July 9, 2020 – Sunday’s Croatian election was a convincing win for Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic. Political analyst Kresimir Macan on the elections and the new political landscape. (This article first appeared in the print edition of Glas Istre.)
1. What was it that decided these elections, and what is the main takeaway from them?
Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign strategist in 2012, once said that the voter chooses without fault the one who guarantees that they’ll live better in four-years time, that this is the number one criterion according to which the voters decide, more important than the worldview or values. Plenković told them, in an extremely personalized campaign, to “Play safe” and vote for me because “in a crisis, you see the leaders,” and that was a safer choice than the Restart coalition, with a purportedly broken engine during a storm, which is what Bernardić offered, without any guarantees. Croatia got the opportunity to remain firmly in the right-center and move forward, without being forced to be a slave to the extreme right. That’s good for everyone – Plenković got a strong mandate with the new HDZ 2.0 in which he and his people can take the country out of the crisis, and he’ll have the best and the most vigorous opposition yet. I often say that every government can be only as good as the opposition it has. I’m optimistic, and I believe most people in Croatia are today. Not only because of HDZ’s success, but also because of the success of Možemo!, but also Stranka s imenom i prezimenom, Fokus and Pametno, even Most. They bring new names to the political arena, and I’m looking forward to the debates in the new Parliament.
2. Plenković is the absolute winner of these elections, which shows that, like some other nations, the Croatians have a permanent complex of authoritative leaders. It seems that the usual topics discussed before the elections in the countries with developed democracies, such as programs or the results, are entirely irrelevant to most of our voters. What does that say about the level of democracy in our society?
It says that we’re becoming a developed society in which other questions have become a priority, primarily because of the economic crisis which is coming with the recession. That we’re thinking primarily about our future and not a better past for ustaše and partizani. The voters could’ve chosen anyone, but they’ve decided to extend the Plenković’s rule, as he’s the first prime minister in a long time who left Croatia before the elections in a better situation then it was when he took power. And people felt that most in their wallets, in their paychecks, which grew significantly, both minimal and the average pay. The problem for Croatia is that our counterparts are also growing, some even faster, so to catch up, we need to change some things. That is the next task for the Croatian government, and that’s what the Plenković has been given the mandate to do. Look, HDZ has never won before in I. election precinct, the center of Zagreb, and Plenković has won now – that tells you the best what those most demanding voters feel about Plenković.
3. What are the main causes of the debacle by the Restart coalition? How can you describe such domination by the right-center party, only a few months after Milanović’s victory in the presidential elections?
In the end, in addition to a bad campaign, the low turnout was the thing that decided. HDZ and somewhat IDS proved that they have the organization to get the voters out to vote, despite corona. Even Možemo! and Most did that, and SDP doesn’t have that ability anymore. So, Restart wasn’t able to insert their topics as critical topics in the campaign, create the atmosphere of change, and in the end, their voters stayed home. There was some potential, the polls showed that and IPSOS poll was the best, as usual, but on the election day, you need to turn that potential into votes, you have got to score, get the opponents net. It doesn’t count if you played the game well, but end up getting three goals during the added time.
4. What do the new players bring to the Croatian politics: Domovinski pokret, Možemo! and SSIP, and what does the resurrection of Most mean?
The final consolidation on the right – HDZ went totally to the right-center, where most of their voters are. Domovinski pokret and Most take the far right, which has its limitations – in seats, it’s 50:25 for the center, and then they fight for the same voters, which is not a good position. Most had a good campaign, some new faces, and gave the voters the new motivation to elect them and not Škoro, who somehow lost his footing right before the elections. This is a more natural situation than the one we had in 2015 when Karamarko and the Homeland coalition took HDZ to the far right, and then Most had to fill the position in the center, although they belong in the far right.
Možemo! is the new, pure left clean, healthy option, built on the protest against how slow Zagreb is being rebuilt after the election, and the anticorruption movement against Milan Bandić, started by Dario Juričan when he ran for the President. Možemo, Fokus, and SSIP created pragmatic coalitions, and that resulted in having known people from the center and left of the political spectrum, which will raise the quality of the Parliament.
5. The VIII election precinct remains the bastion for the left, but the results here are also indicative of the debacle of the leadership od SDP. What do the results of Grbin and Fabijanić, but also of Jovanić and Obersnel, former heavyweights, mean in that context?
After 104,500 votes in 2016 (if you combine SDP and IDS votes), 68,778 in 2020 is a disastrous result. Strategically and tactically wrong decision to force a coalition with IDS and PGS at any cost resulted in the lowest number of seats for Restart – 8 (they had 6+3 in 2016), and the highest for HDZ (4, compared to 3 in 2016), and even Katarina Peović from Možemo and Marin Miletić from Most managed to get a seat. The results say a lot about how appreciated certain politicians are, even the head of the slate, and how important they are in the field, compared to Peđa Grbin and Vojko Obersnel. When you have preferential voting, there’s no hiding behind the party; it’s just you and your name.
6. Can these results direct Grbin towards the SDP leadership?
This is the significant return of the person nobody counted on anymore, and he will play a major role in the revival of SDP. It’s a good thing for Istria to have such a political figure in the Parliament.
7. IDS got what they counted on, but also is a part of a losing coalition. Will that harm them, would it be better for the party to have won the three seats on their own.
IDS always knows what to do, and it’s essential they got the same result as they would, had they gone independently because the only thing that matters after the elections are your own seats. They can make a difference, and they always use those votes in the Parliament to advance Istria and IDS’s agenda. That approach helped complete the Istrian Ypsilon in the full profile, which is something the voters must’ve rewarded, as well as Oleg Butković, who got the impressive 12,576 preferential votes in a red-and-green district. IDS has been investing smartly for years, and they even scored a bit here because Bernardić damaged the Istrian SDP and basically gifted the victory in the local elections in 2021 to IDS.
8. Some voters showed that they’re bored with years of empty left-wing rhetoric by SDP when they voted for Katarina Peović and that they want someone who holds those positions more strongly. Can this platform become a more important political factor here? Do they have the potential and the people to do so?
Možemo has the potential to turn into a health green left option, which has been missing from the political arena for years. I believe they’re here to stay. I am looking forward to Katarina Peović’s interventions in the Parliament – flames will go up, and the voters will have their voice. SDP lost contact with that section of their voters a long time ago, unlike IDS, who’s been nurturing it for years because there are no results without the base.
9. Anton Kliman is not a favorite in the HDZ headquarters, but he managed to get into the Parliament for the second time “from the bench.” The former tourism minister got much more votes than the current one, can his result mean his full rehabilitation within HDZ.
Plenković was smart to throw all of his trump cards on the list, and Kliman was one of the strong ones. He qualified himself for the upcoming local party elections as one of the favorites. Local organizations need to be run by the people who’ve proven themselves in their work and the campaigns, and Anton is one of them. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were offered a position in the executive branch.
For more on the Croatian elections, follow the dedicated TCN section.