By Antonio Karlović (University of Zagreb)

The governing center-right HDZ, led by incumbent PM Andrej Plenković, achieved a landslide victory in Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Croatia which will enable them to almost single-handedly form a stable government.

A rush to the polls
While most countries were postponing or even canceling elections because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Croatia decided to hold its national elections (that were expected to take place in autumn) earlier than planned. The official explanation for this rush to polls was the belief that the novel coronavirus will spread slower during the summer and that it will therefore be safer to hold the election then than in autumn when most experts predict a second wave of the epidemic to occur. However, almost everyone would agree that the plan of the governing party (the center right HDZ and its leader, current PM Andrej Plenković) to quickly harvest its rise in popularity following its arguably successful handling of the first wave of the pandemic was at least as, if not more, important in deciding the election date. In an almost ironic twist of fate, both conditions were turned around as the number of infections started to dramatically rise and HDZ’s popularity (hit earlier by a series of corruption arrests of a high-level HDZ official) accordingly decreased in the two weeks before the election.

On the other side of the ring: the center-left Restart coalition led by the Social Democratic Party or SDP (with an uncharismatic Davor Bernardić as its PM candidate) was seemingly gaining momentum in the polls. However, it was clear that it could hardly achieve a parliamentary majority and form a stable government alone. Therefore, all eyes turned to the other options that were expected to enter parliament, in order to determine who will strike a post-election coalition deal. The presumed third political power was the Homeland Movement, a coalition of far-right parties led by Miroslav Škoro, a popular Croatian folk singer-songwriter who in the year before took third place with almost 25% of votes in the Croatian Presidential election. Other political options were expected to finish far behind the three above mentioned. Although Škoro ran both his 2019 and 2020 campaign in a very hostile tone towards the HDZ, his political past (N.B. for decades he was a HDZ member, once their MP, and also their mayoral candidate for the city of Osijek) and clearly right-leaning political views made it clear that he would be open to forming a coalition with the HDZ. But will that be enough – will the HDZ and Škoro have enough MPs to form a majority (of at least 76 MPs)? If not, who will? Those were the main questions leading to election day, 5.7.2020, in Croatia.

Against most expectations, the results offered a surprisingly swift resolution to all mentioned doubts. With 66 (of 151) seats in the parliament, the governing HDZ left the Restart coalition (which won only 41 seats) a distant second. This result will enable incumbent PM Andrej Plenković to easily arrange a comfortable parliamentary coalition with the 8 national minority MPs who traditionally go along with the majority in the Parliament in addition to 2 MPs from two branches of the liberal HNS party who have already in the campaign clearly stated that they will support a HDZ government. Most importantly, Plenković will not have to worry about negotiating a difficult deal with Škoro’s Homeland movement (which won 15 seats).

The turnout, with 45,65%, was even lower than in Serbia’s election in June (in which most of the opposition boycotted the election) with a turnout of 47.99%. The low turnout was presumably caused by the fear caused by the pandemic, but also by the facts that the election took place during the summer (when lots of people are away on holiday), that the election campaigns were mostly uninspiring and, generally, that the body politic is growing more and more politically apathetic.

Apart from HDZ, the surprise winner of the election was the left green ‘Možemo!’ (Croatian for ‘We can!’) coalition, led by Cambridge alumni Tomislav Tomašević, which succeeded to win 7 MPs and bring a refreshment into the Croatian political landscape. The big loser, on the other hand, was foremost the Restart coalition (Their leader, SDP’s David Bernardić, already hinted he was ready to leave his post as party chief. Obviously, Restart is up for a restart), but also Miroslav Škoro. He did manage to win 15 MPs and become the third largest group in parliament, but this was shadowed by HDZ’s big win which allows them to form a government without him. Škoro was hoping to “cash in” his election results with a deciding role in the executive, however now he’s probably sentenced for 4 years of boredom in the opposition benches.

The youngest EU member state, the election results suggest, is continuing to turn to the right as center and left parties won less than 35% of MPs. Also, the big win by HDZ seemingly turned around the long trend of steady decline in public support for the country’s two biggest parties – HDZ and SDP – who alternately took turns in governing Croatia in the three decades of its history. This trend was very worrying since it was getting more and more difficult to form a stable parliamentary majority, and (with smaller parties either becoming unrealistically demanding when negotiating potential coalitions or outright denying any cooperation with the two parties) a grand coalition between HDZ and SDP was considered as an inevitable and natural consequence. Now the country is looking towards a rather long period of HDZ domination.

What’s next?
HDZ will clearly form a new government with Plenković as PM by the end of the month. This time they will have a free hand in designing the government (as opposed to the last two occasions they took power in 2015 and 2016 when they were forced into costly coalitions). It has been suggested that the government will have less ministries than now, and it can be expected that the ministerial positions will be filled with people from the party mainstream – i.e. the center-right, pro-EU stream headed by PM Plenković who will, for the first time, have the chance to govern as he really wants to govern: free from junior coalition partners’ requirements and antagonistic intra-party pressures from HDZ’s right wing (which he beat in the intra-party election in March). In a way, this is Plenković’s ‘hic Rhodus, hic salta’ moment.

The new political stability is very important for the small country with a strong dependency on tourism income facing significant aftereffects of the COVID-19 crisis which will require the execution of swift and comprehensive reforms. Also, the election results are good news for Bruxelles as Plenković is considered to be a close and trustworthy partner of EPP colleagues Von der Leyen and Merkel.