Rise of the New Left, Breakthrough of Liberals in Country’s Second Largest City...

Local and regional elections in Croatia
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On 16 May, Croatians elected their representatives in 555 cities and municipalities, 21 regions and the capital Zagreb. Where candidates fell short of an absolute majority (regional presidency, mayoralty or municipal presidency), run-off elections will be held on 30 May.

Voter turnout was mostly between 40 and 50 percent, as it was four years ago, with the number of invalid votes rising to an unusually high seven percent in some regions.

These elections mark the end of a long series of ballots for the time being: in the past 13 years, Croatians have been called to the polls no less than 14 times. If there are no early elections, the next round will not take place for another three years, which would be unusual by Croatian standards.

However, such a longer time window is favourable for the implementation of urgently needed reforms, especially in the area of the economy.

The parties, too, could actually do with such a longer period of programme and organisational strengthening and stabilisation, unhindered by election dates.

Stagnation of HDZ, defeat of the Social Democrats

The two largest parties, the conservative HDZ and the social-democratic SDP got off lightly in these elections, as did the previous flagship of Croatian liberalism – the regional IDS. While the HDZ can cope well with this slip-up in terms of its nationwide position (loss of power in the capital Zagreb, defeat in the war-affected and symbolic city of Vukovar), the SDP has fallen deeply in the electorate’s favour and not only remained insignificant in the three major cities – Zagreb, Split and Osijek – but was also literally swept away in large parts of the regions – such as Slavonia and Dalmatia. As if that were not enough, with the green-left party Možemo! (We can do it!), the SDP has for the first time in its history a real challenger for the leading role in the left political spectrum.

In regional and local elections, it is above all the campaigns in four major cities of the country and at regional level that attract public attention. While the HDZ was able to defend its power in twelve of the thirteen regions previously dominated by conservatives, the results in Zagreb, Split, Rijeka and Osijek were very mixed.

In Zagreb, for example, Tomislav Tomašević of Možemo!  was able to achieve 45.15 percent of the votes in the race for the mayor’s position thanks to an anti-corruption and transparency agenda for the administration, and is now the clear favourite for the run-off. His opponent, the right-wing populist Miroslav Škoro, only achieved the second-best result with 12.16 percent. Možemo! missed the absolute majority in the city assembly by one mandate, which should make it more difficult to deal with numerous problems, especially regarding the reconstruction of the city after the earthquake in March 2020.

In the former stronghold of the Social Democrats, Rijeka, a new victory of this party is on the horizon. If this does not happen, a change at the top of the party is very likely in the near future.

For a long time now, the Slavonian city of Osijek has no longer been under the dominance of the liberals. The entire structurally weak region has been dominated by right-wing parties for more than ten years. Young and educated people in particular are leaving the region because of a lack of prospects. Here, the HDZ candidate expects a sure victory in the run-off. In the first round of voting, he already received twice as many votes as the candidate of the right-wing nationalist Homeland Movement.

Tomislav Tomaševič has good prospects of being elected mayor of Zagreb on 30 May
Tomislav Tomaševič has good prospects of being elected mayor of Zagreb on 30 May

The rollercoaster of liberal successes and failures

The prominent position of the IDS in Istria was at least partially challenged in the election. Both in the election of the regional leader and in the city of Pula, IDS candidates have to go to the run-off – something that would have been almost unthinkable in previous years. In addition, the party lost its dominance in two other cities. After all, it still holds seven of the ten Istrian mayors. It is significant that the IDS always got into trouble where its opposing candidates demanded more transparency and accountability in the allocation of public funds. If, as expected, the IDS wins the run-off in Pula and the position of regional leader, the 2021 elections will be seen as a “lesson” for the most powerful regional party in the country. In the future, however, electoral victories will no longer be a matter of course for the IDS either. 

The surprising victory of the liberal mayoral candidate Ivica Puljak from the newly founded party Centar in Split can be considered a great success. With 26.82 percent of the vote, Puljak exceeded all expectations. In pre-election polls he was even ten percentage points lower. In the run-off he will now face HDZ candidate Vice Mihanović (23% of the vote). The outcome of the run-off is, however, completely open. But even now, Centar's breakthrough to the second strongest force in Split is one of the biggest surprises of these elections.

Ivica Puljak goes into run-off in Split with a surprising 26% of the vote
Ivica Puljak goes into run-off in Split with a surprising 26% of the vote

The city of Bjelovar is also interesting for the Liberals, where the previous mayor and HSLS chairman Dario Hrebak was able to defend his post after a brilliant election campaign with 66.86 percent of the vote. Since November 2019, Hrebak has also been party leader and has been committed to his city for the past four years. In the near future, his commitment to the party will become more important in order to secure its long-term existence.

Dario Hrebak renewed Bjelovar and was rewarded for it with a two-thirds majority
Dario Hrebak renewed Bjelovar and was rewarded for it with a two-thirds majority

The failures of the two liberal parties - Glas and HNS – have different reasons. While the GLAS team, after splitting from the HNS – and plagued by financial problems through no fault of its own – did not manage to regain its once strong position in Zagreb, nor to win new supporters in other parts of the country, HNS is now regarded by the public as one of the strongest symbols of corruption, abuse of power and nepotism. Whether the HNS will once again manage to find a way out of the crisis against this background, even with a partially new leadership, is currently very questionable. So far, the HNS has been able to hold on to some of its positions in the north of the country and in alliance with other centrist parties.

On the other hand, GLAS has the know-how and the resources in the form of experienced politicians, but needs a new programmatic set-up. The party could benefit from a merger of liberal forces.