Croatia faces showdown between president and PM in April 17 general election

Croatia faces showdown between president and PM in April 17 general election
Rivals President Zoran Milanovic (left) and Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic (right) urge Croatians to turn out and vote in the April 17 general election. / SDP/HDZ
By bne IntelliNews April 16, 2024

Croatia’s general election on April 17 will pit the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) against its main rival the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP).

The impending showdown between the rival parties follows months of sniping Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic of the HZD and President Zoran Milanovic, who sought to be the SDP’s candidate for prime minister but was blocked by the Constitutional Court. 

A victory for the HDZ — indicated as likely in recent polls — represents continuity for Croatia. Milanovic and other SDP politicians, meanwhile, say they plan to clean up the country after a series of corruption scandals tarnished the HDZ’s reputation, but Milanovic has been criticised for his stance on the Russia-Ukraine war. 

Pre-election polls indicate a probable victory for the HDZ, albeit not substantial enough to secure an independent ruling mandate. Both the HDZ and the SDP are likely to have to rely on smaller right and left-wing parties as they struggle to put together a majority post-election.

A poll by Promocija Plus suggests HDZ will take 60 seats on April 17, down from its current 66 in the 151-seat parliament. This loss would strip HDZ of its slim majority, held with an additional 11 seats from minority and diaspora allies.

Meanwhile the centre-left Rivers of Justice coalition led by the SDP is anticipated to secure 44 seats, three more than in the last election in 2020. The rightwing Homeland Movement is projected to gain 14 seats, while the green-left Mozemo (We Can) movement and the Most list are expected to attain nine seats each.

Divisive issues 

The outcome of Croatia's parliamentary election will be significant, not only for the nation itself but also for Europe amidst the turmoil stemming from Russia's aggression in Ukraine. The election will determine whether Croatia maintains its pro-Ukraine and pro-Western stance or shifts towards a centre-left leadership under Milanovic, known for his more sympathetic stance towards Russia.

The Croatian president has repeatedly made controversial comments on the situation between Russia and Ukraine, including by calling on Western nations not to join an EU programme to train Ukrainian troops. He has several times voiced reservations about supporting Ukraine, arguing that such aid only prolongs the war.

A victory for the SDP could thus signal a shift in Croatia's political landscape, potentially leading to increased pro-Russian influence akin to Hungary and Slovakia. 

With the exceptions of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Slovakia’s Robert Fico, Milanovic’s stance on Russia, and opposition to aid for Ukraine, contrasts with the majority of EU leaders.

On the other hand, Plenkovic has repeatedly spoken of Croatia's solidarity with Ukraine. Croatia, a Nato member, has provided military aid to Ukraine, reflecting its solidarity and expertise gained from its own war experiences during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Party of rule 

Since Croatia's independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the HDZ has been the dominant political force, guiding the nation through milestones such as EU accession in 2013, followed by and integration into Europe's passport-free Schengen zone and the eurozone at the beginning of 2023. 

The party has benefitted from the robust economic growth last year, surpassing the EU average. Still, the opposition stands to gain from public dissatisfaction with soaring inflation and continued economic challenges across the EU, including some of Croatia's main trading partners.

More importantly, criticism of perceived corruption and nepotism during Plenkovic's administration has mounted. While denying any wrongdoing, Plenkovic's leadership has faced scrutiny, tarnishing his reputation.

Around 30 ministers have departed from the government over the past eight years due to corruption allegations, which the opposition exploited during the campaign.

Among the recent scandals, the prime minister fired economy minister Davor Filipovic and his special advisor Jurica Lovrincevic in December 2023 over allegations the two had used their positions to trade influence. The previous month, Plenkovic replaced the then defence minister Mario Banozic after he was involved in a deadly car crash. 

Milanovic has accused Plenkovic and the HDZ of widespread corruption and alleged "massive theft" of state funds, citing various scandals that have surfaced over the years, some of which have been subject to legal proceedings.

The latest scandal revolves around the appointment of Ivan Turudic, a close HDZ ally, as prosecutor general. Critics raised concerns that this appointment could be a means for the government to shield itself from scrutiny.

Personal rivalry 

Milanovic made a controversial start to the election campaign. He first announced the election date, then immediately announced his plan to run for prime minister, despite being the incumbent president. 

In Croatia, the president's role is mainly ceremonial, although he or she has the authority to propose constitutional amendments and convene extraordinary parliamentary sessions. The prime minister wields the majority of political power.

Shortly Milanovic’s surprise announcement, a Constitutional Court ruling in March barred him from running in parliamentary elections while serving as president. The court stipulated that the president cannot run for prime minister, participate in parliamentary elections, or endorse any party without resigning from the presidency.

Nonetheless, Milanovic opted to defy the court's ruling, persisting with his campaign activities.

The personal rivalry between Milabovic and Plenkovic has been at the centre of the pre-election campaign.

Milanovic has employed plenty of the colourful insults for which he has become known. He labeled Plenkovic an "ordinary coward”, accusing him of being behind the Constitutional Court decision. 

In one of his final appeals to voters ahead of the election, posted on his Facebook page, he urged Croatians to "go out and vote for everyone except the HDZ".

"Croatia has never had such a corrupt government, there has never been theft in Croatia like in these eight years of Plenkovic's and the HDZ's rule. They steal and laugh in our faces! I've been warning about it all this time, and now we can finally stop it forever and say — enough is enough!" he continued. 

Plenkovic has rebuked his rival for recklessness, claiming that Milanovic's actions risked aligning Croatia with the "Russian World”. He argued that Milanovic was unfit for public office and branded him a "political liability”. 

"Together, let's go for the most convincing victory in the elections from 2020 onwards! Together with [Croatian] citizens, we will prevent Milanovic, who openly expresses totalitarian tendencies, from returning [Croatia] to undemocratic times that we thought were long behind us!" he wrote on Twitter ahead of the election. 

The election that pits the rival politicians against each other is the first, and most significant, of the votes set to take place in Croatia this year. 

It will be followed by the European Parliament elections in June and the presidential vote in December. The outcome of this week’s general election thus sets the scene for both votes later in 2024.