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Parliamentary Elections in Croatia 2024: Is Croatia sliding into autocracy?

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The year 2024 in the Republic of Croatia has been proclaimed a super-election year, as it will witness parliamentary elections, elections for the European Parliament, and elections for the President of the Republic of Croatia. The parliamentary elections are set for 17 April, constituting the 11th (early) parliamentary elections since the declaration of independence in 1991.

Members of the Croatian Parliament are elected directly, through a secret ballot using a proportional representation system where each party or candidate is entitled to the number of parliamentary seats proportional to the number of votes received. The electoral threshold stands at 5%. A total of 151 deputies are elected to the Parliament. Out of these, 140 deputies are elected from the Republic of Croatia’s territory, divided into 10 electoral units, each unit electing 14 deputies. Three deputy seats are elected by Croatian citizens abroad (11th electoral unit), and eight seats are allocated to members of national minorities (12th electoral unit). These are the fifth parliamentary elections where it is possible to use preferential voting. However, insufficient efforts have been made so far in promoting preferential voting and active citizenship.

There will be 165 candidate lists participating in the elections, including 95 independent party lists (compared to 192 in the previous elections). A total of 2,277 candidates are in the running, comprising 56% men and 44% women. Interestingly, the HDZ has only 25% of women on its electoral lists.

The Republic of Croatia has approximately 3.9 million inhabitants, with 3,733,283 eligible voters. Among them, 3,511,086 reside in Croatia, including 13,361 previously registered voters. Outside Croatia (diaspora – Croatian emigrants), 222,197 voters have actively registered. The most registrations are in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany, Serbia, Switzerland, and Austria. The diaspora will vote in the 11th electoral unit, while members of national minorities have voting rights for their eight representatives in the 12th electoral unit.

Milanović as an important check to HDZ’s government

A distinctive feature of the upcoming parliamentary elections is the participation of President Zoran Milanović, who serves as the unofficial prime ministerial candidate for the “Rivers of Justice” (Rijeke pravde) list led by the SDP (Social Democratic Party). However, the Constitutional Court of Croatia has ruled this involvement inconsistent with the Constitution, clearly warning of the limited role of the President of the Republic in election campaigns. Milanović’s “election statements” are thus excluded from the media’s election coverage block. Following his declaration of candidacy, the Constitutional Court has barred Milanović from appearing as a candidate on any list or being promoted as a candidate for prime minister in the political election campaign. This unprecedented situation in Croatia’s electoral history, which spans all previous cycles since independence, has led to assessments questioning the regularity of parliamentary elections.

President Milanović has been vocal in criticizing the appointment of Ivan Turudić as the Chief Public Prosecutor, stating: “They have appointed a criminal to the position of Chief Public Prosecutor, despite timely warnings and full awareness of the facts. But to Plenković, his party, which has been convicted of crime, robbery, and plunder, was more important. And Croatia gets what is left over? No, we must not and will not permit this. That’s why, on 17 April 2024 elections, choose anyone but HDZ and their allies!”[2]

Analysts believe that the personal feud between Prime Minister Andrej Plenković (HDZ/EPP) and Zoran Milanović not only tarnishes Croatia’s reputation but also underscores the importance of President Milanović’s role as a counterbalance to HDZ’s government, which under Andrej Plenković is sliding towards autocracy and increasingly resembles autocratic regimes in neighbouring countries. Due to its fragmentation and internal disputes, the previous opposition was unable to act as a check and balance on Plenković’s government, a role that President Milanović has taken on, being far more popular among the public than Plenković.

The Homeland War and the Roman Catholic Church are the integrative factors of contemporary Croatia

The Croatian political landscape is defined by two political parties representing the two extremes of the political spectrum. One is the Croatian Democratic Union (Hrvatska demokratska zajednica – HDZ) led by Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, whose ideology as a national/ist movement is rooted in anti-communism, anti-Yugoslavism, and the independence process, as well as the so-called Serbian threat in Croatia, and in recent years, the alleged Muslim threat, not only to Croatia but to Europe as a whole. Communism and Yugoslavia are no more, the independence process ended in 1991, and the Serbs have been decimated and now represent a stability factor and a test for Croatian democracy, having significantly contributed to the EU accession process as a constructive factor. After the parliamentary elections in BiH in 2022, Muslims (referring to Bosniaks in BiH) are now under the control of the official Zagreb, which successfully managed to install a vassal government in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina entity.

Projecting supposed threats and dangers has become a tactic of political survival. HDZ in Croatia and VMRO-DPMNE in North Macedonia are the only two right-wing political parties in the region that have faced legal prosecution. Both their former presidents, who were also prime ministers, Ivo Sanader and Nikola Gruevski, were legally convicted. HDZ was convicted of corruption by the Zagreb County Court due to illegal funding or extracting money from state institutions and companies. Additionally, there are five final judgments[3] of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) against Croatia, mainly targeting HDZ officials, for involvement in the international armed conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Furthermore, the ICTY judgment concluded that Croatia participated in the Joint Criminal Enterprise (JCE) in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Therefore, the EU and the US must bear these facts in mind as Croatia’s current policy towards BiH is not a part of the solution but, unfortunately, part of the problem in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which anticipates elections in Croatia without much optimism.

The prevailing opinion is that Croatia is a victim of Greater Serbian politics, portraying the Homeland War as defensive so therefore crimes could not have been committed during it. Croatia aided Croats in BiH and was not an aggressor, despite the ICTY classifying it as an international conflict and designating Croatia as an aggressor in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in its five judgments. It was Plenković himself who negotiated with Americans for the installation of a puppet government in the Federation of BiH and the appointment of Christian Schmidt, a member of the right-wing Christian Social Union (CSU), as the High Representative in BiH (OHR), leading to the suspension of the Federation of BiH’s Constitution. In exchange for this service, Croatia voted against the UN resolution for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, sparking outrage among a significant portion of the Croatian public.

On the opposite end of the Croatian political spectrum is the Social Democratic Party of Croatia (Socijaldemokratska partija Hrvatske – SDP) led by Peđa Grbin, formerly headed by the current President of Croatia, Zoran Milanović. SDP is the successor of the former League of Communists of Croatia (Savez komunista Hrvatske – SKH). SDP is attempting to transform into a modern social democratic party, increasingly unburdened by the remnants of the past. The schism within the SDP has led to fragmentation and division among social democratic voters. Croatia and the countries in the region need strong social democratic parties, which currently struggle to meet contemporary challenges.

Two integrative factors of modern Croatian statehood are the Homeland War and the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). For a part of Croatian society, another factor is the legacy of the (Nazi-fascist) creation Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna država Hrvatska – NDH) under Ante Pavelić. The lack of critical discourse on this matter is evident in Croatian society.

HDZ and SDP are two vivid examples of the Croatian political scene, benefiting the most from the ideological conflict that is tearing Croatia apart and hindering the country from functioning at full capacity. SDP and most of the opposition believe that HDZ’s integrative and mobilizing factors are crime, corruption, and nepotism. The European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), led by Laura Codruța Kövesi, is investigating the misappropriation of over 300 million euros of European funds in Croatia, proportionally placing Croatia at the forefront of Europe in this regard. Nataša Novaković[4], former President of the Conflict of Interest Commission, believes that “Croatia loses 10 billion dollars annually due to corruption. Imagine how much money that is and how corruption affects all of us.” Even Andrej Plenković replaced over 30 ministers during his two terms as Prime Minister, mostly due to corrupt practices.

The low level of political culture among key political actors

As an independent, sovereign, and internationally recognized state, Croatia is a member of the UN, EU, NATO, the eurozone, Schengen, and other international organizations. These are achievements realized in a relatively short period and hold historical significance. However, this remarkable success is not accompanied by substantive development in Croatian society.  Additional efforts are needed for Croatian society to evolve as an open, democratic entity grounded in civil liberties and individual rights, focused on the future rather than the past. Constitutional patriotism, the rights, and obligations of every Croatian citizen irrespective of their ethnic, religious, political, or any other affiliation must not be called into question. Croatian society is still in a phase akin to adolescence, suffering all the diseases that accompany this stage.

Croatia has not fully realized itself as a social community in the post-transitional society, as certain segments of society are still ensnared by the past. Additional collective efforts are needed to surmount the current situation for Croatia to become a modern democratic society, offering equal opportunities and rights to all its citizens. Croatia has not entirely succeeded in this endeavour, but it is not unattainable in the near future.

Zoran Milanović and Andrej Plenković certainly cannot contribute to the healing of Croatian society with their vocabulary and political style but rather deepen negative phenomena and traumas from the recent past. Milanović and Plenković contribute to further polarization and discord in Croatian society. The low level of political culture and showbiz manners of Prime Minister Plenković and President Milanović indicate that Croatia, in this regard, is not lagging behind the Western Balkan region because the Prime Minister and President behave in a typical “Balkan way.”

HDZ and partners lead for now

According to relevant surveys, the HDZ and its coalition partners are currently in the lead, while the coalition led by the Social Democratic Party (SDP), known as the “Rivers of Justice,” is trailing behind. The relative winner of the upcoming parliamentary elections in Croatia will be decided in the final stretch of the campaign. Mobilizing voters from both leading political blocs during the final phase of the campaign could prevent smaller political parties from reaching the five per cent electoral threshold. Based on poll results, the following parties are on track: BRIDGE -Croatian Sovereignists (MOST-Hrvatski suverenisti), Homeland Movement (Domovinski pokret), We Can (Možemo), Focus (Fokus), Istrian Democratic Assembly (Istarski demokratski sabor-IDS), and Independent Platform North (Nezavisna platforma Sjever). Other parties remain below the electoral threshold.

If representatives from minority national communities and smaller parties secure seats in the Croatian Parliament, their votes could tip the balance during the formation of a new ruling coalition, potentially resulting in an anti-HDZ coalition. This scenario would see all other heterogeneous parties uniting to form a government despite HDZ being the relative winner. In the current parliamentary term, certain representatives from minority communities have abused their positions, neglecting their constitutional role and behaving as if they were representatives or members of the ruling HDZ.

Croatia must halt the massive trend of emigration, which is already sounding alarms, and implement systematic measures to boost the birth rate. Croatia will face additional challenges in the future. The EU and Croatia’s role within it remain peripheral topics in the election campaign. Despite millions in funds being allocated to foster young people’s political participation, they are not being included on electoral lists. Notably, economic issues are not addressed in the pre-election campaign. Croatia’s position within the EU is still not clearly defined, especially as it strengthens ties with Russia, a country currently facing sanctions for its aggression against Ukraine. Interestingly, Croatia saw a significant increase in exports to Russia by nearly 25% in 2023, while exports to Ukraine rose by 15%.

Croatia has also witnessed an increase in exports to Kosovo due to the blockade on Serbian imports imposed by Kosovar authorities. However, in 2023, Croatia’s coverage of import by export ratio stood at only 58%[5]. Croatia has become heavily reliant on EU funds and may need to access even more resources from these funds. However, it must ensure that the EU funds are not misappropriated, which could lead to investigations by the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO).Moreover, Croatia’s role in NATO should be strengthened. The significant growth in tourism and increased foreign investment can be largely attributed to membership in NATO as a shared security umbrella. This sends a strong message to Croatia’s neighbours about the benefits of NATO membership for economic development, tourism expansion, and increased foreign investment.

Experts argue that Croatia needs constitutional changes, although opinions differ on their content and scope. Croatia needs to confront the rationalization of its administrative divisions, including counties (21), cities (127), and municipalities (428).

Croatia’s public debt stands at around 90% of GDP, signalling an impending crisis. The deficit is mainly covered by three sources: tourism, remittances from Croatians abroad, and the sale of domestic properties. Tourism is a particularly vulnerable sector susceptible to economic downturns, climatic or political shifts, and war risks in Europe and neighbouring regions. The Covid-19 pandemic has already dealt a massive blow to Croatian tourism. Additionally, the Government of the Republic of Croatia has not adequately addressed the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Zagreb and Banovina/Banija.

Analysts view the upcoming parliamentary elections as a crucial turning point for Croatia. Internal challenges, such as political polarization, coupled with external complexities like the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, regional instability, and the ongoing repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, could potentially steer the country in an undesirable direction. The possible influence of Russia on Croatian elections should not be disregarded.

Croatia is at a crossroads, facing the choice between its ongoing oscillation between past and future or committing decisively to developing a modern Croatian state with a clear vision for the future. This decision ultimately rests with Croatian voters. The political leadership often overlooks Croatia’s membership in the EU and NATO, necessitating the implementation of high political standards and a corresponding political culture, particularly in its interactions with neighbouring nations. Despite the potential for political transformation in the upcoming elections, the fragmented political landscape may pose challenges in forming a new government, possibly leading to the necessity of new parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, the turnover of power is intrinsic to democracy and a fundamental part of it.

Is Croatia sliding into autocracy?

Andrej Plenković attempts to present himself as a polished figure of European politics and the European People’s Party (EPP). However, this facade does not match his true character as he increasingly resembles autocrats from neighbouring countries. When considering Croatia’s integrity issues and drawing comparisons with the mandate of Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, who was convicted of corruption, the level of corruption and nepotism during Andrej Plenković’s administration has reached unprecedented heights.

Plenković unabashedly stated that N1 television[6] operates in a semi-legal manner. Although he didn’t clarify this assertion, both his media minister and N1 television refuted him. Despite failing to undermine TV N1, Plenković achieved the impossible – uniting the entire opposition in Croatia. His aggressive stance echoes similar attacks in neighbouring countries, where some leaders face comparable issues with N1. Plenković’s autocratic mannerisms are becoming more apparent with each passing day.

At the end of the Croatian Parliament’s term, controversial amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code were adopted, known as Lex AP (AP – Andrej Plenković), which introduce the possibility of stricter sanctions for individuals (the so-called whistleblowers) who provide journalists with information from non-public investigative proceedings, such as SMS messages or private emails of suspects. The adoption of “Lex AP” poses a real risk of Orbanization of Croatia.

The forces of revisionism and distortion of history are surfacing, primarily driven by self-interest. Croatia, both as a nation and a society, should take on a more proactive role as a champion for human rights, civil liberties, the preservation of state borders, and peaceful dispute resolution. While these values are declared, their implementation remains lacking. Plenković overlooks more dangerous contenders for Croatian ethnic territory, such as Italian and Hungarian interests, which periodically emerge and pose greater threats compared to relations with Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Slovenia.

Analysts contend that Croatian democracy is increasingly threatened and that Croatia under Andrej Plenković (HDZ) is slowly but surely sliding into autocracy. It is necessary to thwart and stop these trends because Croatia, as a member of the elite society of the EU and NATO, should uphold and implement the highest democratic standards and values.

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