Croatian Presidential Election: Between continuation and change5 min read
Croatia will see its voters head to the ballots on December 22nd to elect a new president. In the (likely) event of no candidate receiving more than half of all votes, there will be a run-off between the two candidates with the highest number of votes in early January 2020. In the current political system, the Croatian Parliament, the Sabor, wields most of the power, giving the president a largely ceremonial role with a focus on foreign policy and the armed forces. Nonetheless, the election is a valuable indicator of the electorate’s political mood and of the degree of its approval of the government in place. Here is an overview of the candidates to look out for.
The incumbent and favourite: Kolinda Grabar Kitarović
Slogan: Because Croatia knows! (Jer Hrvatska Zna!)
The first woman in the post since independence, elected in 2015 with the narrowest of margins, is seeking to extend her mandate for another five years. She is again supported by a Christian Democratic coalition led by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which since 1991, has governed in Croatia for all but eight years. During her first term in office, Grabar Kitarović’s relatively strong patriotic stance saw her being compared with the Croatian fascist Ustaša movement on numerous occasions (which she has been vehemently rejecting), but also resulted in a few embarrassing moments, such as her apology for not sufficiently supporting the Croatian economy after giving schoolchildren baskets of sweets, including chocolates from Serbia. Still, the vast majority of polls give her a lead in both the first round and possible run-off scenarios.
The challenger with ballast: Zoran Milanović
Slogan: A president with character / Normal (Predsjednik s Karakterom / Normalno)
Former prime minister and ex-leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) Zoran Milanović wants another go at leading the country – this time from the Pantovčak, the Croatian presidential residence. His term as prime minster is well-remembered for numerous protests by war veterans and opponents of minority (Serb) rights as well as the 2013 referendum defining marriage as a bond between a man and a woman in the constitution (his government advocated against such a definition but was soundly defeated). The baggage he brings with him might reduce his success in convincing undecided voters that his presidency would significantly improve on Grabar Kitarović‘s term. He is consistently placing second in polls, making his progression to the run-off likely. However, in order to have a chance at defeating the incumbent, he will need to show a stronger contrast to her and appeal to voters beyond his traditional electorate.
The extreme alternative: Miroslav Škoro
Slogan: Now or never (Sad il’ nikada)
Grabar Kitarović will face a challenger not only from the left, but also from the right: Pop singer and former parliamentarian Miroslav Škoro, known for his patriotic Croatian folk-style songs, will seek to appeal to voters whose memory of the war in the 1990s and dissatisfaction with Grabar Kitarović’s term will be the decisive factor in their voting behaviour. Supported by current government coalition partner, the national-conservative Most, and a few right-wing nationalist parties, Škoro can give Grabar Kitarović a headache by fishing for the same electorate without being open to as many reproaches from potential voters. Currently, he is placing third in the polls, with a difference of only a few percentage points to Milanović. His procession to the run-off round will rely on mobilising patriotic right-wing voters both in Croatia and the diaspora.
The wildcard: Mislav Kolakušić
Slogan: No distinct slogan at the date of publication. The headline of his campaign homepage is ‘New Constitution’ (Novi Ustav)
A former judge and electoral novice, Mislav Kolakušić appears to centre his campaign on criticising the two main parties, the HDZ and SDP, and on a proposed large-scale constitutional reform granting more power to the president. Like in the European elections in May of this year, he is running as an independent candidate with no endorsements from political parties. His vote share may have been enough to win him a seat in the European Parliament in May, but placing fourth in the polls, he is unlikely to proceed to the second round. Instead, as a ‘protest candidate’ with no clearly defined ideological stance, Kolakušić may be able to wield off votes from the two mainstream candidates Grabar Kitarović and Milanović and possibly indirectly affect the vote shares of candidates or even the composition of the second round.
So what will the outcome be?
Croatians are thus largely faced with two choices: a continuation of the politics of recent years under Grabar Kitarović or Milanović, or a more pronounced shift with a more offensively-minded presidency under Škoro or Kolakušić. In any run-off scenario, the turnout will play a crucial role in deciding who will end up becoming president. At the last election, Grabar Kitarović strongly benefitted from the second-round mobilisation of diaspora voters, particularly from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Given the comparatively tougher competition, such mobilisation efforts will be even more crucial at this election.