Saturday, 24 May 2014

The Politics of Broken Relationships? Croatia on the Eve of the European Parliament Elections

A short walk from the Croatian parliament is the Museum of Broken Relationships. Zagreb’s quirkiest museum displays countless artefacts donated by couples from around the world symbolizing the end of their love. The results of Sunday’s elections to the European Parliament may make the long-standing political parties in Croatia and their voters suitable for exhibition.

Croatian party politics has been dominated for much of the past two and half decades by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Recent polls, however, suggest that the combined vote for these two parties has dropped from nearly 80% in 2007 to under 60%. Still a significant figure, it nonetheless underlines changes in the party system and highlights phenomena that we have witnessed across Central and Eastern Europe, and are beginning to see in Western Europe as well.  

For almost two decades, Croatia’s political party system remained stable and relatively straightforward. Goran Cular and Nenad Zakosek’s research on voters’ attitudes finds a longstanding and coherent divide: on one side stood nationally and religiously orientated parties, led by the HDZ, which also expressed a slight preference for markets, on the other side were parties led by SDP, which tended to downplay national and religious themes and were more sceptical of market forces. The former group dominated the 1990s, but from the turn of the century the two groups habitually rotated in government. These overall divisions remained relatively stable even as the nationally orientated HDZ shifted its orientation towards embracing EU accession. 

Things have changed since the late 2000s. The longstanding parties have lost support from voters – especially younger voters - who see them not just as too entrenched in their focus on past conflicts, but also as tainted by clientelistic relationships. The waning affection for the existing parties was highlighted in the 2011 elections by the entrance into parliament of the Croatian Labourists – the Party of Labour. The new entrant drew support from both the Social Democrats and sections of the blue-collar HDZ vote. Although the Labour Party has now lost some of its support, its voters have not returned to their original electoral homes. Indeed, all factions in the current parliament have seen large parts of their electorates tempted by the emergence of new political forces, thanks in no small part to the governing Social Democrats’ lacklustre management of the economy, leadership struggles within the HDZ, and a series of high profile corruption scandals in both these leading parties.

One of the most prominent new parties is Orah (‘walnut’ in Croatian), which is running at above 10% in the polls and looks set to win at least one of Croatia’s eleven seats in the European Parliament.  Orah’s appeal is based on the popularity of its leader, Mirela Holy, a former SDP government minister who fell out with Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic. The party mixes an anti-establishment novelty appeal with a market-friendly ‘green’ agenda reminiscent of that promoted by Greens in Estonia and the Czech Republic. Orah - whose full name translates as ‘Sustainable Development for Croatia’ - seems particularly appealing to the sensitivities of younger voters; success in the European elections may offer Holy’s party a chance to solidify its position on the party political scene.

In other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, such new entrants have been known to fade before they have the chance to compete in more than one election: indeed, appeals based around novelty tend to lose their power rather rapidly. As we have argued elsewhere, the key to longevity lies in becoming and remaining the standard bearer on one of the main issue divides of programmatic competition and having a well-developed party organization. Social media can galvanize and mobilize some voters, but parties that endure need to combine clicks and mortar: a network of party offices and members remains indispensible for long-term success.  

It is unwise to read too much into the results of European parliament elections, but as the cases of Slovakia and Slovenia are likely to highlight, they are, more often than not, rehearsals for forthcoming national elections: new parties can use such elections as a way of building up their profile, demonstrating their dynamism, and forging relationships with voters. On Sunday, some Croatian voters will cast their ballots for Orah; the challenge will be to persuade voters to choose it again in subsequent elections.  Otherwise, the Museum of Broken Relationships might see a walnut on display alongside the symbols of Croatia’s older parties.

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