The Progressive Post

It is not the anti-corruption narrative, stupid!

SDP Croatia International Secretary

Recognition and representation that is what the centre-left in Croatia should have learned about elections: centre-left president Zoran Milanović, widely considered the strongest opponent of the current centre-right prime minister Andrej Plenković, has mastered that discipline in the last couple of years. So, yes, there’s potential for making the centre-left more appealing to those voters who, traditionally, did not vote SDP. But, do we want to pay the price necessary for that?

‘It ain’t over till the fat lady sings’, might be the most precise description of the outcome of the parliamentary elections held in Croatia on 17 April. The ‘fat lady’ in question would be President Zoran Milanović, former SDP (Social Democratic Party) leader and prime minister (2011-2015). As the politician with the highest approval rates in Croatia, Milanović is, in recent years, perceived by many as the actual leader of the opposition and a single opponent to the HDZ (EPP) leader and current prime minister Andrej Plenković. As many predicted, the elections themselves were just the beginning of what now seems a long and exhausting battle – not only for forming a government, but it is a battle that tests the foundations of democracy in our country. 

On 19 April, just two days after the elections (and while the election results were not yet proclaimed!), the Constitutional Court repeated a highly controversial opinion already published earlier, arguing that as president, Milanović could not participate in the elections, neither become prime minister, even if he resigns for his presidential duties immediately and manages to form a parliamentary majority of 76 MPs. 

HDZ faces difficulties in the post-election negotiations with the other right-wing parties and does not shy away from using its influence on the Constitutional Court for its own purpose. Still, with 61 MPs, as opposed to SDP’s 42, HDZ is much more likely to form the parliamentary majority. The SDP leadership had expected a better electoral result. But, rather than the results of these elections, it will be the coming days and weeks that will determine the future of the centre-left in Croatia. And not really by the SDP, but by its former leader, president Milanović.

To understand how Milanović influences and shapes Croatian politics, and why that is extremely important for the prospects of the centre-left, one has to take a step back and analyse the trajectory of his personal political transformation. A former Prime Minister who led Croatia at a time when austerity policies were popular in the EU (Croatia joined mid-2013), he has turned, ten years later, into a vocal proponent of public investments, decreasing dependence on EU sources and, most importantly, a more self-confident approach when it comes to Croatia’s performance and role on the EU scene. Ten years after joining the EU, Croatia is economically underperforming (with one of the highest inflation rate in the euro area), with the ongoing cost of living crisis. Other controversial issues pertain to the judiciary and media freedom, as well as corruption. Not only the electoral campaign, but the political discourse in the last years was dominated by the anticorruption narrative.

Even if endemic corruption within the ranks of HDZ is proven by several resignations, indictments and convictions of highly positioned HDZ politicians, among which no less than 30 ministers, it is still quite an abstract concept, that voters obviously find hard to grasp. In Croatia’s political life, today, being anti-corruption is the lowest common denominator for the opposition, be it left or right of the centre.  However, particularly on this issue, the invisible left-right border was hardly ever crossed, and no partnerships were established across party lines. A uniting figure was obviously missing, one that could emotionally engage with voters from the left as well as from the right, and who would take the strategic decision to reach out to all those voters that have been left behind by mainstream political actors, and who have become a perfect pray for the right-wing. But can the trend of polarisation be reversed?

A part of Milanović’s strategy seems to be precisely that: to be that link with deprived, working people who have not even remotely considered voting for the centre-left. Does that make him a populist? In the eyes of some analysts-turned-TV-celebrities, probably, yes – but they would have criticised this approach anyhow. 

SDP, currently, mostly appeals to voters over 50. To win over a new generation of voters, would require the party to acknowledge fears and hopes of people who abstain from voting, who do not feel represented – or who actually are not –, those that a politician from the centre-left in Croatia would never even have thought of addressing. And those who, on the other hand, never would have considered voting for them. Many of these voters might have felt equally unrepresented when Milanović, as prime minister (2011-2015), implemented all the neo-liberal policies requested by the EU. Now, however, many of these do not represented by president Milanović.

His presidential non-partisan position seems strategically ideal to bridge that gap between those voters who now feel much better represented by the centre-right and those that historically were drawn to the centre-left. Recognition and representation – that is what Milanović was able to achieve during his presidential mandate, and particularly with those who just a few years back were not considered a part of his camp. That is precisely what Social Democrats should embrace. Since new elections in Croatia might happen any time soon, it ain’t over. 

Photo Credits: SDP/Luka Nikpalj

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