All change! Croatia and Slovenia set for new political leaders

By bne IntelliNews December 2, 2011

Guy Norton in Zagreb -

Neighbours Slovenia and Croatia are both staging parliamentary elections on Sunday, December 4, which if the latest opinion polls are to believed, will see a change in political landscape for both countries. But while EU member Slovenia is likely to see a shift to the right, EU wannabe Croatia is likely to tilt to the left.

While the future political leanings of the two countries' future governments may well differ, the underlying reasons for the likely change are broadly similar - anaemic economic growth that has led to rising unemployment and falling living standards, and a sharp drop in support for the incumbent administrations.

In Slovenia, the polls are currently topped by the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), led by Janez Jansa, who was prime minister in a right-wing coalition government from 2004-2008. Although Jansa has been on trial, charged with accepting bribes from Finnish armaments firm Patria in return for awarding Patria contracts to manufacture armoured personnel carriers, that does not seem to have hurt his own or his party's elections prospects, with the SDS registering a chart-topping 35% level of support in the latest survey conducted by Ninamedia for Slovenian weekly Mladina.

That puts the SDS comfortably ahead of the second-placed party, the newly formed centre-left Positive Slovenia, headed by the charismatic mayor of the Slovene capital Ljubljana, Zoran Jankovic, with 24% support. In third place with 10.2% is the left-wing Social Democrat (SD) party, headed by current Prime Minister Borut Pahor, whose standing has improved considerably from a disastrously low 5% after he performed strongly in the recent televised election debates. A former coalition partner in the outgoing administration, the left-wing Democratic Party of Pensioners (DeSUS) party is in fourth place with 7.6% support.

Meanwhile, another newly formed party, the Gregor Virant Civic List, is in fifth place with 6.6%. The centrist party was formed by Gregor Virant, a former minister of public administration in Jansa's 2004-2008 government and when the election campaign kicked off in Slovenia in November, it regularly topped opinion polls. However, Virant's political stock has fallen sharply after it was revealed he earned €100,000 through work while at the same time as claiming €56,000 in unemployment benefits following the end of his ministerial tenure.

While the latest polls show that Jansa's SDS are likely to be comfortably the biggest political faction in the 90-seat National Assembly following Sunday's poll, the SDS will need to indulge in some major political horse-trading in order to secure a parliamentary majority. The SDS' most natural political allies, the right-wing Slovenian People's Party (SLS) and New Slovenia (Nsi), are currently polling just above the 4% level required to qualify for seats in parliament.

Moving leftwards in Croatia

In Croatia, the opinion polls suggest that the ruling right-wing Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party will be crushed in the forthcoming elections by the four-party centre-left Kukuriku coalition.

According to a survey by broadcaster RTL, the HDZ could witness its worst-ever election result, securing just 35 out of 150 seats in the Sabor, the Croatian parliament, down from 65 at present. The Kukuriku coalition (named after a restaurant in Kastav where the four parties agreed to go to the polls together) could gain 85 seats in the next parliament, giving it a comfortable ruling majority. The coalition comprises the Social Democrat Party (SDP), the Croatian People's Party (HNS), the Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS) and the Croatian Party of Pensioners (HSU).

The task of the Kukuriku coalition has been considerably eased by the fact that support for the HDZ has been washed away by a veritable tsunami of political funding and corruption scandals that have severely tainted its reputation. Although PM Jadranka Kosor is widely credited with pushing through regulatory changes and reforms that ensured Croatia will become the 38th member of the EU on July 1, 2013, over 300 members of the HDZ are facing prosecution over various alleged crimes and misdemeanours. These include her predecessor as prime minister Ivo Sanader, who is currently standing trial in Zagreb on charges of war profiteering and bribery.

Although Kosor claims that the HDZ is a collateral victim of the anti-graft drive she instituted when she replaced Sanader in July 2009, the fact that so many members of her own party have been arrested and charged with defrauding the state - and by extension the country's hard-pressed taxpayers - has led to the shredding of political support for the HDZ, which has effectively ruled Croatia for 17 of the last 20 years since the country seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991.

The key challenge for the Kukuriku coalition is seemingly whether it can secure a two-thirds parliamentary majority, which would enable it to push through changes to the Croatian constitution.

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