Croatia election: Will the ruling party's early election gamble pay off?

Croatia will hold parliamentary elections on Sunday (July 5) in an early election that is likely to be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Polls show a close race between the two mainstream parties but it’s uncertain who will win the most seats or who might be able to form a majority coalition in Croatia's 151-member parliament.

Experts say the elections were brought forward in part because the ruling party thinks they could benefit from their handling of the coronavirus pandemic. There have been just under 3,000 cases and 110 deaths but now cases are on the rise.

"At the time, it looked like a smart move for the government to secure a stable majority without the previous coalition partners," said Tena Prelec, a research fellow at the University of Oxford's Department of Politics and International Relations.

"But the decision to lift the lockdown and open the borders too fast came back like a political boomerang: now the epidemiological situation in Croatia is deteriorating day by day."

It's also uncertain how turnout could be affected, which could influence the incoming government's legitimacy.

It's also an election set to be influenced by newer more ideological parties that have emerged on the wings of the mainstream parties who have been in power for decades.

Who is running in the race?

Croatia has two main political parties: the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the Social Democratic Party, running as a centre-left coalition called the Restart Coalition.

The current ruling party is the HDZ under Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, however, the SDP recently won the mostly symbolic presidency in January, creating some balance between the two parties.

"Croatia has a peculiar party system in which the main two competitors have been present there in continuation from the very first election in 1990," said University of Zagreb professor Nenad Zakošek. "It is very unusual in eastern Europe that the party system has not been totally altered."

He thinks it is due to a "need for consensus between left and right" to emerge from the 1991-95 independence war and later to join the European Union.

Now, the traditional parties, particularly the HDZ, have become more centrist in recent years, explains Dejan Jović, a professor of political science at the University of Zagreb, which in part "opened the wings to the right" for more ideological parties to emerge.

A new far-right party called the Homeland Movement founded by the Croatian singer and former HDZ MP Miroslav Škoro might come third place in Sunday's election. Škoro previously came third in Croatia's presidential elections that took place last year.

The movement has taken votes away from Most, another right-wing party that was in coalition with HDZ before the coalition split in 2017 and HDZ moved closer to the centre.

Then, there's a left-wing party that's emerged from a coalition of activists. The Možemo! party is a new movement founded by Tomislav Tomašević, who has more environmentally friendly policies, and is against the privatisation of public services, experts say.

It remains to be seen whether the traditional parties will have to form a coalition with either of these movements to gain a majority.

What are the main issues in the parliamentary election?

The two main parties agree on large aspects of social, economic and foreign policy. For instance, neither party would like the country to leave the EU and both parties support social programmes.

Their differences are instead linked to ideological and identity issues, experts say.

These differences are between "political catholicism [to the right] and secularism to the left but also memories" including World War II revisionism and the 1991-95 war, said Dejan Jović, a professor at the University of Zagreb.

The Homeland Movement is in part trying to "initiate culture wars on topics like nationalism and the position of the Serb minority in Croatia, how we deal with our fascist past and then now the abortion issue," said Zakošek.

Abortion has also been at the forefront of the political debate with the Homeland Movement and another right-wing party Most stating that they should outright ban abortion in Croatia, which is currently legal.

Škoro even said in one television appearance that he was anti-abortion and that women who are raped should consult their families, according to Croatian media reports.

"We have a very well organised right-wing catholic mass movement which was initiated in 2013," explains Zakošek. A conservative organisation in 2013 got hundreds of thousands of signatures to force a referendum on the topic of same-sex marriage, which resulted in it being banned.

Now, "the real goal of the Homeland Movement is taking back control of the HDZ," said Prelec. The HDZ was originally founded as a nationalist and anti-Serb party.

Other issues that will come to the forefront is the budding economic crisis and the country's reliance on tourism, which makes up more than 20% of Croatia's GDP.

Some experts say the election is being brought forward in part to avoid the fallout from what they expect to be a very difficult tourist season.

What could happen in this election?

The two main parties are currently neck and neck with the Restart Coalition polling a bit higher recently due to the reemergence of coronavirus cases in the country.

But in order to get a 76-seat majority in parliament, there will likely need to be coalitions and it's unclear how those coalitions could shape up.

The left-wing Možemo! movement could form a coalition with the centre-left Restart coalition (which includes the SDP), and bring the politics more to the left.

But among the social conservatives: HDZ might have a difficult time creating a coalition without the Homeland Movement, which would give a far-right party more power in parliament.

Many don't expect to see Škoro as prime minister, but "if the Homeland Movement is in any way involved in government, at least some sectors are likely to be kind of Orbanised in Croatia," said Jović, referring to the far-right government in Hungary.

"[Škoro's] role is limited but he could become a veto player so he can influence the direction."

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