By Mladen Pupavac and Vanessa Pupavac
“I won’t let anyone say that Croatia won’t become prosperous and rich. Croatia will be among the most developed countries of the EU and the world, I promise you here tonight”.
So promised Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic of the Croatian Democratic Union party (HDZ) after winning the 2014-15 Croatian presidential election and becoming the first female president of Croatia.
The electoral race was very close. Kitarovic won 50.74% and the previous president Ivo Josipovic of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) 49.26% of the popular vote. In absolute terms, the difference between the two candidates was only around 30,000 votes, with the number of spoiled ballots twice that number at around 60,000.
30, 000 is roughly the number of votes received from Croatian citizens living outside Croatia who have historically sympathised with the nationalist leaning HDZ rather than the socialist leaning SDP, whose original members drew from the former League of Communists of Croatia. Croatian democratic political life has therefore effectively been decided by the combination of spoilt votes and votes from outside Croatia.
What might Kitarovic’s victory mean for Croatia? Soon after graduation she moved to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where she has spent most of her working life, including posts at the headquarters and the Croatian diplomatic missions to Canada and the United States. Since 2011 she has worked at NATO in Brussels as Assistant to the Secretary General in charge of public diplomacy. Packing up her desk at NATO, after winning the presidential election, Kitarovic proudly showed an interviewing reporter a Barbie doll dressed in camouflage uniform sitting on her desk to illustrate how she sees herself as a tough, independent and strong-minded woman.
In spite of her identification with the militant Barbie doll, Kitarovic’s career has progressed by conforming to the prevailing political leadership rather than through the pursuit of independent paths. Accordingly, her political career has enjoyed support in the past from the now disgraced Ivo Sanader, former Croatian Assistant Foreign Minister and Prime Minister, currently in prison for corruption.
Kitarovic’s political campaign stressed how she was going to address the economic crisis, the main concern of the electorate. She stated that
The main reason for my candidacy is the grave economic social and overall situation in Croatia. Our country is in deep crisis.
Croatia’s overall economic output in both industry and agriculture has declined since the 2000s. The number of those in work is only a little over the number of pension claimants at around one million in a population of 4.3 million, while over 300,000 people in Croatia are officially unemployed and a similar number are insolvent http://www.dzs.hr/. In November 2014, nearly 321,000 individual bank accounts were frozen, and their aggregate debt was just over £3 billion, while there are around 60,000 frozen accounts in the capital city of Zagreb, with a population of less than 800,000. Moreover the sudden increase in the value of the Swiss currency has brought 60,000 Croats with loans calculated in Swiss francs to the brink of bankruptcy. Meanwhile thousands of young people are leaving Croatia’s ghost towns in search of work abroad.
The hope of better times arriving with EU membership has been a theme of successive Croatian presidents and prime ministers. In 2013 Croatia finally joined the EU, but EU membership has not halted the country’s deepening economic crisis and falling living standards. Symbolically perhaps, the gift shop at the European Parliament is still selling postcards without Croatia marked as a member! So while EU integration has formally taken place, the population feels excluded from economic security. However, Kitarovic, unlike her predecessors, will not be able to hold out the promise of EU membership as the key to transforming Croatia’s economic prospects.
The Croatian economist Ljubo Jurcic is sceptical about Kitarovic’s promise about prosperity, arguing that even if the Croatian economy grew by 7% every year for the next ten years it would still lag behind the EU average by 30%. So why is Kitarovic making promises she must know are unrealistic – including compensating people affected by Swiss currency debt problems? Because she has no new policies to revitalise economic activity in the country and her public speeches show she is familiar with Croatia’s bleak economic statistics.
Her extraordinary pledges suggest that her presidency is likely to follow her predecessors – offering feel-good national economic dreams as a substitute for serious viable economic renewal programmes. So the election of Kitarovic does not represent a momentous turn in Croatian political history. Rather her election continues the recurring political malaise of the last two decades whereby the Croatian electorate may vote in protest against its worsening circumstances but is not offered a revitalised political vision with solid strategies to realise people’s aspirations for a better future. However, without alternatives, an indebted Croatia faces difficult prospects similar to those of Greece, including an externally European-imposed austerity re-structuring programme. As the Croatian press is aware, the European Commission has warned Croatia that it is going to introduce a strict(er) monitoring system to push through economic reforms. If Croatia wants to avoid this measure, she will have to present an action plan that the Commission is convinced is sensible and achievable.
Mladen Pupavac and Vanessa Pupavac (Associate Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham) have been researching the politics of Croatian veterans. See their article ‘Trauma Advocacy, Veteran Politics, and the Croatian Therapeutic State.’ Alternatives, Vol. 37(3), 2012, pp. 199-213.
Image credit: Radio Free Europe