Showdown in Zagreb

Regierungsviertel Zagreb

Regierungsviertel Zagreb


On March 15, President Zoran Milanović shocked the Croatian public twice: firstly, when he postponed the parliamentary elections to April 17, a Wednesday. Just hours later, the president lashed out against the corruption practices of the permanently ruling HDZ and announced - still as a president - his candidacy as prime minister in a "government of national salvation".

Milanović's speech was, typical for him, laced with insults against Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and the national-conservative government, which he leads. Observers were particularly intrigued by the announcement that the (still) president only wanted to step down from the office of president after a "certain election victory" and then be immediately elected as prime minister.

President Milanović himself was Prime Minister of Croatia from 2011-2015 and in 2016 lost what he thought was a certain election victory against Andrej Plenković, who was only a moderately well known MEP at the time. This means that the parliamentary election will also be a stage on which two Croatian power politicians settle accounts with each other: According to insiders, their rivalry goes back over thirty years, when both joined Croatia's newly established diplomatic service after Croatian independence.

Developments after Milanović's tirade

The president's surprise announcement sent the Croatian political scene into a tizzy. Ostensibly, this increases the chances of an electoral alliance of left-of-center opposition parties including the social democratic presidential party SDP, as many voters appreciate the direct manner of their president - in all polls, the populist is by far the most popular politician in the country. And indeed, anger against the permanently governing HDZ is growing among the population, not only on the left but also on the right of the political spectrum. Between now and election day, the main task for the opposition is to convince citizens to go to the ballot box.

Three days after the President's questionable - and legally controversial - appearance, the Constitutional Court issued its first ruling on the President's remarks. And it was a tough one: Milanović may not run for a seat in parliament as President of the Republic, participate in the election campaign or be considered by individual parties as a possible candidate for the position of head of government. It is therefore to be feared that Milanović has made himself the main topic of the election campaign with his blustering instead of addressing the government's corruption as planned.

The course of the election campaign will show whether Croatian voters have had enough of the HDZ and Prime Minister Plenković. But, whether Milanović of all people, should he somehow become prime minister, will be able to steer the boat into calmer waters is another matter. The fundamental decision between two alpha males, and not the discussion of substantive issues, could determine not only the outcome of the parliamentary elections on 17 April, but also that of the European elections on 9 June and the presidential elections in December.

The outlook: bright to cloudy

According to the latest polls, the national-conservative HDZ would receive around 25-30% of the vote, the social-democratic SDP 20-25%. They are joined by three very different parties whose performance could tip the scales: the right-wing populist "Most" ("Bridge"), the green party "Možemo!" ("We can do it!") and the xenophobic "Domovinski pokret" ("Homeland Movement"). All of them are around eight percentage points ahead of the election, but all fear being crushed in a duel between president and prime minister. However, all three parties are united by great animosity towards the HDZ, albeit from completely different ideological directions.

Despite all this, President Milanović believes that he will be able to perform a balancing act between his social democratic SDP, the Greens of "Možemo" and the far right in order to oust the HDZ and its incumbent Prime Minister Plenković from power. However, it is unclear exactly how these very different parties will govern together. Quite the populist that he is, President Milanović quoted a well-known Croatian song lyric, according to which "in spring the rivers of justice shall flow again".

Despite a favorable economic development, the HDZ repeatedly found itself on the defensive during the legislative period, mainly due to the corruption issues. Since Plenković took office as prime minister, around thirty ministers have had to resign from their posts, in the vast majority of cases due to corruption. Two "blunders" by Plenković recently reinforced the negative public impression: firstly, a judge with proven links to the criminal milieu was elected Attorney General with HDZ votes. Shortly after this incident, Prime Minister Plenković got into a dispute with the European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO), which he had denied the authority to investigate the alleged misappropriation of European funds in Croatia - thus damaging his reputation among his European partners.

And the liberals?

Unfortunately, Croatia's various liberal parties are also appearing in different camps in these elections: the Istrian IDS and the "Focus" party formed their own pre-election coalition with smaller centrist parties, while the "Centar" party, which is strong in Dalmatia, is part of a coalition led by the SDP. The liberal-conservative HSLS, in turn, agreed to form a coalition with the HDZ, as it did in 2016 and 2020. It is to be feared that the liberals will not be able to sharpen any of their various profiles in this way.

It would be considered a success if the still young Croatian democracy were to overcome its teething troubles - this year in the form of a highly polarizing campaign and an errant president who does not respect the constitution. This would not only secure Croatia's future as a reasonably stable EU member, but also lay the foundations for a more productive role for the country in the accession negotiations with the other Western Balkan states.