Capital Zagreb
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 385
Mobile Codes 91,92,95,98,99
ccTLD .hr
Currency Kuna (1EUR = 7.26HRK)
Land Area 56,594 sq km
Population 4.5 million
Language Croatian
Major Religion Roman Catholicism

Challenges Loom for Croatia’s New ‘Kukuriku’ Coalition Government

By Maja Šoštarić

On December 4, 2011, Croatian citizens opted for a decisive shift towards the left. The right-wing Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which had governed Croatia during the previous 17 out of 21 years since the country’s independence, obtained only 47 seats in Croatia’s 151-seat parliament (Sabor), as opposed to 80 seats (the 53% majority) gained by the Kukuriku left-wing coalition.

The word “Kukuriku” is an onomatopoeia that in Croatian denotes a rooster’s cry at dawn. Four political parties, led by the Social Democratic Party (SDP), picked the quirky name in order to emphasize the necessity for a broad national awakening.

Despite the very convincing defeat of the opposing HDZ, the new government and its future prime minister, 45-year-old lawyer and former diplomat Zoran Milanović, have little time or reason to celebrate. Their victory, albeit convincing, has already been characterized by many in the media as Pyrrhic for two main reasons.

The first reason was the considerable weakness of the principal political rival, the HDZ and thus a very uneven political battle during the previous several months. The second reason is, unsurprisingly, the fact that they are inheriting a situation characterized by overall gloom provoked by the economic and financial bedlam that Croatia, like many other European countries, seems to be unable to escape from.

The Game that Was Too Easy To Win

With the elections approaching, the former HDZ government was aware that it had a very slim chance of winning the December 4 elections, as the previous months – even years – had pointed to dramatic developments within the HDZ itself.

The party foundations were shaken in July 2009, when the then-Prime Minister Ivo Sanader unexpectedly resigned and disappeared for a while from the Croatian political scene. He regarded his successor to be a close collaborator, Jadranka Kosor, who then found herself in the bizarre situation of having to justify her legitimacy on a daily basis, for she was not elected, but appointed.

In the meantime, Sanader was captured in Austria on charges of corruption and bribery, and has been held in custody in Croatia since December 2010. (Sanader was released on bail recently). He is currently standing trial for two separate affairs, with indictments expected in several additional cases.

After expelling Sanader from the party, Kosor attempted to draw a clear border between the former prime minister and the party’s legacy. However, the worst was yet to come: on the very eve of the elections, the HDZ, as a political party, was indicted for drawing money from public enterprises and pouring it into its own slush fund. The indictment is several hundred pages long and except for the HDZ as a legal person, as well as some of its members, it includes the former Prime Minister Sanader.

As a consequence, it is reasonable to ask: how could one possibly win elections as an indicted party with all the funds frozen, a party whose former president and country’s prime minister is held in custody for corruption? Only some really powerful miracles could overcome such a situation. And they did not happen, which brings us to a simple conclusion: that the opposition had to win this parliamentary election. Otherwise, something would have been very, very wrong.

Against that background, some Croatian political commentators observed that at the parliamentary election 2011, despite the vast (almost incredible) choice of 4,359 candidates, 40 parties, 23 coalitions and 28 independent lists, the voters paradoxically had no choice.

The Kukuriku coalition was perceived as the only serious opposition to the HDZ, whose reputation was considerably stained through a number of scandals mentioned above. Other parties participating at the election either had already undermined the confidence of their electorate in the previous years, or were simply too small, inexperienced or even anonymous.

The outcome was as predictable as the match result in a soccer game between, say, FC Barcelona vs Levante. Barcelona’s recent 5-0 victory is not at all to be admired; in fact, anything else would have been a shocking surprise.

Jobs, and All that Jazz

The second reason why the new government does not have much time for champagne is the overall economic situation in Croatia. The election campaign, the shortest in history since Croatia’s independence and lasting only 16 days, was dominated by the discourse on domestic issues, first and foremost the sluggish economy.

According to the Croatian official data, in 2009 Croatia’s economy contracted by a massive 6 %, followed by 1.2 % in 2010, while in 2011, growth is predicted to stand at a mere 0.5 %. Fighting unemployment that currently stands at 17.4% represents the biggest challenge for the new government.

The fact that on December 15, just a day after the new prime minister stepped on duty, over 900 workers of an important Croatian ironworks lost their jobs, is not helping matters either. The legacy of the previous government (notably the inherited foreign debt of 102%), as well as the global economic turmoil will certainly cause the new prime minister’s numerous sleepless nights.

Although crucial, economic matters are not the only burning issues that the new government needs to address promptly. Public administration is another thorn in Croatia’s side. Many reproach it its breadth and complex structure, but a much graver concern is its overall inefficiency. Croatia remains a largely bureaucratic society; as the governor of the Croatian National Bank has recently stated, in order to curb growth, the new government should not cut pensions or salaries, but rather the unnecessary costs of Croatia’s excessive number of ministries and agencies. Croatia’s current annual budget deficit is about 6 % of GDP.

Other issues at stake are continuing the structural reform of the judiciary, engaging in a comprehensive fight against corruption, resolving some outstanding issues regarding transitional justice, restoring the citizens’ faith in politics, organizing an arbitration process regarding the border dispute with Slovenia, as well as preparing the general public for a 22 January referendum on EU accession, as well as for the actual membership which, should the citizens vote ‘yes’, will kick off on July 1, 2013.

The EU on the Horizon…

On December 1, the European Parliament adopted the accession treaty of Croatia, drafted by the Austrian MEP and the EP’s Rapporteur on Croatia, Hannes Swoboda (S&D Group). Consequently, after more than six years of negotiations and the green light in the European Parliament, Croatia finally signed the EU accession treaty on December 9, 2011.

Ironically, just several days after the elections that she had lost, the outgoing Prime Minister Kosor signed the European Union accession treaty on Croatia’s behalf. But for the obvious reason, and despite the achievement of hers and all former Croatian governments’ principal foreign policy goal, she had little motivation to indulge in festivities.

December 9 was indeed a historic day for Croatia. Yet the job is not yet completed, as now the Croatian citizens will have their say: on 22 January 2012, they will vote in a referendum in favor or against joining the Union. Fresh surveys talk about some 52% of citizens being in favor of the EU accession of Croatia; given the current crisis that the EU is wrestling with, the Union is no longer perceived as an El Dorado where everything runs smoothly.

And the challenge for the new Croatian government bigger: citizens are waiting to hear some strong, concrete arguments in favor of the EU. German Chancellor Merkel could offer one. She noticed that the Croatian accession even under circumstances as complicated as the present ones, showed the EU had lost “none of its attractiveness.”

The new Croatian government will hold its first session on January 3, 2012. The media have not missed to remark the symbolism of the date: on January 3, 2000, the only non-HDZ government in the history of sovereign Croatia took the power.

That government lasted only for one mandate, troubled by the profound coalition divisions. The new government, led by Zoran Milanović, is in a unique, but also a bit invidious position. The very rare situation they find themselves in, also produces their strength: the principal political opponent is down on its knees, while the citizens have high hopes in what they believe might be their rescue.

However, therein lies the other edge of a double-edged sword: one who expects much is also easily disappointed. Will the new prime minister be able to live up to the citizens’ expectations? It remains to be seen – after January 3.

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