Croatia Approaches Potentially Turbulent Elections

April 05, 2024
The long-governing Croatian Democratic Union and the opposition president are heading for a clash in early parliamentary elections, whose outcome could have not only domestic but also external implications.

Much is at stake in Croatia’s parliamentary elections on April 17. If the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) remains in power, the country will have a degree of political stability and a continuing pro-Ukraine, pro-West course—but at the cost of corruption and growing illiberal tendencies. If the Social Democratic Party (SDP) wins, this could put it on track for victory also in the European Parliament elections in June and the presidential election in December. This might shake the HDZ’s long dominance of politics.

In a potential twist, however, while the SPD is not pro-Russia, former party head Zoran Milanović—who is currently Croatia’s, mostly ceremonial, president—is, and he wants to be the next prime minister.  Should he attain this goal, this might mean a fundamental change in foreign policy to the detriment of Ukraine, which would put Zagreb in an uncomfortable position vis-à-vis its European Union and NATO allies.

The HDZ has been in power for most of the time since the country became independent in 1991. Its enduring popularity is mostly because it put the country on the road to democracy after the demise of Yugoslavia. Over the years, it has shaped institutions and national policies, including with its pro-EU, pro-Ukraine, and pro-NATO stances. 

Corruption and Illiberalism

In a March poll, 27% of respondents said they would vote for the HDZ, which was much more support than for any other party. The SDP—its closest rival and the only other major political player—had the support of just over 22%, while the left-wing We can! and the right-wing Homeland Movement had almost 9% and 8% respectively. 

The HDZ’s rule has been increasingly marred by corruption scandals in recent years. The decision to dissolve parliament and bring forward the elections, which were due in the fall, is very likely to have been to avoid the government becoming less popular due to this issue.  Transparency International ranks Croatia as the fifth-most corrupt country in the EU, behind Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. The latest controversy involves the appointment of Ivan Turudić, who is close to the HDZ, to the office of prosecutor general. Opposition politicians and civil society organizations have expressed concerns that he is involved in corruption, and that his appointment is an attempt by the party to protect itself from prosecution. 

There are also signs of an illiberal and nationalist shift in Croatia under the HDZ. One recent example is the “Lex AP” (dubbed after Andrej Plenković, who has been prime minister since 2016), a law essentially directed at punishing whistle-blowers, and thus hindering media freedom, especially when it comes to uncovering government corruption.

The opposition, primarily the SDP, has been able to mobilize people behind the protests against the HDZ because of corruption, but it is fragmented.

The opposition, primarily the SDP, has been able to mobilize people behind the protests against the HDZ because of corruption, but it is fragmented. It is therefore unlikely that the governing party will lose the elections. It has built a complex patronage system and practically controls all state institutions. 

On the other hand, the HDZ might lose voters as part of a general trend of declining turnout and of dissatisfaction with politics. The SDP might also garner votes aimed at punishing the HDZ as a part of the population is tired of the dominant party. This might lead to a situation in which neither the HDZ and its small coalition partners nor the SDP and its partners secures a majority in parliament. To avoid new elections, the HDZ would likely try to build a majority with other parties, regardless of where they are situated on the political spectrum. It did so in 2016 and 2020 with smaller parties such as the right-wing Croatian Demochristian Party and Croatian Democratic Alliance of Slavonia and Baranja, the center-left Croatian People’s Party—Liberal Democrats, or the Independent Democratic Serb Party. 

The Milanović Factor

The candidates of the HDZ and SDP for the presidency in December are not yet known. Milanović has stated he wants to run for prime minister for the SDP. However, the Constitutional Court has ruled this to be impossible as long as he is president. Milanović has not accepted the decision of the court, which he sees as being under HDZ control, and continues to campaign for post. He said he would resign as president only after an SDP win in the elections. His actions could lead to a potential constitutional crisis in which the Constitutional Court might decide to cancel the elections or even their results if it decides Milanović violated the constitution by campaigning before resigning.

Milanović is slightly more popular than Plenković, according to polls, and he has helped boost the SDP’s standing already with his actions. Should he become prime minister, this might herald a significant shift in foreign policy with regard to support for Ukraine, given his pro-Russia views, whereas Croatia has provided millions of euros in military support to the country. 

The most likely outcome of the elections still is that the HDZ will form the next government. If it wins the parliamentary elections, the outcome of the European Parliament and presidential ones will be of secondary importance. However, should the SDP win on April 17, this may then give it a shot at victory in the two later contests by demonstrating that the HDZ is defeatable. The opposition winning all three elections could mean there is a possibility of reshaping of Croatia’s political life.