Croatia’s July 5 general election is virtually certain to end in a hung parliament, with votes neatly divided between the ruling centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the opposition Restart coalition led by the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
This will make for tricky coalition negotiations but now Croatia has experienced an upturn in coronavirus (COVID-19) cases, the main parties will be under heavy pressure to form a new government quickly to put the country in a stronger position to handle the pandemic and the expected deep economic contraction.
Recent polls put the two main parties virtually neck and neck, most going a small edge of just one or two percentage points for the HDZ over Restart.
This advantage was partly due to the HDZ’s handling of the coronacrisis. Croatia was the first country in the Central and Southeast Europe region to confirm a case of the virus and swiftly imposed a strict lockdown. Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic personally benefitted in the polls from his handling of the crisis, which compared favourably to many West European governments' approaches.
The HDZ has been campaigning under the slogan 'Safe Croatia’ – presenting Plenkovic as a safe pair of hands to steer Croatia through the pandemic and economic crisis. Croatia only emerged from the recession that followed the 2008 international financial crisis in 2014, and many fear a similarly painful recession this time around.
However, after several weeks during which there were zero or close to zero new COVID-19 cases daily, the number suddenly increased, though has so far remained under 100 a day. In the most recent development, neighbouring Slovenia has removed Croatia from its “green list” of safe countries.
The recent sharp increase in new coronavirus cases tarnished Plenkovic’s record, not least because of an outbreak at the Adria Tour charity tennis tournament that he attended.
Folk singer, presidential candidate, kingmaker?
Third placed in the polls – and a potential kingmaker – is the coalition led by folk singer and former presidential candidate Miroslav Skoro’s right-wing populist Miroslav Skoro Homeland Movement (DPMS).
The DPMS would be a better fit for the HDZ than the centre-left SDP, but neither of the two main parties would be keen to tie up with Skoro, given his anti-Serb stance and the sympathy of some leading DPMS members for the Second World War fascist Ustasa movement. The HDZ’s current leader Plenkovic is a former MEP positioned towards the left of his party.
Restart, meanwhile, could seek to link up with the Green Left Coalition Mozemo. Mozemo is polling at around 4%, according to Politico’s latest poll of polls, somewhat behind the HDZ’s former coalition partner Most. It gained an unexpected supporter in the form of Oscar-winning actress and political activist Jane Fonda, who spoke out in favour of the coalition in a video message where she urged Croatians to “Vote for Number 3 [on the voting list]!”
Another possibility might be a broad cross-party coalition or technocratic government, as the main parties will be under heavy pressure to form a government quickly to get on with addressing the situation in the economy and the pandemic.
Croatia is forecast to be one of the worst hit – if not the worst hit – economy in the emerging Europe region, mainly due to the large contribution of tourism to its GDP. The World Bank forecast a contraction of as much as 9.3% this year. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) cut its forecast for Croatia’s GDP growth this year to a softer contraction of 7.0%.
A question of timing
Like other ruling parties in the region facing elections in a turbulent time, the HDZ-led government apparently tried to time the vote for after the virus had been subdued in the country, but before people started to really suffer from the crippling recession forecast for Croatia.
This may now have backfired, as the government has been forced to defend its decision to go ahead with the vote at a time when the number of coronavirus patients is rising.
Naturally there are concerns about voting during a pandemic – which have been amplified by the opposition. SDP leader Davor Bernardic accused the HDZ of rushing into the election to profit from the coronavirus crisis.
Some of the steps taken include setting up polling stations in retirement homes so residents don’t have to expose themselves to the virus when going to vote.
But the question of whether Croatians suffering from coronavirus on election day would be able to exercise their right to vote was only resolved two days before polling day, when the Constitutional Court reportedly said it could not deny them the right to vote.
Previously, the State Electoral Commission (DIP) caused a political storm when it said that people who were infected with COVID-19 would not be able to cast their votes. The DIP defended the move, saying it served the legitimate purpose of protecting public health.
NGO Gong then appealed to the Constitutional Court, which made its decision on July 3. “Awww! N1 Televizija finds out: the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Croatia decided at today's session that it cannot be deny the constitutional right those sick with COVID-19, because that would be the opposite of the constitution,” the NGO said on its Facebook page.
Croatia’s July 5 election follows “corona votes” in other states in the region, where Serbia held its delayed general election on June 21 and Poland the first round of its presidential election on June 28. The second round follows later this month, along with North Macedonia’s parliamentary election.