Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Croatia in Post-Election Turmoil

Right-wing winners struggle to find coalition partner to enable them to form a government.
By Drago Hedl

Nearly two weeks after Croatia's parliamentary election, the winning party has yet to forge an alliance with a smaller group to create a majority government.

The continuing confusion over who will eventually govern is leading local and international analysts to predict a period of instability, with further elections possible.

While the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, secured a convincing victory in the November 23 election - with 66 seats in the 152-seat parliament - it had still not formed a coalition as this report was published.

Its eventual partner must being eight deputies to the alliance in order to secure a majority in the parliament, but even if HDZ leader Ivo Sanader manages to win over a party by offering major concessions, analysts predict that he will not find the alliance easy to govern.

HDZ seemingly has many potential partners for a coalition, including the extreme right-wing Croatian Rights Party, HSP (which has eight deputies); the moderate right-wing Croatian Peasant Party, HSS (nine deputies); the Croatian Party of Pensioners, HSU (three deputies); the Independent Democratic Serbian Party, SDSS (three deputies); plus the five parliamentary deputies who represent various minorities.

However, instead of the HDZ forming an alliance with the HSP and its leader Anto Djapic - as many predicted immediately after the election - major problems appear to have arisen.

The international community has spoken out strongly against HDZ forming a coalition with such an extreme-right party, and has warned that such an alliance could hinder Croatia's efforts to join the European Union.

As a result, the HDZ leader has since focused on other potential partners, and has approached the HSS, which was a member of the centre-left coalition which ruled Croatia until the election.

However, insiders say that he did so reluctantly, as it is common knowledge that the previous coalition had problems dealing with HSS leader Zlatko Tomcic, who reportedly pressed for his own party members to be appointed to the top ministerial jobs.

During the election campaign, the HSS flirted with both left and right, marking itself out as an important player with the potential to influence the balance of power.

The HDZ's negotiations with Tomcic finally fell through on December 1, ostensibly after a disagreement over value-added tax. The HDZ wanted to reduce Croatia's high VAT levels by some two per cent, but the HSS disagreed, arguing that the budget could not support such a cut.

However, analysts believe that the real rift was caused by a row over ministerial seats.

One senior HSS official, insisting on anonymity, told IWPR, "There is a big rift within the party. The incumbent ministers are in favour, as they want to keep their jobs in the new government, but the other party heads are strongly against it as they fear that the huge HDZ would simply swallow our nine representatives."

Finally, under strong pressure from influential party members, Tomcic informed Sanader that his party was not prepared to be the HDZ's coalition partner.

This practically exhausted the list of potential partners, as the other parties are either more left-leaning - and therefore may not sit well in a coalition with the right-wing HDZ - or simply do not attract enough voters.

As a result, parties representing minorities are now trying to get as many concessions out of Sanader as possible in return for their support.

The Serbs, for example, are requesting the restoration of the rights of tenants' tenure and the return of property abandoned by those who fled Croatia during the war, while the pensioners want money that was withheld from them during the years when the late Franjo Tudjman was president.

Also on the political scene is HDZ's former main opponent, Racan's leftist Social Democratic Party, SDP, which won 34 seats in the election.

However, the new opposition has shown no interest in building a partnership with the HDZ.

Equally unlikely would be for the Croatian People's Party, HNS - a liberal party which was in the ex-governing coalition - to offer its ten deputies for a coalition with the HDZ. Led by the charismatic Vesna Pusic, this party has been a strong advocate of human rights and civil society, and has little in common with the HDZ.

Although it is not clear what the HDZ can do now, analysts agree that all the available options could lead to long-term political instability.

If the HDZ, for example, opts to go with the eight minority deputies, it will not only have to pledge many concessions, but the government will also lose credibility. Also, minority representatives do not carry the same political weight as other deputies, because they focus solely on the interests of their own people rather than on a broader party political agenda. It is very difficult to see such a government functioning successfully long-term.

The other option is for the HDZ is to form a minority government and then hope to win the support of the smaller parties. However, observers believe that this solution could produce a stalemate which would obstruct the work of parliament.

The third option - and arguably the least likely - is for a government to be formed by Racan's defeated party. Some are of the opinion that the former prime minister admitted defeat too soon, and that there is still a chance for the creation of a left-centre administration.

Immediately after the release of the election results, Pusic said that it would be much easier for the parties of the centre-left to form a government.

The Croatian constitution stipulates that the president should appoint as prime minister designate either the leader whose party won the highest number of votes, or whoever can secure a majority in parliament.

Most observers think this option can be ruled out since Racan is unlikely to volunteer to lead a nine-party government after all the difficulties he experienced trying to manage the recently-deposed coalition of five parties.

Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor.