By Dario Nikić Čakar (University of Zagreb)
Since the beginning of 2016 Croatian politics has faced serious turmoil and unprecedented events which brought into question the established norms of government stability in Croatia. After less than five months in office, the (government of technocratic Prime Minister Tihomir Orešković) was brought-down in the Parliament by vote of no-confidence. This was the first time in modern Croatian history that a government lost the confidence of its own parliamentary majority and ended its term after only 146 days due to severe intra-coalition paralysis and decision-making deadlocks. Even during negotiations between HDZ and Most on the government formation after the 2015 parliamentary elections, it was evident that the new coalition would face serious threats and internal challenges. The main reason behind inefficiency of the first HDZ-Most coalition government lies in mutual mistrust between the two parties, which was further propelled by personal animosities of the two leading figures in the government – Deputy Prime Ministers Tomislav Karamarko and Božo Petrov.
The early 2016 elections once again set the stage for the interplay between HDZ and Most. However, this time cards were dealt somewhat differently, making it much easier for HDZ and Most to negotiate a new coalition. Prior to the early elections HDZ made leadership change with which unpopular party president Karamarko, overburdened with corruption allegations, was replaced by MEP Andrej Plenković, who was one of the rare critics of the previous party leadership. Plenković very soon proved to be much more moderate, liberal and opened than his predecessor. In few weeks before the Election Day he made several maneuvers in order to reposition HDZ much closer towards the center of party competition. He disbanded the Patriotic Coalition which ideologically tied HDZ to several small right-wing parties in the last few election cycles; he also initiated the readmission of the former prominent HDZ members and officials who were expelled or left the party during Karamarko’s period; he tried to make an effort to reduce ideological tensions in Croatian society, which erupted during the term of the left-wing government since 2011; and finally, he accepted Most as the HDZ’s natural coalition partner, eliminating in that way the need to introduce in the government small right-wing parties which proved to have very paralyzing blackmail potential.
Voters’ preferences were also in favor of new HDZ-Most coalition government. HDZ once again turned out to be relative winner of the elections, but with new party leader and much more moderate policies, it made an electoral gain and slightly increased the number of seats. On the other hand, center-left coalition led by Social Democratic Party lost almost 100 000 votes and won less seats in comparison to the last year elections. SDP and its coalition partners mostly blamed SDP’s leader Zoran Milanović for poor electoral performance, since Milanović personalized electoral campaign and continued to fuel ideological tensions between ‘red’ and ‘blue’ Croatia and antagonized moderate voters who punished his strategy by abstaining. With the self-proclaimed credibility of uncorrupted, non-ideological, anti-establishment and pro-reform party, Most once again proved to be a dark horse of the parliamentary elections in Croatia. Contrary to the predictions of the public opinion surveys, it managed to preserve its electoral support and defend its new position in Croatian politics. However, this year’s elections also witnessed the rise of another populist and anti-establishment party Living Wall which turned up fourth and started to raising a lot of critical voices against old parties, government inefficiency and corruption.
In contrast to the last year twist and turns during government formation negotiations, this time coalition talks were very predictable and went much smoother. Immediately after the elections it was obvious that only HDZ was in a position to form a government. However, early elections also produced new constellation of political strength between smaller parties which gave the HDZ a backup plan in case that everything would go wrong with Most. This means that Most was not the only kingmaker anymore, as smaller parties left and right of the center, but also parties of national minorities, made a clear statement about supporting Plenković’s efforts to form a stable government. Together they had enough seats in Parliament to be a viable alternative to Most and in that way they managed to restrain Most’s populist blackmailing strategy towards HDZ which we have witnessed last year. So Plenković was in a comfortable position to secure parliamentary majority of 76 regardless of the outcome of the negotiations with Most.
Despite that alternative government formation scenario which gave him a significant leverage over Most, from the very start Planković was determined to strike a coalition deal solely with Most. On the other hand, Most’s leader Petrov was not in a position anymore to set numerous conditions and requirements over the future government formation. Prior to the elections he presented seven guarantees which had to be met either by HDZ or SDP in order for Most to support any government. This was the same blackmailing strategy used by Petrov last year during government formation negotiations, and he thought that this was a winning recipe with which he could confront HDZ again. However, over a couple of weeks of negotiations Petrov had to retreat significantly as his guarantees were watered down or even dropped off. This was a clear victory of HDZ and Plenković as they managed to tame their junior coalition partner which acted as a frantic mustang in Orešković government.
The major surprise of government formation negotiations was the (composition of the cabinet itself). It was expected that Petrov would take over position of Deputy Prime Minister again in order to secure government efficiency in decision-making. With his cabinet experience from the last term, it was believed that he can help in bypassing deadlocks which paralyzed Orešković cabinet. However, he decided not to engage in executive government and to take the position of the Speaker of Parliament. The main rationale behind this decision was that Parliament is the central decision-making body and by controlling legislative process as the Speaker he can also supervise and control government agenda-setting. Despite that, Most still has four cabinet ministers of interior, public administration, environment protection and judiciary. With this constellation of power between coalition partners it seems that HDZ and Most finally managed to make the government stable and it is expected to last longer than the previous one.
Photo source: http://www.total-croatia-news.com/item/14512-plenkovic-to-present-ministers-and-government-programme-to-parliament