Two Years of President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović

Total Croatia News

Croatian President is almost at the half point of her five-year term.

On 19 February 2015, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović became the fourth president of Croatia. Two months earlier, she defeated incumbent President Ivo Josipović in the second round of voting, with just over 50 percent of votes (majority of 32,509 votes). She was a candidate of rightwing political parties led by HDZ, while Josipović was officially an independent candidate, but supported by leftwing parties led by SDP. After two terms of Stjepan Mesić and one term of Ivo Josipović, Grabar-Kitarović became the first right of centre Croatian President since the death of Franjo Tuđman 15 years earlier.

When discussing the work of a president, it is necessary to explain that, under the Croatian political system, the majority of executive powers are actually vested in the government, which is confirmed by Parliament, and that the president has no influence over who will form the government. Under the Constitution, the president is obliged to appoint as Prime Minister-Designate anyone who can prove that he or she has the support of majority of members of Parliament. The powers of president since 2000 are limited to appointments and supervision in the military and security services, ambassadors, and more generally in the field of national security. However, there is no doubt that by far the most politically powerful position is that of prime minister, while presidents mostly take part in ceremonial events. That has caused frustration for successive presidents, who find themselves with a lofty title and a large office, but without much to do, let alone able to fulfil their pre-election promises, which are usually unrealistic to begin with.

Not the one to break with tradition, during her campaign Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović gave a series of promises which no president could ever hope to achieve. But, she did give at least one somewhat feasible promise: that she would move the presidential office to another location, supposedly to save funds. After two years, it is perfectly clear that no moving vans will be necessary, which is for the better, given that it would be ridiculous for each new president to move their office to another location.

The disproportionality between presidential power and the fact that they are elected directly by voters has given rise to a debate of whether perhaps presidents should rather be elected by Parliament, which would save the money and spare us six-month long dramas which regularly occur every five years, when presidential candidates travel all over the country, stir passions and give fiery speeches, only to be politically castrated once they win the election. Actually, if you are interested in having any real political power, it is much more useful to (respectably) lose presidential elections than to win them. Cases in point are Jadranka Kosor, who lost the election to Stjepan Mesić in 2005 and four years later became prime minister, and Milan Bandić, who lost to Ivo Josipović in 2010 but is still mayor of Zagreb, perhaps the second most powerful executive position in the country.

During her term in office, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović has so far had to work with three different governments under three prime ministers. The relations with the first Prime Minister Zoran Milanović (SDP) were tense and full of conflicts. Still, it seems that for the President those were the glory days, since she was able to strengthen her political position, continuously be in the media spotlight and transform herself into the leader of rightwing opposition to the government. Although she was undoubtedly personally happy when Milanović lost parliamentary elections in autumn and left his post in January 2016, politically she lost her main antagonist, and her role significantly weakened.

When the second Prime Minister Tihomir Orešković succeeded Milanović, the expectations were that the President will finally be able to work with a like-minded conservative government. However, while personal relations with the new Prime Minister were certainly better, the cooperation did not reach the expected levels. That was best seen in the case of dismissal of head of the Security Intelligence Agency, whom the President dismissed without prior consultations with the Prime Minister, although his signature was a precondition for the dismissal to become official. The whole affair turned into a months-long soap opera, with the President and the Prime Minister waging a “cold war” behind the scenes.

Orešković’s government did not last long and collapsed over the summer. In the early parliamentary election in September, the same right-centre coalition won, and Andrej Plenković (HDZ) became prime minister. It was expected that now, finally, the President would get the opportunity to have some of her ideas implemented by the government. However, no luck again, which is best seen on the issue of dismissal of old and appointment of new ambassadors, which must be done together by the President and the government. After almost five months in office of the new government, almost no new ambassadors have been proposed, let alone officially appointed. The President’s frustration, often expressed in her media interviews, does not appear to help solve the issue.

The new president immediately started entering into conflict with Milanović’s government, saying that she would “bang her fists on the table” and convene a special session of the government about the difficult situation in the Croatian economy. The session never took place, and the President in time lost her vigour. When Orešković’s government was in its long terminal decline, the President mostly stayed on the sidelines, demonstrating much more tolerance for governments which are led by political parties closer to her worldview.

Another point of conflict with Milanović’s government was her position during the migrant crisis in late 2015 and early 2016, when she demanded that army be sent to the border to stop the inflow of migrants. Both Milanović and later Orešković decided to approach the crisis in a different way, providing more or less organized transport of migrants from Croatian border with Serbia to Slovenia. At the time, President was in the habit of giving alarmist statements about the situation on the border, and seemed to be much closer to the Hungarian approach to the migrant issue (constructing a border wall).

Grabar-Kitarović also pledged to work to stop the exodus of young Croats moving abroad, but in the last two years the exact opposite has happened – there has been an unprecedented number of people emigrating. While she is certainly not responsible for it, her reaction has mostly been silent, apart from occasional platitudes being said when asked about it. Also, despite President’s recent statements, her goal of uniting Croatia has also remained unfulfilled. The chances for success would be much higher if she did not have a habit of accusing people with different opinions to hers of being less patriotic.

Perhaps the symbolic low point of President’s term (so far) has been her recent visit to the United States. At the beginning of the year, she spent a week in the United States, in a mysterious visit which had no formal programme and for a while it was not even clear whether it was a private or an official one. The President supposedly went to Washington and New York to meet with representatives of Donald Trump’s incoming administration, but it remained a mystery whom she met. Questions were raised about the purpose of the visit while it was still ongoing, so the President, in a vain attempt to make it seem more important than it really was, gave a statement to Croatian Television while standing in front of the White House fence (on the outside). That image of President standing at a location which is easily accessible to any tourist or passer-by and speaking about important meetings which she supposedly had with US officials (whose names she unfortunately could not disclose for some reason) was perhaps the best possible symbol of her presidency – a lot of PR, almost no substance.

The President’s tendency to try to make herself seem important on the international scene was again evident just recently, when the President was at a security conference in Munich. She posted a photograph of her meeting with US Vice President Mike Pence and gave a statement that she and the Vice President discussed the relations between the United States and Croatia, and that she was very pleasantly surprised by his attitude. However, just a few hours later a video of their meeting emerged, showing that it was actually just a handshake in a room with dozens of other people and that the whole “meeting” lasted for eight seconds.

One of the new traditions which the President has introduced are temporary relocations of her office to other parts of Croatia. While it is only natural and proper that a president would like to visit different regions and get to know the problems experienced by local residents, the President has turned these visits into another PR show, with the presidential ceremonial unit travelling with the President in their historical uniforms and presidential flag being hoisted on the masts all over Croatia. These visits are yet to yield any real results.

While it is difficult to describe the current President’s term as a success, it would be fair to admit that her predecessors weren’t much better. The key question is whether Croatia even needs this kind of president. Perhaps it would be for the best to limit the already small presidential powers even further and to move the election of the president to Parliament. In that way, at least persons being elected and their fans would not be under any illusion that they posses real power.


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