By Višeslav Raos (University of Zagreb)

After the November elections for the Croatian Parliament produced no clear winner, a newcomer party Bridge of Independent Lists (MOST) became a pivot party. This party, actually a loose, ideologically heterogeneous coalition of independent mayors and local citizen initiatives with a joint mission of toppling down the existing political elite, started negotiating with both the center-left coalition Croatia is Growing (led by the Social Democratic Party, SDP) and the center-right Patriotic Coalition (led by the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ). MOST leader Božo Petrov insisted on a “reform-oriented government”, although this party’s manifesto, presented in a 30-slides-long PowerPoint presentation, was perhaps able to detect burning issues in Croatia (healthcare, judiciary, agriculture, public and local administration), yet failed to offer much in terms of actual policy proposals. After long and twisting (for Croatian standards) negotiations (see more in a previous blog post on Croatia), in late January, MOST finally managed to reach an agreement with one of the two big coalitions, the Patriotic Coalition, and formed a cabinet of HDZ, MOST and independent ministers, led by a non-partisan Prime Minister.
This unusual government proved to be a platypus cabinet, an executive pre-programmed with a structural fault. Why was this cabinet doomed to failure? First, since MOST insisted that HDZ president Tomislav Karamarko should not be head of the government and that instead Croatia needed a non-partisan Prime Minister, HDZ and MOST agreed on Tihomir Orešković, a Croatian Canadian pharmaceuticals manager, with no prior experience in politics. Several European countries have had experience with caretaker governments headed by non-partisan financial experts or businesspersons. However, such Prime Ministers then had full autonomy to choose their own cabinet members, so that the whole cabinet would be composed of non-partisan technocrats (such as the Monti cabinet (2011-2013) or the Dini cabinet (1995-1996) in Italy). Such cabinets are usually deliberately short-lived, as they have the task of implementing a limited number of policies, usually aimed at stabilizing the public finances. In contrast to that, the Croatian government had a non-partisan Prime Minister, while most of the other cabinet members had a partisan affiliation, coming either from HDZ or from MOST. The leaders of HDZ (Karamarko) and MOST (Petrov) became Vice Prime Ministers. Furthermore, the Orešković cabinet enjoyed support not by a grand coalition, but by two political blocks (plus some minor parties and some independent MPS, as well as some MPs representing ethnic minorities) that could not agree on a classical government coalition with a clear program and policy priorities. Instead, in his inaugural speech, Orešković presented a brief PowerPoint presentation outlining some of key reform areas, such as public administration, local administration, healthcare, and education.
Yet, in practice, as soon as an HDZ minister tried to implement some policy envisaged by that party’s electoral manifesto, MOST would react and offer resistance, and vice versa. For example, MOST placed an emphasis on territorial reorganization, i.e. the cutting down of the number of municipalities (third-tier government level) and counties (second-tier government level) and tried to adapt the territorial organization of the police to that plan as well. However, HDZ and its leader Karamarko, former minister of the interior in the Sanader (2008-2009) and Kosor governments (2009-2011) vehemently opposed it. On the contrary, Orešković tried to develop his autonomy and prove that he was not Karamarko’s puppet (as originally intended). He did so by frequently siding with Petrov and the President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, against proposals coming from Karamarko. The overall atmosphere of the government for the whole period showed a deep mistrust between the two main coalition partners, as well as a lack of experience and policy focus. Karamarko was the only member of this government with prior cabinet experience, while two other ministers – the minister of public administration, non-partisan, nominated by MOST) and the finance minister (non-partisan, nominated by HDZ), had experience as senior officials in these respective government departments.
The main driving force behind MOST actions in the government was the wish to “stay true” to their voters by opposing HDZ (and thus, as its members openly stated, “undermining the existing political elites, responsible for Croatia’s corrupt judiciary and public sector and the poor state of the economy). Thus, MOST figured as an internal opposition within the government. HDZ, on the other hand, focused on symbolic politics and the engagement in cultural warfare with the previous center-left government and like-minded media outlets, cultural institutions, NGOs and members of the academia. HDZ did so either directly, through its ministers of science, education, and sports (Predrag Šustar) and culture (Zlatko Hasanbegović), or indirectly, through MPs of their small right-wing coalition partners. The cutting off of financing of many independent media outlets and NGOs through the ministry of culture, as well as the revisions and stalling of the long-term education reform package, started during the previous government, produced a strong media and public backlash. This led to a massive protest beginning of June, where teacher trade unions, advocacy and human rights NGOs, as well as student organizations hit the streets to support the continuation of the aforementioned education reform.
As the levels of mistrust and policy incoherence rose, the government majority began struggling to maintain quorum and introduce any bills in the parliament. Thus, HDZ started looking around for new partners that would support a new majority, without MOST. In addition, both Karamarko and Petrov publicly accused each other of obstructing the government and trying to bring it down.
The breaking point of these nervous relations within the government coalition (that formally, was not even a coalition), came when the press revealed that Karamarko’s spouse was involved in consulting operations with the chief Croatian lobbyist of MOL, Hungary’s national oil company. Such business connections, although only indirectly connected to the HDZ leader, produced enormous media and political pressure on Karamarko, which included not just accusations of conflict of interest, but also of damage to national energy interests. Namely, Croatia is currently in international arbitration with Hungary over MOL’s takeover of a majority package of shares in INA, Croatia’s national oil company. Karamarko publicly called for a settlement with Hungary, while Orešković and Petrov, as well as most opposition parties, opted for a continuation of the arbitration process. Finally, Petrov demanded Karamarko’s resignation. The opposition, led by former Prime Minister and president of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) Zoran Milanović, filed a motion of no confidence against Karamarko. Karamarko himself asked the Committee on Ascertainment of Conflict of Interest to offer a ruling on his case, i.e. to determine whether he was indeed in conflict of interest or not.
In an effort to stabilize the government, Orešković called upon both Karamarko and Petrov to resign. However, Karamarko replied that if he leaves the government, all three should resign. The fact that Orešković called upon his deputies to resign, yet did not follow through with this idea, highlighted the fact that he was, after all, a powerless non-partisan figurehead, and not a proper head of government.
In order to prevent a vote of no confidence against its leader, HDZ initiated a vote of confidence against the Prime Minister, thus starting the process of bringing down its own government. Parallel to that, Karamarko started negotiations with independent MPs, ethnic minority MPs and small opposition parties, with the aim of creating an alternative parliamentary majority, without MOST. Since Croatia does not have an instrument of a positive vote of confidence, like Germany or Hungary, HDZ had to engage in two separate processes – gathering of support for their motion to bring down Orešković and the gather of support to form a new majority. HDZ presented the finance minister Zdravko Marić as their candidate for the new prime minister. Thus, again, they put forward a non-partisan candidate, yet this time, this would be a person more closely linked to HDZ.
On 15 June, the Committee on Ascertainment of Conflict of Interest declared that Karamarko was indeed in a situation that created a conflict of interest. This prompted his resignation. However, he continued to call on Petrov to resign as well. The next day, 125 MPs (out of 151) voted Orešković down, thus bringing down the government as well. At this point, HDZ still hoped to form an alternative majority and quickly present the President Grabar-Kitarović with enough (a minimum of 76) signatures of MPs that would signify support for a new government (this is not a constitutional ruling, but a practice used to determine whether a mandateur indeed commands the support of the parliament). Yet, at the same time, SDP started gathering signatures for the dissolution of the parliament. Finally, on 20 June, the Croatian Parliament passed a motion on dissolution, paving the way for early elections in September. Almost the whole parliament, save for HDZ MPs, voted for dissolution, showing that the attempts at forming another majority were futile. As this motion will only take effect on 15 July, we still cannot know which date will the President set for election, yet, given the constitution constrains that state that elections have to take place at least 30 and not later than 60 days after dissolution; early elections will be most likely be on 4 September or 11 September.
On the day after parliamentary dissolution, Karamarko resigned from his post as president of the HDZ. This trigger a renewed process of soul-searching and mutual accusations among HDZ top politicians. Although many senior members initially showed their wish to run for party president, eventually only HDZ MEP and long-term diplomat Andrej Plenković officially submitted a candidacy. The new president is expected to make HDZ a more mainstream, centrist member of the European People’s Party and get rid of more right-wing coalition partners. Current opinion polls show a strong lead of the Social Democrats, which makes it possible for Milanović to return to the Prime Minister’s office. After many months of losing public support, MOST consolidated its ratings and we can expect it to play a vital role in government formation. Milanović has rebranded his center-left coalition Croatia is Growing into the more centrist People’s Coalition, by luring in the centrist conservative Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), that was, ever since 2003, member of HDZ-led coalitions and government majorities. On the contrary, Milanović did not renew his coalition arrangements with the left-wing Croatian Labourists, whose former MEP Nikola Vuljanić was member with the European United Left parliamentary group. Finally, Human Shield (1 MP), an Eurosceptic populist party that arose from the anti-evictions movement and that supports monetary reform that would undermine the autonomy of the central bank, could see a significant rise in electoral support in September. This anti-systemic party will be nobody’s coalition partner, thus complicating the overall government formation process.
Croatia has indeed left its days of government stability and strong dominance of bipolar, block party competition and entered a more unpredictable pattern of multiparty competition that ends in elections results without a clear winner.