer Miroslav Škoro led to his party winning sixteen seats, one more than polls had predicted.

The HDZ is seen as having had a good crisis, so to speak.  Croatia endured a very harsh but short-lived lockdown after a football fan imported Covid-19 on his return from a match in neighbouring Italy.  The Coronavirus was contained quickly, with far fewer deaths per capita than most European countries and a rapid return to normality just in time for the all important tourist season.  The HDZ led government has been given credit accordingly.  Its uninspiring but evidently persuasive “safety first” message “now is not the time to be indulging in political experiments” clearly resonated with the electorate.

Despite the HDZ’s strong showing, a national populist list led by folk singer Miroslav Škoro’s Domovinksi Pokret (Homeland Movement), formed in the aftermath of its leader’s surprisingly good result in the presidential elections six months ago, won sixteen seats in the Sabor, one more than the opinion polls had suggested was likely.

Since the DP has only been in existence for a few months, and is now the third party of Croatia, it is not surprising that Mr Škoro proclaimed himself delighted with the result.

Radical nationalist and war hero General Željko Glasnoviċ was narrowly defeated in his campaign for one of three seats elected by the Croatian diaspora.

Sadly, however, so strong was the surge for the HDZ that it was able, though only by a small margin, to unseat the very radical nationalist, retired General Željko Glasnoviċ, a hero of the country’s independence war of the early 1990s, who previously held one of the three seats reserved for the Croatian diaspora.  General Glasnoviċ stood as an independent, but was warmly endorsed by Mr Škoro.  He had good hopes of winning, and exit polls suggested that he would retain his seat, but it was not to be.

Another right of centre party, Most (“the Bridge”: Croatian political parties have a penchant for eccentric names) took eight seats, while the far left Možemo (“we can”, named after Podemos in Spain, which means precisely the same thing) took  seven, with smaller parties and representatives of Croatia’s ethnic minorities (for whom a number of seats are reserved in the Sabor) picking up the rest.

Croatia’s greens are divided into a right wing faction, which signed up to the DP led list and a left wing faction allied with Možemo, so their votes were aggregated with those of their allies (and seats allocated accordingly).

Echoing the German experience, where the AfD has more or less completely eclipsed the more radical NDP, Desna Liga (the League of the Right) a hard line nationalist list led by the self-styled “pocket rocket” Bruna Esih, the latest in a series of photogenic female nationalist leaders in Europe, polled very poorly, only its glamorous leader personally picking up a half way respectable vote.

Radical nationalist leader Bruna Esih (above right) allied with Karlo Starčević of the Croatian Party of Rights (above left) to present a joint list of candidates who ended up overshadowed by Miroslav Škoro’s party.

These elections took place under unusual circumstances, as Europe emerges from the worst of the Coronavirus pandemic.  It is tolerably clear that incumbents who are perceived as competent (not a label that attaches to our own dear prime minister!) have been strengthened at the expense of populist challengers, for example, the CDU as against the AfD in Germany, so the strong showing of the DP is all the more creditable.

With local elections next year, the DP seems to have a promising future ahead of it, while the Desna Liga needs to find ways to improve on a disappointing performance against a more high profile rival.

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