Croatian Government in Crisis: What’s Next

Total Croatia News

An overview of possible scenarios in the days ahead.

After one of the most dramatic weeks in recent Croatian politics, all eyes are on Parliament in the days ahead, with several major votes coming. Here is an overview of what happened this week and what might happen next.

Everything seemed perfectly fine until the government’s session on Thursday morning. One of the issues on the agenda was the government’s opinion on the opposition request for a vote of no confidence against Finance Minister Zdravko Marić due to his role within Agrokor and other issues. It was certain that the government would reject the opposition’s motion and said it would support the Minister when the motion comes to a vote in Parliament. However, what was not known was how four ministers from MOST, HDZ’s junior coalition partner, would vote. It was expected that they might abstain from voting, pretend to be sick and not come to the session, leave the cabinet room at the moment of voting, or something similar.

However, they did not do any of that, but rather openly voted against the government’s opinion and therefore against the Finance Minister. What happened then was not expected at all. The Prime Minister turned to the cabinet secretary and asked her to prepare the necessary documents for the dismissal of the three Ministers (the fourth MOST Minister was not present at the session and therefore he did not vote; he was dismissed separately on Friday).

There were no expectations that something like this might happen. It was the largest surprise in Croatian politics since the former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader resigned unexpectedly and without explanation in mid-2009.

Plenković’s decision meant that the ruling coalition which governed Croatia since last October had collapsed. What followed were two days of dramatic statements, legal arguments on whether or not the Prime Minister can dismiss ministers on his own, or whether or not he needs the support of Parliament / a collection of signatures for various initiatives in Parliament, dismissed Ministers first coming to their ministries pretending that nothing had happened and then resigning although they had previously been dismissed… All in all, a chaos was caused that was even more crazy than usual for Croatian politics.

This means that the next few weeks will be very interesting indeed.

Currently there are three important initiatives which are expected to be debated and voted on by the Parliament next week.

Opposition’s motion of no confidence against Finance Minister Marić

Ten days ago, opposition MPs, led by SDP, filed a motion of no-confidence against Finance Minister Marić. When such a motion is filed, the government has a week to state its official position (that is what started this latest crisis), and then the Parliament has to vote within 30 days after the motion had been filed. SDP strategically timed its motion so that the vote must take place before the forthcoming local elections which will be held on 21 May. However, since the Parliament is scheduled to take a break for two weeks ahead of local elections, because many of the MPs are also local candidates who want to campaign, the vote realistically has to happen next week.

Parliament Speaker Petrov announced that the debate on the motion would take place on Wednesday, while it is not yet known whether the vote will take place on the same day, or on Friday as is usual when it comes to voting in Parliament.

Whether the opposition’s motion will pass or not is anybody’s guess at this moment. With MOST obviously now supporting the motion, and the whole opposition united in support as well, the chances of it passing are quite substantial. Still, it remains to be seen whether HDZ will be able to find enough MPs to abstain or not come to the vote at all, which would be the same as rejecting the motion and supporting the Minister, since the motion of no confidence has to have the support of the absolute majority of all MPs (76 out of 151).

If the motion passes, that would demonstrate that HDZ does not have a majority without MOST and early parliamentary elections would be quite likely. If the motion is rejected, that would mean that HDZ has a good chance to form a new majority, although that would not be certain in any way.

There is the third possibility that Marić could voluntarily resign before the debate and vote. It would be strange thing to do after the Prime Minister brought down the ruling coalition in order to protect him, but possible if HDZ realizes that it does not have enough votes in Parliament for the motion of no confidence to be rejected. “The resignation before the vote” move was made last year by then HDZ president and Deputy Prime Minister Karamarko when it became obvious that the motion of no confidence against him would pass.

HDZ’s motion to dismiss Parliament Speaker Petrov

After the ruling coalition collapsed, HDZ immediately started collecting signatures for the removal of Parliament Speaker Božo Petrov, who is also the leader of MOST. They have collected 79 signatures, which is more than half of all the MPs and which presumably means that Petrov will be dismissed when the vote is put on the parliamentary agenda. The motion for his dismissal has the support of not just HDZ and its smaller partner parties, but also of some of the opposition MPs.

The more interesting question than the outcome is when the motion will be put to a vote. HDZ wants this to happen immediately on Tuesday, which is the first workday after the May Day holiday, and definitely before the debate on Finance Minister Marić, which is scheduled for Wednesday. However, the decision on the sequence of debates and votes is with Parliament Speaker Petrov, who has already said he would schedule the votes in the sequence as they were officially demanded, which means that the vote for his dismissal would come after the vote on Minister Marić.

It is interesting that HDZ is putting so much effort in having its own Speaker installed before the debate and vote on Marić. HDZ cannot prevent the Parliament from voting on Marić’s fate, but could possibly delay the vote for two more weeks if it sees that it still does not have enough votes to save him.

HDZ’s motion to install new Parliament Speaker

With Petrov probably being dismissed next week, it is necessary to elect someone else to be the Parliament Speaker. HDZ would naturally want to see one of its MPs being elected (probably current Deputy Speaker Gordan Jandroković). This is probably the key vote, because it will demonstrate whether HDZ can form a new ruling majority in the current Parliament. Opposition MPs who support Petrov’s dismissal have announced that they will not vote for the HDZ’s candidate, which makes the election of a new Speaker much more difficult than the dismissal of the current one. Of course, it is quite possible that some of the opposition parties could switch sides, or that individual MPs might be persuaded to break with the official position of their parties and support HDZ’s candidate.

Presumably, this vote should happen immediately after the vote to dismiss Petrov, but it is possible that it could be delayed if HDZ realises that it still does not have 76 MPs on its side.

Scenario 1: HDZ manages to form a new parliamentary majority

The outcome of all these votes will be a consequence of just one factor: whether HDZ can find 76 MPs in the current Parliament to support its government without MOST. If that is the case, then Marić will be saved, Petrov dismissed, and a new speaker elected. If not, the sequence of debates and votes is not so important.

The chances for HDZ to form new parliamentary majority are substantial, much better than last year in a similar situation in which it failed to do so, which prompted the early parliamentary elections in September. This time, the central figure in the affair is not the HDZ president, but the Finance Minister, which makes it easier for some of the smaller parties to support HDZ’s plans. Also, HDZ president and Prime Minister Plenković is much more popular than Karamarko ever was.

However, any majority which HDZ could realistically form would be a very week one, with just a few MPs more than the threshold. That means that the government would be weak, with each vote in Parliament being preceded by a drama of whether the ruling majority will be able to bring all of its MPs to the Parliament in order to have a quorum. Last year, the then government had a somewhat larger support and it was still not able to govern effectively for the short period that it was in power. So, any new parliamentary majority now is bound to be unstable.

There is a possibility that HDZ could make a deal with one of the larger parties which are currently in opposition (HNS or HSS). Their leaders keep repeating that they are not interested and that they would never take part in any such government. But, as we all know, promises in Croatian politics are not worth much.

Scenario 2: There is no ruling majority and early parliamentary elections are called

The other option is a repeat of what happened last year. At the time, HDZ also broke coalition with MOST, brought down the government (which was at the time led by a non-party Prime Minister close to MOST), and announced that it would do a coalition reshuffle, substitute MOST with another party, and carry on. However, after just a few days it became obvious that the notion of a coalition reshuffle was too toxic and that no one wanted to take part in it.

A similar sequence of events could well happen now. It is not at all certain that HDZ will be able to form a new majority, and even if it does, it will probably be too unstable to govern effectively, which would just mean that elections would be postponed for a few months.

When the early elections might take place in this scenario is a complete unknown. If everything falls apart quickly, the Parliament could dissolve itself before the end of the week, which would enable the President to schedule the new elections for the 4th of June, which is the day of the second round of the local elections. This would make new parliamentary elections cheaper and probably reduce the anger among voters due to state funds being spent on endless elections.

If this were to happen with the agreement of all parties, all other votes could be abandoned, and the short election campaign could begin. If elections do not take place in early June, they are unlikely to happen before September.

Scenario 3: New parliamentary majority without HDZ

This is the least likely, but mathematically possible scenario. If MOST were to suddenly forget everything it has ever said about SDP and some of the other opposition parties and join forces with them, with the help of national minorities MPs and smaller parties, this group would have a majority in the Parliament and be able to take over the government. A motion of no confidence in Prime Minister Plenković would have to be scheduled, and then someone (SDP president Davor Bernardić or some non-party candidate) proposed as Prime Minister.

However, the relations between MOST and some of the opposition parties (particularly HNS) are such that this option does not seem too realistic. Unless, of course, MOST and the opposition decide to forget everything they think of each other and enter into a coalition just to spite HDZ.

So, there are many options and even more unknowns. Still, after a rather peaceful few months, Croatian politics has once again proven that truly anything is possible. The drama will probably take a break for the weekend and the May Day holiday, but then everything will start again on Tuesday, with each and every day bringing new debates, votes, dramatic statements and, undoubtedly, surprises.


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