The incumbent Ivo Josipovic is the favorite in this Sunday's presidential election in Croatia. But, 18 months after entry into the EU, his country is deep in crisis.
Mario Miljak is worried about his country. Though the 35-year-old admits that he is better off "than other young people in the rest of Croatia" - he lives in the historical city of Dubrovnik on the Adriatic Sea, which breaks new tourist records every year. Everyone gets to work here, says Miljak, a technician who sets up weddings, conferences, and other events. But in his opinion, the future of the country as a whole looks bleak. "More and more young people go away because they don't see any prospects here," he says. "We're allowing the key people of the future to leave." Even though he is disenchanted by mainstream politicians, Miljak is still going to vote in the presidential election on Sunday.
Three established candidates, and one rookie
The youngest candidate, 24-year-old Ivan Vilibor Sincic, was once seen as a complete outsider, but has since picked up much sympathy, particularly among young Croats. In recent TV debates, he successfully presented himself as someone from outside the political establishment. "As a young person I am shocked by the demagogy I heard here," he told his three opponents at the end of his first confrontation with them on primetime TV. "You are all members of the governments and the parties that destroyed my home country."
That quote and the picture of the young, rebellious Sincic is currently being circulated on social media networks. Mario Miljak did so too, writing on his Facebook page: "Maybe he won't be president, but he told them the truth." Sincic became famous as an activist in the "Živi zid" (Living Wall) movement, which campaigns against evictions. Politically, he is demanding a tough line against the EU, even threatening to leave it.
The polls say that the incumbent Ivo Josipovic is the favorite. He is close to the social-democratic SDP party, though as president he had to give up his party membership. His main opponents are former Foreign Minister Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic of the conservative HDZ party and Milan Kujundzic, a doctor who last year founded the populist right-wing party Hrvatska Zora (Croatian Dawn).
Tourism can't save the country
The future president will face serious challenges, for Croatia is stuck in a deep economic crisis. Since accession to the European Union on July 1, 2013, the mood among the population has only worsened. Though people were expecting benefits from membership - such as new opportunities for small businesses to get EU funding - realization is spreading that simply joining the bloc is not a magic cure for economic troubles.
The British Financial Times newspaper recently described Croatia as the EU's "new problem child" in an article that outlined Croatia's problems: the country might have a beautiful coastline with idyllic islands that are loved by tourists in the summer months. But those three or four months are nowhere near enough to dig the country out of its crisis.
This is the sixth year in a row that Croatia has failed to show any economic growth, and public debt is now twice as high as it was in 2008. In the league table of the worst-performing EU economies, Croatia is currently third, right behind crisis-ridden Greece and Spain. Unemployment is currently at 19 percent, a figure that rises to 50 percent among young people.
For that reason, young people in Croatia are increasingly coming to the conclusion that they have little to look forward to in the immediate future. Almost every day, the Croatian press publishes articles about university graduates saying their most important documents beside their diplomas are passports and flight tickets. Many of them complain that you can only get a job in Croatia if you belong to the right party or are related to the right decision-maker.
Mario Miljak is disappointed too: "The HDZ spent years stealing from us, the SDP is incapable of changing anything, even though it's in power at the moment. The whole political system is corrupt." But he is still going to vote, he says, because it's important. He will give one of the candidates his vote, if only to support democracy.
Journalist Toni Gabric from Zagreb has a different take. He runs the website "h-alter," where he wrote in one article: "I'm going to break all the rules of objective journalism now, and call on you to take half an hour on Sunday to go to the polling station and cross out the names of all four candidates." Because, he argues, none of them are capable of taking on the office - all of them are only interested in personal advantage. In short, Gabric doubts that the election will change country's dire situation at all.