By Dario Nikić Čakar (University of Zagreb)
The result of the 2015 parliamentary election, held on 8 November, has shaped a new political landscape in Croatia. A fierce electoral competition did not produce a clear-cut winner between the governing left-wing coalition Croatia is Growing led by the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the broad right-wing Patriotic Coalition led by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). Contrary to the opinion polls which throughout the year had been predicting a landslide victory for the HDZ’s coalition, it only emerged as a relative winner with 59 seats, while SDP and its coalition partners have gained during the five weeks election campaign and won 56 seats. With three additional seats won by the SDP’s natural coalition partner Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS), two coalitions were locked in a dead heat and 17 seats short of an absolute majority. A dark horse of the election was the Bridge of Independent Lists (MOST), a loose coalition of independent local lists and mayors from various parts of the country, which gained strong support from disaffected voters and won 19 seats. This significant parliamentary representation has given it a great deal of leverage with the two opposing coalition blocks and made of it the first genuine pivotal party in Croatian politics.
MOST strongly advocated structural reforms and grand coalition government of national unity with SDP, HDZ and MOST as key actors. However, in the wake of the election, MOST’s leader Božo Petrov made a populist move by certifying a statement with notary public declaring that MOST’s representatives will not enter individual negotiations with neither of the two coalitions. He also stated that, if MOST unilaterally support one of the coalitions or make a coalition agreement with either HDZ or SDP, he will resign as MOST’s leader. In subsequent weeks of negotiations with two coalitions to form a government of national unity, this move proved to be a great ballast for MOST’s maneuvering between two blocks and also the cause of strong disagreement and strife within the MOST itself.
Negotiations on government formation started in a few days after the election, with MOST insisting on participation of all three coalition camps in the new reform government. Leaders of the left coalition Zoran Milanović and right coalition Tomislav Karamarko strongly objected this initiative arguing that two coalitions they represent are ideologically and programmatically so far apart from one another that cannot work together. On the other hand, MOST has had its own internal issues since it secured stunning electoral support without any coherent policy platform. Besides that, it was evident from the beginning that MOST is a very loose coalition with unstable organizational structure and that it’s publically proclaimed unity would not last long.
As soon as negotiations started, MOST tried to push for reform agenda and faced two coalitions with ever-changing and incoherent list of policy demands. Two coalition blocks started to behave rather manically and engaged all their resources and manpower to provide as comprehensive as possible answers to these issues, but they basically obediently accepted all MOST’s requests. At the same time the incumbent Prime Minister Milanović believed that his coalition could benefit from MOST’s organizational instability. Milanović made a calculation according to which his coalition did not need all 19 MOST’s MPs to form a government. So he engaged in secret negotiations with several MOST’s representatives and elected MPs, of which the most prominent was former deputy leader of the HDZ Drago Prgomet. A secret plot was exposed on 11 November when journalists took pictures of Milanović and Prgomet talking in an apartment of defence minister Ante Kotromanović and the next day Prgomet was expelled from the MOST. Despite that, simultaneous negotiations between MOST and two coalitions continued in the next days, with MOST again and again raising new demands and stubbornly insisting on forming a tripartite government. Petrov also persevered in an attempt to prevent Milanović and Karamarko in their efforts to become prime minister, so MOST insisted on non-partisan prime minister, without providing any name of potential candidates for the position.
A month after the election and almost four weeks after negotiations started, MOST for the first time organized a meeting with representatives of both coalitions. Petrov once again pleaded for a tripartite government with non-partisan prime minister. He has also issued a seven-day ultimatum for both coalitions to accept all demands, or otherwise negotiations would continue only with the side which accepts all requests. In the next few days both Milanović and Karamarko organized intra-party consultations with their parties’ presidencies, seeking an approval for their next moves. On behalf of the SDP Milanović reacted first and rejected the proposition to form a tripartite alliance, stating that he is SDP’s sole candidate for prime minister, while Karamarko later on issued a statement on accepting MOST’s offer. Faced with this development, MOST decided to continue negotiations only with HDZ’s coalition, but not completely closing the door for the SDP to come back in the game. However, at that time nobody could anticipate subsequent events which could be best described as a political rollercoaster with unexpected thriller-style twists and turns.
On 16 December, only four days after rejecting the idea to form a tripartite government, Milanović made a U-turn and accepted all demands, including the one to cooperate with the HDZ in the grand coalition, and also renounced the idea of taking over the position of prime minister. This unexpected move was somewhat shocking for the Patriotic Coalition and its leader Karamarko, since they believed that an agreement with MOST could be sealed without left coalition. In the next couple of days representatives of all three coalitions were working together to strike an “agreement on the reform government” and everything seemed to be heading for the first grand coalition. However, on 19 December another twist occurred. At the moment of signing the agreement on coalition government, Karamarko decided to step away from a deal and left MOST’s headquarters saying that he cannot sign the agreement under unacceptable terms and rejected the idea of tripartite government. Petrov instantly issued a statement saying that HDZ eliminated itself from the further process and that negotiations would continue only with the coalition Croatia is Growing. In the next two days MOST and the Croatia is Growing talked over every aspect of the agreement and even unofficially decided who would take over prime ministerial post. However, when the agreement between MOST and left-wing coalition finally seemed like a done deal, the mother of all turns happened. On the morning of 22 December the President of the Republic Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, former HDZ’s minister in Sanader’s government, started the fourth round of consultations on forming the government with elected representatives of political parties and coalitions. This round of consultations went as usual except for one thing. As the representative of the MOST Petrov this time came alone, stayed for about ten minutes in president’s office and was visually upset upon leaving. He rushed to the party headquarters and after the meeting with other party officials he issued a statement saying that further negotiations with Milanović and coalition Croatia is Growing are called off. He said that Milanović tried to double-cross him by playing an unfair game – officially negotiating with the MOST, while secretly trying to split it by canvassing its individual representatives. In the afternoon of the same day Petrov and Karamarko went again to the President in order to convince her that they stroke a deal on forming the government and that together they control parliamentary majority of 78. She gave them 24 hours to name the formateur or she would be forced to call new election. The next day they once again went to see the President together with Tihomir Orešković, Croatian Canadian who was former chief executive for Teva Pharmaceutical in Europe. She gave Orešković the mandate to form a new government, making him the first technocrat to take the prime-ministerial position.
The new government was approved in parliament on 22 January after a month of exhaustive negotiations between MOST and HDZ over ministerial candidates. During the first six weeks in office, Orešković’s government is challenged by serious disagreements and disputes within the governing block, especially over issues on how to choose appropriate candidates to fill numerous government posts. Although he is a longtime sympathizer of the HDZ, Orešković is trying to secure his position and emancipate himself from the intra-coalition deadlocks. This is especially evident in his attempts to overcome apparent paralysis of decision-making in government by appointing prime-minister’s special advisers. The stability of government is seriously endangered and critical voices within the Patriotic Coalition are growing in strength, asking for new election.
Photo source: http://inavukic.com/2016/01/24/new-croatian-government-exposes-oppositions-communist-killjoys-of-democracy-and-progress/