Croatia: Towards Further Fragmentation of the Party System

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Introduction

2019 European elections in Croatia were held in a very different political environment than previous EP elections. Economic conditions have improved as GDP growth resumed in 2015, unemployment has declined by more than a half and the government fiscal position has also improved. However, the entry into the EU and expiration of the restrictions on the free movement of labour produced a mass emigration of mostly younger population towards countries of Western Europe. Thus, despite the migrant crisis that affected Croatia in 2015 and 2016, and the constant pressure of migration on the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was emigration rather than immigration that was a significantly more important topic of public debates in the two years preceding European elections. Emigration particularly affected the eastern part of the country which suffered huge population losses and turned a fertile and potentially prosperous region into a symbol of country’s failure to manage its own development and use the EU membership beneficially. Croatian economy was largely unable to gain new markets in the EU, is heavily dependent on tourism and suffers from weak export sector, lack of innovation capacity and competitiveness problems. This resulted in Croatia being one of the countries with the lowest GDP per capita in the EU.

The context

Within two years prior to the elections the government led by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) was faced with the collapse of the largest company in the country, bankruptcy of more than half of the shipbuilding industry (one of the few remaining significant industries in Croatia), internal political infighting between various wings of the HDZ itself, pressures from trade unions which mobilized huge support in opposition to the pension reform, and pressures from conservative and nationalist groups by challenging party leadership after HDZ has been moving to a more centrist position since 2016 under the leadership of Andrej Plenković. For two years a very open fight between the prime minister and his more nationalist and conservative opponents on the right was playing out in front of the public, affecting the undisputed perception of HDZ as the sole credible representative of voters on the right.

At the same time, the period preceding the EP elections was characterized by infighting within the main opposition party, Social Democrat Party (SDP), which saw numerous but ineffective challenges to its even more ineffective leader Davor Bernardić. These challenges resulted in expulsions, suspensions and defections from the party, reducing party strength in the parliament and its credibility with voters. As a consequence, the party lost almost half of its support in the polls. Similarly, inability to define itself affected Most, which emerged as the anti-establishment reform party in 2015, seeking to break the two party duopoly. Most won significant support in parliamentary elections in 2015 and 2016, briefly participated in two governments, and brought both of them down in short order, but was otherwise unable to clearly define its identity within the Croatian party system, and also suffered from splits and defections, losing support along the way. On the populist end of the party spectrum, Živi Zid (Human Blockade), which also emerged in 2015, had less problems with defining its message, and was opposing the membership in the Eurozone and NATO, calling for political control over the central bank and was even suggesting leaving the EU. The party almost rose to the second place in the polls, but it declined subsequently, as new political actors with similar appeals entered the stage at the beginning of 2019.

Overall, between 2014 and 2019 European Parliament elections, party system in Croatia underwent further fragmentation.  Increased fragmentation of the party system was a result of popular demand for new political actors, however none of these parties were able to establish a functional party organization and presence on the ground. Often, these parties were reduced to and completely dependent on few prominent personalities acting as public faces of the party. These parties also struggled to form a list of candidates of any visibility for the EP elections and were even less capable for sustained political activity. Sheer numerical fragmentation did not help, and to compensate for this and prevent the wasting of votes parties formed coalitions which often included four, five or even more members.

As a consequence, on the eve of the 2019 European elections the combined support in the polls for the two largest parties (HDZ and SDP) dropped from over 60% before the 2015 parliamentary elections to around 40%. Combined share of four largest parties was approximately 60%, dropping from over 80% where it stood after 2015 parliamentary elections, and there were about ten parties polling below 3%.

The campaign

The campaign for the 2019 European elections was more visible than in the previous EP elections. After six years of membership it appears that in this campaign the electorate was more familiar with the role of the European Parliament and somewhat more engaged with the issues facing the EU. Furthermore, parties or individual candidates, mostly MEPs, were even making statements about how they see the future of the EU, which was not really the case in the previous elections.

Having MEPs produced significant incumbency advantage in the campaign, especially if those MEPs succeeded to remain visible to the Croatian public throughout their term. Here SDP enjoyed certain advantage as both of their MEPs were quite well know and popular among the general public. Similar advantage was enjoyed by the group of nationalists and conservative parties forming the coalition of Croatian Sovereigntists headed by the well know and popular MEP Ruža Tomašić, the only Croatian MEP member of ECR group.

Perhaps the biggest risk was taken by HDZ, which forwarded a list of relatively new and unknown candidates and failed to include any prominent members from the right wing of the party. Also, the list did not include two prominent MEPs representing former HDZ coalition partners, both of whom likely enjoyed significant support among the party supporters, despite not being party members. Thus, despite having perhaps the most organized and resourced electoral campaign, HDZ struggled to raise the profile of their candidates. Also, the HDZ campaign, as opposed to previous European elections, was not relying as heavily on symbolic politics based on history and values. Instead, influenced by the prime minister and his centrist strategy, it was emphasizing dangers of populism and extremism for the EU. This message was directed both at the populist parties like Živi Zid, and HDZ’s competitors on the right such as Independents for Croatia and Croatian Sovereigntists. The party leadership was using this election campaign to place the party firmly in the centre of the party system and the European mainstream and the attendance of the party’s final rally by Manfred Weber and Angela Merkel served to emphasize this appeal.

The SDP campaign was led by their candidates for MEPs as the party leader entered this race with a weakened position – the party had been suffering in the polls for quite some time and dissatisfaction in the party was palpable. Most, which entered the campaign as the fourth party in the polls, focused their message on the criticism of HDZ, and was presenting weak and somewhat directionless Eurosceptic appeal. However, as the list was topped by the party leader and majority of the MPs from the national parliament, it failed to present a clear candidate or a message for the European Parliament. Similarly, nationalist Independent for Croatia were focusing on their domestic message and criticism of the current HDZ leadership, but otherwise did not have a clear position or a candidate for this election, as their most prominent candidates indicated that they will remain in the national parliament. Živi Zid was the only party promoting a clear Eurosceptic message, but their campaign also lacked a prominent candidate for the EP and there was a relatively weak presence of the party in the media. Other parties and lists varied greatly in their focus and the tone of their campaign, as some emphasized their candidates and others focused on domestic issues.

The results

European parliament elections in Croatia are conducted under a PR system where 11 seats (12 after UK exits the EU) are allocated in a single at large national district using D’Hondt method. Voters can also indicate a preference for a single candidate, but this can change the order of candidates on the party list only if 10% of voters cast a preference vote for a candidate.

Turnout in 2019 elections was just over 1,1 million voters, or 29.86%, which is a noticeable increase from 2014 elections when just over 950,000 voters participated in the elections (25.24%) or special elections held in 2013, where just above 780,000 voters participated (20.84%). Seats were won by six lists of individual parties, coalitions or political platforms. However, the result still left more than 31% of the voters unrepresented in the EP, which was likely a consequence of high party system fragmentation.

Apart from the large share of “wasted votes” the election saw a significant drop in the share of two largest parties to just above 41%. Though two parties fought several previous European and national elections in wider coalitions, this level of support is their lowest recorded since the first multiparty elections in 1990. While for SDP, which has suffered a precipitous drop in support since the 2016 parliamentary elections, 18.9% of the vote and four seats was an increase on the support indicated in the polls, for HDZ the result of 22.7% was lower than the poll predicted. Winning four seats was less than the party expected, and as a share of votes it is the worst result in the party’s history in non-local elections. Apparently, the risky strategy of the party leader and prime minister Andrej Plenković aimed at promoting new names from the centrist wing of the party was not appealing to the core of the party base. This was an ominous sign given the strong party organization which even at the height of HDZ unpopularity managed to turn out more voters. SDP result might just be a consequence of the fact that the party has the oldest electorate of all parties and that this translated into a turnout advantage.

The alliance of conservative and nationalist parties called Croatian Sovereigntists won 8.5% of the votes, and this success is likely in large part due to MEP Ruža Tomašić, who won around 76% of the preference votes cast for the list and the largest number of preference votes of all candidates. The biggest winner perhaps is the independent candidate Mislav Kolakušić, a former judge of the commercial court running on a fairly populist message, who managed to gain 7.9% of the votes despite being the only publicly know figure on the list. Somewhat less successful were Živi Zid, a Croatian version of Five Star Movement, and a group of seven centrist, left and liberal parties called Amsterdam coalition, winning a seat each, but failing to gather as many votes as expected and underperforming in comparison to predictions in the polls. Around nine lists won more than 1% of the votes, including another three nationalist or conservative groupings with a combined share of around 13%, and six parties or lists broadly on the left with around 12% of the votes. The elections also saw a surge in support for more radical conservative and nationalist parties which gained around 14% of the votes. The elections also demonstrated the strength of incumbency, with all MEPs who managed to maintain some visibility during their term in office securing sizable support, even if not all of them won seats.

 

Table 1 – Results of the 2019 European Parliament elections – Croatia
Party EP Group Votes (N) Votes (%) Seats Votes change from 2014 (%) Seats change from 2014
Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) EPP 244,176 22.9 4 -18.5 +0
Social Democrat Party (SDP) S&D 200,976 18.9 4 -11.0 +2
Croatian Souverenists (HRAST-HKS-HSP AS-UHD) ECR 91,546 8.6 1 +8.6 +0
Independent list Mislav Kolakušić NI 84,746 8.0 1 +8.0 +1
Human Blockade (Živi Zid) EFD 60,847 5.7 1 +5.7 +1
Amsterdam coalition (HSS-GLAS-IDS-HSU-PGS-D-HL-SR) ALDE 55,806 5.2 1 +5.2 +0
Bridge od independent lists (Most) NI 50,527 4.7 +4.7
Independent list Marijana Petir NI 47,385 4.5 +4.5 -1
Independents for Croatia (NZH – HSP) NI 46,970 4.4 +4.4
Independent Democrat Serb Party (SDSS) NI 28,597 2.7 +2.7
Croatians People Party-Liberal Democrats (HNS) ALDE 27,958 2.6 +2.6 -1
Party of anticorruption, development and transparency (START) NI 21,744 2.0 +2.0
Party of Labour and Solidarity (BM 365) NI 21,175 2.0 +2.0
We Can – Political platform (Možemo – Nova Ljevica – ORaH) Greens/EFA 19,313 1.8 +1.8 -1
Smart (Pametno) ALDE 15,074 1.4 +1.4
Others 47,521 4.5
Total 1,064,361 100 12 1
Turnout (%) 29.86
Legal threshold for obtaining MEPs (%) 5%

 

In conclusion

The elections demonstrated increasing fragmentation of the Croatian party system, where splits of the established parties and inability of new actors to join forces or form a viable political organization created parties with few members, almost no organization, and scarcely any figures or policies capable of attracting public attention. These parties cannot pass electoral threshold and are either forced to join a coalition with similarly small and weak parties or end up “wasting” votes. If this process continues, electoral volatility and turnover of parties is likely to increase, as most new actors have little appeal, organization and leadership to stabilize their support. Furthermore, the elections may indicate that after almost three decades of successfully incorporating nationalist and conservative groups within HDZ, new parties representing these groups are emerging to the right of HDZ significantly reducing the electorate available to the party. The fragmentation of the party systems is also likely to make formation of governing coalitions in future more difficult. It may be that this process could lead to a formation of new parties from the fragments of the current party system under pressure of the electoral results. However, the near future is likely to be characterized by higher volatility and party turnover.