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Croatia's president powers ahead in bid to be prime minister

March 30, 2024

Zoran Milanovic wants to run for the powerful post of prime minister in the upcoming election — without first resigning as president. The Constitutional Court has rejected his plans, but he's charging ahead anyway.

A middle-aged man dressed in a dark blue suit with a light blue tie, gesturing, while speaking next to the Croatian flag
President Zoran Milanovic is campaigning with a combination of right and left-wing policiesImage: MARTIAL TREZZINI/Keystone/picture alliance

Zoran Milanovic's calculations appear to have paid off. When it comes to politics right now, hardly anyone in Croatia is talking about anything else.

Earlier this month, President Milanovic called for parliamentary elections on April 17, a Wednesday, which is unusual for Croatia. Then, he announced that he himself would be running for the post of prime minister for the Social Democratic Party (SDP), without first resigning as president.

Although the Constitutional Court banned him from running shortly afterwards, the president hasn't been deterred. His SDP hasn't officially put him forward as candidate, but Milanovic has said that if it wins he'll be elected prime minister.

His candidacy isn't the only thing causing a stir. Since his decision to run for prime minister, Milanovic has been lashing out with fierce rhetoric, causing tempers to rise in political circles.

When the constitutional judges announced their decision against his candidacy, he called them "illiterate peasants" and "annoying stable flies." He even accused them of being part of a "gangster group."

Protesters holding banners on the streets of Zagreb
Many Croatian voters have accused the ruling classes of corruption and nepotism Image: ANTONIO BRONIC/REUTERS

Milanovic used similarly harsh language to address Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and his conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). Speaking with media, he said they were "empty figures without faith or worldview," who were "power-hungry and greedy."

Speaking more generally, he said the country was in the control of "thieves" with the "mentality of cattle rustlers" who acted like "leeches and parasites" feeding from the "healthy tissue of the Croatian nation." He promised that "rivers of justice" would flow as soon as he was elected prime minister.

Milanovic's 'fierce rhetoric is calculated'

"This fierce rhetoric is calculated. It's a marketing strategy, a well-considered PR campaign," political analyst and author Jurica Pavicic told DW. He explained Milanovic was already in the middle of his election campaign and was using such provocative language to reach the middle classes.

"These people are outraged by the fact that Croatia is riddled with nepotism and corruption, and completely suffocated by the dominance of the ruling party, which decides everything, from the opera director to the head of the provincial fire department," he added.

Pavicic explained that Milanovic had recognized the mood in the country and had adapted his rhetoric. "He has marketed himself as someone who will turn up with the cavalry and will sweep away this deeply compromised and corrupt state. He intends to fuel and maintain the anger of a significant part of Croatia's bourgeois, urban, liberal middle class, which is already considerable," he said.

Pavicic said these voters would back the party that has the best chances of winning against the HDZ, which for now seems to be the left-wing coalition around the SDP — whose most important driving force is Milanovic.

'A real alternative' to Plenkovic

In the first four years of his five-year term, Milanovic has presented himself as the real opposition to Prime Minister Plenkovic and the HDZ, not least because the actual opposition parties are at odds with each other and have largely turned out to be harmless political opponents for the government.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Zagreb
Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic (left) showed European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen around Zagreb in January 2023 when Croatia entered the Schengen zoneImage: Denis Lovrovic/AFP

Milanovic also holds a lot of influence due to Croatia's semi-presidential system, in which there are two strong players: the prime minister, who is elected by the strongest party of a ruling coalition in parliament, and an independent president elected directly by the people. The president not only has representational duties but also key rights of co-determination in matters of security and foreign policy. 

As long as the prime minister and the president are from the same party, there are generally few problems. But the situation can be uncomfortable if they are from different political camps, as is currently the case.

Milanovic has interpreted the power-sharing arrangement in a particularly confrontational manner, never missing an opportunity to attack the government and accuse it of corruption and unbridled clientelism.

In contrast to the prime minister, who is considered Europe's model pupil, Milanovic has also emphasized Croatia's national interests on the international stage. Regarding Russia's war against Ukraine, he has shown great understanding for Moscow's point of view and advocated a cautious position for Croatia. And with regard to neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, he has acted primarily as a protector of the exclusive rights of Croats who live there, rather than worrying about the country's stability and functionality.

This strategy has been very successful, with opinion polls regularly naming him as Croatia's most popular politician. The SDP gained seven percentage points after Milanovic announced his candidacy for the premiership.

Political analyst Pavicic said Plenkovic's reelection, once considered certain, is now suddenly in doubt. "Croatia now has a real alternative," he said.

No clear sense of Milanovic's policies

Pavicic warned, however, that nobody actually knew what Milanovic would do if he did win. He said the president was running without a program, with only himself in the focus.

"It is a left and right-wing populist concept. With some elements of his earlier left-wing position, with regard to anti-fascism and World War II, for example. But some positions are right-wing and populist, for example with regard to Ukraine and Russia or the legacy from the Yugoslavian war, including the war crimes that were committed."

Croatia's islands suffer doctor shortage

And this is the problem, Pavicic pointed out. "It is very likely that voters who normally vote for the left and some right-wing voters will vote for him. But we don't know where his government would go. We don't know whether he could become a Croatian version of Robert Fico."

The Slovak prime minister is currently one of the biggest headaches for Brussels, alongside his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban. The two populists have shown little respect for press freedoms and the rule of law, and seem to have the most understanding for Russian President Vladimir Putin among EU leaders.

They could soon be getting reinforcement from Croatia.

This article was originally written in German.

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