Snap election in Croatia unlikely to break damaging deadlock

Weak economy, Serbia tensions and migration crisis await country's new leader

Andrej Plenkovic, president of Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), during an election rally in Zagreb, Croatia, yesterday. Photograph: Antonio Bronic/Reuters

Andrej Plenkovic, president of Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), during an election rally in Zagreb, Croatia, yesterday. Photograph: Antonio Bronic/Reuters

 

 Croatia votes in a snap parliamentary election on Sunday, but it is unlikely to deliver strong leadership for a country facing chronic economic woes, rising tension with neighbouring Serbia and a potential resurgence of the refugee crisis.

Just 10 months after Croatia’s last election left parliament split between the right-wing HDZ party and a leftist alliance led by the Social Democrats, polls predict that this ballot will produce a similar result.

Weeks of wrangling last winter led to the HDZ and the new Most (“Bridge”) party taking power as a loose coalition, but it collapsed six months later amid squabbling and conflict-of-interest claims against then HDZ leader Tomislav Karamarko.

That brought down the fragile government of technocrat premier Tihomir Oreskovic, paralysing crucial reforms and leaving the country of four million people adrift at a time when it badly needs political and economic clarity.

After suffering prolonged recession before and after joining the EU in 2013, Croatia is now showing signs of a return to modest growth, but much of the economy remains moribund and unemployment is stuck at about 14 per cent.

Public debt

With public debt now at 87 per cent, both main parties are pledging to reduce state spending and to make the tax system more effective, but they are also vague on details of how they will cut costs and which groups are likely to suffer.

The Most party is poised to come third in the vote and again play the role of kingmaker, having suggested that it would form a government with whichever of the main two parties is willing to meet its demands for deeper reform.

The men vying most strongly to become prime minister – Social Democrat chief Zoran Milanovic and new HDZ leader Andrej Plenkovic – both began their careers in the foreign ministry, and Croatia is now facing tough diplomatic challenges.

The HDZ is accused of leading a slide to the populist right in Croatian politics, just as a similar process is taking place in Serbia and other states in the region and beyond.

Treason verdict

Croatian courts this year quashed a 1946 treason verdict against Alojzije Stepinac – the Catholic cardinal who backed the country’s 1941-5 fascist regime – and the 2010 conviction of far-right ex-deputy Branimir Glavas over the torture and murder of Serbs at the start of Croatia’s 1991-5 war of independence from a crumbling Yugoslavia.

Minority groups in Croatia say ultra-nationalism is resurgent, and denounced the last government for including an alleged far-right sympathiser in its ranks.

A Serbian court has also rehabilitated an infamous ultra-nationalist from the second World War period, and the country’s current prime minister and president were allies of warmongering leader Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s.

These developments have damaged relations between Zagreb and Belgrade, and they grew even chillier this week when Serbia jailed an alleged Croatian spy.

Both countries also warn that they could face a severe crisis if a strained EU-Turkey deal on refugees fails, and migrants surge back onto the so-called Balkan route into Europe.