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A New Extreme Center in Croatia

Western liberal outlets acclaimed Social Democrat Zoran Milanović’s election as a victory for a “leftist” presidential candidate. But his campaign was mainly aimed at scooping up conservative votes — as all Croatian politics shift toward the radical right.

Newly elected president (and former prime minister) of Croatia Zoran Milanović arrives for the Informal Dinner of Heads of State or Government held at the Justus Lipsius Building on May 27, 2014 in Brussels, Belgium. Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty

After five years of conservative government, Croatia went to the polls on January 5 to elect its new president. Somewhat unexpectedly, the winner turned out to be Zoran Milanović, former prime minister and the candidate of the main center-left party, the Social Democrats (SDP).

Western outlets such as the Guardian and Deutsche Welle responded very positively to the result, like Agence France-Press heralding Milanović’s victory as a clear win for the Left. Alas, the reality in Croatia is rather more complex — and less positive.

Not only are Milanović’s “leftist” credentials nonexistent — he is, in fact, an experienced neoliberal politician who plied his trade working for the bureaucracy of the European Union — but his narrow victory was mainly a consequence of the divisions within a growing and radicalizing right.

The defeated party in the election was the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) — a conservative force that came to power amid the prolonged crisis beginning in 2009, and that had hitherto held both the prime minister’s office and the presidency. In this context, the general establishment consensus was simple: a strict adherence to the fiscal and monetary rules set by the EU. But while he defeated the HDZ, Milanović is anything but a break from this consensus.

A Neoliberal with Character

The election consisted of two rounds, both won by Milanović. Even in the first vote, contested by eleven candidates, he edged out the outgoing president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović (KGK, of the conservative HDZ), with the far-right candidate Miroslav Škoro in third place. In a runoff directly pitting Milanović against KGK, he won with 52.7 percent of the vote.

This victory for a Social Democrat may seem surprising, given both the conservative climate in Croatia and the general crisis of European social democracy. Yet this crisis also helps us understand Milanović’s victory. With its ideological shift toward the political center, neutralizing any “social” agenda, the SDP has slid into more conservative economic policies.

This was visible during Milanović’s spell as prime minister from 2011 to 2016, during which he implemented a neoliberal reform of labor law severely slashing workers’ rights, introduced a controversial bankruptcy settlement law, and led a final phase of large-scale privatization of public infrastructure and resources, among many other regressive economic policies.

In this bastardized political-economic form, in which economic liberalism intersects with the positive evocation of the authoritarian president Franjo Tuđman, a pro-Brussels image, and a reconciliatory position on human rights, Milanović managed to cater to a broad audience, ranging from center right to center left.

Milanović presented himself as a “normal” person who wanted to “overcome differences” and advocate for “law and justice,” a man who would listen to “what bothers the people.” In this way, alongside his denunciation of the HDZ party and KGK personally for corruption and clientelism, he succeeded in circumventing common leftist vocabulary, or indeed any discussion of socioeconomic topics at all. As a president “with character” — and this was the main slogan of his presidential campaign, if not his only program — Milanović cheaply and easily managed to outcompete the crisis-hit HDZ.

Schism on the Right

Undoubtedly the most important factor in Milanović’s victory was the division that has for some years plagued the right-wing bloc. Though it is usually loyal to the HDZ, this loyalty has been put to the test by the social fallout of government-enforced EU economic policies — primarily the Maastricht spending criteria and austerity measures.

In order to address the problems of the economic and social crisis, the Right, of course, aims to shift the blame away from capitalism, looking instead for scapegoats. The Right’s main target here is not economic policy but European social liberalism — a set of values the radical-right opposition also attributes to the current HDZ leadership.

The right-wing proponents of “traditionalist” values instead emphasize the principles of the Catholic Church, family values, marriage, national purity, sovereignty, and a stubborn refusal to recognize minority rights and the relatively mild liberalism of European everyday life. These forces were represented in the election by Škoro, an independent candidate who was endorsed by various far-right parties and veterans’ organizations stemming from the 1990s War for Independence.

In the first round, the candidates of the disunited right, including KGK, Škoro, and others, in fact received more than half of the total votes. A disconcerting trend may be observed, in which at least half the voters from the Right (which itself encompasses the majority of all Croatian voters) have rallied behind strongly Catholic and socially conservative positions.

Adamantly cultivated since the dissolution of Yugoslavia, this hard-right politics is in fact even stronger than the European average, even after the recent right-wing shift in the EU. This is certainly bad news for the Left — far from the cause for triumphalism heralded in the many positive accounts of Milanović’s victory.

If the currently disunited Croatian right can combine its forces in the near future, then, as elsewhere in Europe, it will likely sharpen its focus on the current migrant crisis for its own tactical-political ends. This unity is already evident in numerous examples of brutal treatment of migrants by the police, strongly backed even by the more moderate current of the HDZ.

New Kids on the Block

However, amid this conservative political climate — with the SDP unable or unwilling to initiate any progressive policies — a couple of non-establishment candidates both on the Left and on the liberal spectrum did manage to influence the presidential campaign.

First, because — for the first time in decades, indeed since the breakup of Yugoslavia — there was a candidate of the socialist left. Katarina Peović, running for the Workers’ Front, managed in a short period of time to shake the public debate and present democratic socialism as a valid political option. While only winning 1.2 percent of the vote, the Workers’ Front did achieve a success in becoming a recognized part of the political mainstream during the presidential campaign.

There were also multiple candidates on the left-liberal spectrum, who focused on corruption as the primary issue explaining the failure of the post-Yugoslav capitalist transition, most notably Dario Juričan. Even though his campaign assumed a form of a parody — mocking the most notorious corrupt politicians — Juričan did bruise KGK’s campaign, and she was subsequently unable to clean the stain of corruption from her public image.

It was rightly pointed out that KGK has publicly supported politicians tried for corruption on multiple occasions, that she has personal ties to corrupt tycoons and has even pardoned some of them during her presidency. It was precisely these accusations that later came to be further developed and repeatedly utilized by Milanović himself.

Nationalist Kitsch and Femonationalism

Further aiding Milanović’s bid to scoop up center-right votes, the outgoing president, KGK, was an underwhelming candidate, unable to rely on either the radical right or the liberal leadership of the HDZ. Her spell in office and her campaign itself were marked by scandals, ties to corrupt and clientelist networks, and banal nationalist kitsch.

But she also showed the potential power of femonationalist ideology, which was widely deployed in her campaign. Here, she attempted to emphasize the importance of her womanhood as a symbolic mother and caregiver for the Croatian nation. However, she was caught between the liberal and far-right threats on either side of her party.

An analysis of these presidential results would suggest the Left’s prospects for the upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for mid-2020, remain questionable. Milanović scored a majority with a relatively small number of votes, a large quantity of null-and-void ballots, and a reduced electorate, decimated through intense emigration in the past years, largely from predominantly right-wing constituencies such as Slavonija.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this election was a case of the HDZ inflicting a defeat on itself, more than an example of the center-left building its forces. If the Croatian right is currently divided, a tactical exploitation of the migrant crisis could help it overcome this same situation.

The dominant choice in urban centers and relatively well-developed parts of the country, the center left may struggle to capitalize on Milanović’s victory. Yet while the SDP rarely — even rhetorically — caters to workers and the poor from underdeveloped parts of the country that are traditionally dominated by the Right, the situation remains bleak for other forces on the socialist left.

While the Workers’ Front candidate Katarina Peović carved out some space for labor- and class-oriented leftist policies, it will be very difficult to win the trust of the voters exhausted by extreme-center policies in the absence of a highly organized party base and infrastructure. With Croatian politics polarizing between this extreme center and a radicalized right, learning the lessons of democratic socialism elsewhere in the world could prove decisive.