Croatia’s tightest elections to date through the eyes of the man who has worked with almost every party in the country
As the election campaign is in full swing, we turned to one of the most renowned political PR pros in the country, Krešimir Macan to make some sense of all that is happening. Since he is not actually working on the campaign this time around, and he has worked with every political option in Croatia during his successful career, it was a great opportunity to ask him about his view on the communication strategies, current polls and of course, predictions for the big day.
1. Official campaign has started, it will be one of the shortest ones we’ve seen so far, but all the largest parties have been openly communicating with the public for months now. How much can the campaigns, especially short ones like this one, change the mind of the voters or help them make a decision if they are among the indecisive ones?
Well, the campaign has been going on for 10 months now, and so far, I have to say current Prime Minister and SDP are doing a much better job, they started a very tactical and intense campaign right after their candidate lost the presidential election earlier this year. They are following the advice of a US PR expert Alexander Brown to the letter. These 16 days are just the last few meters to the finish line so whichever party failed to campaign leading up to these last two weeks, now really has nothing to hope for or expect. Back in 2007 elections were also very tight, Governing party was trailing just like SDP is now and Sanader (HDZ) managed to bridge the difference of 5 percentage points at the very end of the campaign. Polls showed that almost every 4th voter made their decision in those last three weeks of the election.
This year we can expect some voters will change their usual voting preferences and switch from one party to another since we now have parties like Most, ORaH and Živi Zid. I have to point out that both ORaH and Živi Zid have been declining in the last few months while Most is rising rapidly and I expect them to take some of the votes from both SDP and HDZ. SDP will most likely win back some of the voters from ORaH. Look out for some surprises on Election Day because we now have some new players, power has shifted slightly and there is room for the third option. That third option will lower the percentages won by two leading parties but not significantly, it is more important to note that it will eliminate some of the parties that are currently just around the 5% threshold.
2. From all you have seen in the months leading up to the official campaign, who would you say was better prepared? It seems HDZ took a while to get into the swing of things and SDP took advantage of it, hence the smallest difference in opinion polls we’ve seen in years.
SDP was better prepared. To put it in football terms, HDZ went into the campaign full of confidence that they will win and they just parked the bus in front of the goal. SDP on the other hand had nothing to lose so they went in full charge. Now, in these last two weeks everything is possible, especially with MOST in the play. The way things are looking at the moment, we could have a replay of the 2007 elections, in other words, party that was trailing could very well take the cake, but again, you have to add Most to the equation, despite current polls, they could very well go up to 8-9 seats which would be an incredible success. Sanader was trailing by 5-6 percentage points in the 2007 elections and he ended up winning. Same thing could happen this year because, all recent polls show continuous rise of SDP and their coalition, dramatic rise of Most and stagnation if not fall of HDZ. HDZ was so sure of their win and that’s coming back to bite them. It’s very similar to what happened to Ivo Josipović in the presidential elections this year. He was so far ahead in the polls, didn’t campaign at all and ended up losing the elections.
3. In all modern elections, main focus is always on economy (or at least it should be), but Croatian parties seem to generalize when it comes to their economic programmes and focus on things general public will “grab onto” (such as the incentive for newborn babies promised by HDZ or the Swiss Franc law by SDP). Why is that? Do political parties really believe the public does not want to hear about the cuts and austerity measures, or are they not prepared enough to actually talk about the economy with some real substance?
Someone compared the economic programmes of both leading parties and came to the conclusion that they are absolutely the same. HDZ did try to talk about painful cuts, valley of tears and so on, but they quickly changed their tune because they realized that may very well cost them the elections. Again, ruling coalition has nothing to lose. They decided to show results, Croatia’s economy is growing, indicators are positive for the second quarter in a row, let us finish what we started sort of rhetoric, and focused on corruption in HDZ (There’s no turning back to the old ways is one of their slogans). HDZ had problems with their economic programme from the get go. If it was indeed prepared by the Germans (IFO Institute) and the Germans are now distancing themselves from it, that programme was probably asking for German discipline, cuts, austerity etc. Blood sweat and tears messages will not win you any elections in Croatia. So, what probably happened is they modified the programme and got lost along the way. We are all aware that Croatian economy is not much better than Greek and we are in dire need of drastic changes. I can understand SDP’s position; they are trying to save themselves so they took the populist approach but HDZ was quite clumsy and quickly changed the focus from the economy to patriotism. Migrant / refugee crisis also shifted the focus of this campaign, HDZ didn’t exactly react well to the whole issue with very hasty calls for army mobilization and on the other hand the government did a good job in handling the crisis. If this situation continues as it is, it may be the decisive factor in the elections.
4. Age old question – smaller parties – is voting for them really a waste of a vote or can they indeed make a difference? How do you see their communication strategies and messages? Are parties like Pametno, Živi Zid, ORaH and Most all targeting similar core audience and how would you rate their campaigns so far?
Most is new, and in every election voters are inclined to try something new. They’re trendy, they’re currently in fashion. Same thing happened with ORaH during the EU elections when they even won one mandate without a proper campaign but that was their maximum and they’ve been experiencing a downfall ever since. Živi ZId reached their peak during the presidential elections, they failed to consolidate after that and now they’re on a downward spiral too. Most is now on the rise and they will probably take away the votes from all other small parties. Form all we can see at the moment, neither of the two large parties will have the majority in the Parliament and they will need a partner. Most seems to be the one to watch. And we have to wait for the results of regional parties such as IDS in Istria, HDSSB in Slavonia, there’s Čačić who will most probably win on seat in the 3rd electoral unit. That’s about it. I don’t see any other surprises in store. Actually, what could be a surprise is Živi zid and ORaH not winning a single seat. At the moment polls are giving them a seat each, but considering their continuous fall, it’s not unlikely that they end up with none.
Pametno is a good option, but at the moment it would have been better if they partnered with Most, they decided to go alone and unfortunately, from what I am seeing and with this continuous growth by Most, it’s hard to imagine they will be successful in these elections, but this can serve as a good platform for them for the next local elections. Same goes for Za Grad in Zagreb.
5. Now back to two main political parties, or their leaders to be more exact. Milanović seems to have sharpened his public speaking skills, especially during the migrant crisis, while Karamarko is still trying to get past the blunders from the beginning of the campaign. Who’s taking better advantage of advice given by their PR advisors at the moment?
Milanović, hands down. He finally managed to learn how to control himself and stick to the key messages while Karamarko still isn’t able to stay on point and address everyone, especially indecisive voters, not just his own public. He’s constantly talking about things he’s sure of and talking to his existing supporters, forgetting that he already has their vote. You don’t go into a campaign to attract your own voters; you have to attract the indecisive ones. Looking at the latest polls we see he’s simply losing those indecisive votes, they’re either going to SDP or Most because the Patriotic coalition is not communicating with them, they’re talking only to their own constituents. After the blunders in the beginning, Karamarko is just not feeling secure, hence his refusal to participate in the debate. One of the questions in all recent polls is “Who would be a better Prime Minister, and so far Milanović is winning, he’s leaving a better impression on the voters.
6. Why is Karamarko adamantly refusing to participate in a debate with Milanović?
Because an opinion has been created that he will lose the debate and that it may very well turn into the key point of the entire campaign. Same thing happened in the presidential elections where the entire campaign was narrowed down to 6 debates and social networks. All 6 debates on different TV channels had huge ratings. Everyone watched it, many created their final decision based on the result of the debate. Kolinda Grabar Kitarović won most of those debates and won the elections. HDZ has its own infrastructure and voters but she managed to get the indecisive voters. Karamarko has now closed himself off in his fortress among his own voters and recent blunders just strengthened the decision not to participate in the debate. What is interesting, one of the biggest “blunders”, when he was not able to count all the key points of the programme, was a recording from May 2014, and yet no one from HDZ came out to say that was old footage. More than 00 000 people saw the clip through various social networks.
7. These elections, as we already said, will be very tight. Apart from the post election coalitions, one of the key moments will be who will mobilize their voter’s “army” on the day of the election. If history has taught us anything it’s that HDZ is much stronger in this department than SDP. Has that changed in the last year or so, especially since Josipović’s defeat in the last presidential elections?
We always have to keep in mind that HDZ is very good at mobilizing their voters and that they simply may be better organized come Election Day. On the last presidential elections we had 60 000 invalid or spoilt ballot papers. Difference between Kolinda Grabar Kitarović and Ivo Josipović was just above 30 000 votes. Amount of invalid ballots was double its normal number so HDZ proved not only are they capable of mobilizing their voters but they are also good at controlling the counting process. Difference in these elections is that we are facing a huge battle, tensions are rising. Milanović is currently successfully intimidating voters with rhetoric of not going back to the old corrupt ways and considering that he is actually catching up to HDZ, his voters are motivated to go out and vote. Josipović was a firm favourite and we had extremely cold weather on Election Day so people stayed home thinking why should I go and vote, he’s going to win anyway. We all know what happened, Josipović lost. I believe SDP learned their lesson from it, and they are trying to copy HDZ’s mobilization system. It’s the first time we’re having so called “hanging elections” so you can feel the nervousness on all sides. Someone commented, and he was right on the money, that these elections will be the most watched reality show this autumn.
9. How would comment the way the President has been handling this election period? Are her media appearances as neutral as they should be or is it visible that she is still agitating for her own party?
She was promoting her own party until the official campaign started. Then she backed away because the Constitution states she has to remain neutral even though there are no penalties if she does the opposite. Also, because we have such tight elections, staying neutral will prevent any future accusations of being biased once she has to give the mandate to the winner. I had a look at the latest polls and her ratings have been dropping for two months in a row now because she was so obviously agitating for HDZ. In the last poll her general grade has slipped under 3 for the first time since the beginning of her presidency.
10. Is there anyone we should look out for as a possible election night surprise?
I’d say Most, definitely. Majority of voters know Božo Petrov and Drago Prgomet but since they could go on to win as many as 9 – 10 seats, we will be seeing some new faces in the parliament this time around and some of them have never been in politics before
And last but not least, since this is one of the rare times you’re following the elections from the sidelines and not actively working for any of the parties, is this one of the most exciting elections to date for you personally?
Interesting question. Well, 2007 was great and I worked in those elections, These ones are very exciting too, I’m actually enjoying the position I’m in right now, if I were involved in the elections I wouldn’t be able to see so many things that are happening. I can see the strategy on one side and the parked bus on the other side. As the old proverb says – Who dares, wins. We’ll see just who was daring enough this time around.