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Croatia's election offers voters little prospect of change

April 17, 2024

Croatia's upcoming election will offer a choice between two similar candidates: Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and President Zoran Milanovic. Foreign policy is the only area where they offer different approaches.

A man walks past an election campaign billboard in Croatia
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic will be squaring off with President Zoran MilanovicImage: Antonio Bronic/REUTERS

On Wednesday, Croatian citizens will elect a new parliament and prime minister. Polls had long favored incumbent Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, leader of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).

The opposition is widely viewed as weak, with local victories few and far between. In 2021, the green-left Mozemo! (We Can!) movement won the mayoral election in the capital, Zagreb.

But now, Croatian President Zoran Milanovic is shaking up an election that seemed as if it had been decided before it had even begun. He threw his hat in the ring as the lead candidate of the Social Democrats (SDP) just four weeks ago.

Since being elected head of state four years ago, he has proved a key player in national power politics, consistently topping surveys as the country's most popular politician. Although, as president, he has little actual power in running the country, Milanovic has become Plenkovic's main political opponent.

Following Milanovic's surprise campaign announcement in March, initial polls showed that support for his SDP rose by as much as 7%.

Two parties, barely any differences

The party programs of the SDP and HDZ barely differ. Both have centered their domestic platforms around Croatia's economy and living standards. Both promise higher wages and pensions, guaranteed kindergarten spots for each child, and lots of new and affordable housing. Neither explain how they intend to finance this.

Crowds of an anti-government rally holding up signs and banners
Croatia's capital Zagreb was rocked by protests in February as protesters accussed the government of corruption and demanded reelectionsImage: ANTONIO BRONIC/REUTERS

But the parties do differ when it comes to rights for women and the LGTBQ+ community. While the Christian-conservative HDZ fails to mention them at all in its party program, the center-left SDP has dedicated a considerable portion of its program to them. Stated goals include strengthening the right to abortion, as well as liberalizing options for in vitro fertilization treatments.

Different foreign policy proposals

Prominent Croatian political analyst Žarko Puhovski pointed out that both parties are not only similar in terms of domestic policies. "Milanovic and Plenkovic hardly differ as people, either," he told DW.

"Both have very similar familial and social backgrounds," he explained. "To a certain degree, their biographies are also very similar." For example, both have served in Croatia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

They differ most in their foreign politics, Puhovski. On the one hand, Plenkovic spent years as a member of the European Parliament, where he nodded through all the European Commission's proposals, including sanctions against Russia and extensive military aid for Ukraine.

On the other hand, Milanovic has appeared to place Croatia's interests before those of the European Union (EU). Puhovski likened this to treating the bloc like a personal cash machine.

In March, Milanovic posted a message on Facebook that read: "We cannot be content with the way EU funds are being spent. We need to get better at using this money. In the competition of European nations, we will only be successful if we take care of ourselves."

The president has also promised to keep Croatia neutral in current conflicts, such as Russia's war in Ukraine. While he has promised humanitarian aid for Ukraine, he has also opposed Croatia delivering weapons or training Ukrainian soldiers. At a Sunday press conference, he stated that "Ukraine, Israel, Iran — these are not our wars, and we should stay out of them."

But according to Puhovski, both candidates are in agreement when it comes to neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina. "Both believe that Croats in Bosnia [and Herzegovina] are being disadvantaged. They want to protect their interests," he said.

"The difference is that Plenkovic puts it diplomatically and counts on Brussel's support, while Milanovic speaks about it more openly and relies on support from the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik." Dodik serves as the president of Repulika Srpska, the majority-Serb entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Difficulty forming a government

Aside from the two major parties HDZ and SDP, three smaller parties could make considerable gains in the upcoming parliamentary election. These are the right-wing nationalist Homeland Movement (DP), the Eurosceptic Bridge (Most) party, and the green-left We Can! movement. There are also several small local parties and those representing ethnic minorities.

A party information stand displays party posters in a busy marketplace
Smaller parties, such as the Eurosceptical Bridge (most) party, could cost the leading SDP and HDZ parties votesImage: Mehmed Smajic/DW

Puhovski believes that regardless of which party wins, both the SDP and the HDZ would have trouble forming a government after the elections. "Other parties either don't want to form a coalition with them," he explained, "or they won't be able to gather enough votes."

A grand coalition would be the only logical solution, he believes. "But HDZ and SDP have fallen out so severely that that would be impossible," the analyst said. Instead, he believes the next government will depend on how well the prospective prime minister can negotiate. That might be an added advantage for Plenkovic, who has demonstrated considerable talent for this in the past.

This article was originally published in German.

Head shot of a man (Zoran Arbutina) with gray hair and a beard
Zoran Arbutina Editor, writer, reporter