New Green party shakes up Croatia's political landscape
With just weeks to go until the EU elections, opinion polls for the first time suggest that more Croatians will vote in favour of the centre-right opposition than the government centre-left coalition.
The most recent polls, published in April, indicate that 25.1 percent will vote for a conservative coalition led by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).
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The ruling Social Democrat (SDP) liberal coalition comes in just behind with 23.7 percent of the votes.
The slip in popularity comes amid a series of investigations by the anti-corruption office (USKOK) into several SPD officials.
Marina Lovric Merzel, a county prefect, was detained on suspicion of abuse of power while the mayor of Vukovar, Zeljko Sabo, is accused of attempting to buy the votes of local city councillors.
Meanwhile the poor relationship between the now-fired finance minister, Slavko Linic, and Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, as well as the grave economic crisis, the recession, and reduced foreign investments, has prompted voters to think about where the SPD government is taking the country.
To counter this the SPD has announced a grand coalition for the EU election including a mixed bag of parties – such as the Pensioners Party and the Istrian Democratic Assembly (the latter was refused as a partner party last year).
Tomislav Karamarko, the HDZ president heading up the centre-right opposition bloc, is confident of a victory in the EU vote, even though polls are so close.
He recently noted that last year the HDZ won an EU election – ahead of Croatia becoming a member in mid 2013 – even though opinion polls indicated the opposite. He explained the (ultimately seriously inaccurate) poll lead as a result of the traditional refusal of right-wing voters to participate in various surveys.
On top of this, analysts suggest the HDZ-led coalition will not have to do much to win because the country's poor economic situation is turning voters against the SPD.
HDZ, which actually led the country into its economic malaise (it governed from 2003-2011), has chosen to make the economy its campaign focal point, and, on the advice of American PR experts, has moved away from its focus on ideological topics.
The party also has the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her experts, Klaus Peter Willsch and Siegfried Schoenherr, have helped HDZ in several projects – including editing its programme, particularly on issues concerning social policy and youth employment.
The fact that HDZ is leaning towards the centre and not moving further right is corroborated by the EU election candidate list. It is headed by Andrej Plenkovic, an experienced diplomat respected by party members as well as by his international colleagues.
Still, nationalistic politician Ruza Tomasic made it on to the list in sixth place. Joseph Daul, head of the European People's Party (the family to which HDZ belongs), had previously asked for her not to be included. But her personal popularity, which saw her secure the most votes in the 2013 EU vote, made her hard to exclude.
Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, a former foreign minister, did not make it onto the HDZ list with the party now saying she will instead run in the presidential elections, scheduled for the end of 2014.
Croatia's least popular politician
Despite the intervention of American PR experts, HDZ President Tomislav Karamarko remains the least popular politician in Croatia.
While he has shifted away from ideological rhetoric, he continues to pander to war veterans and raises tensions by denouncing "yugonostalgics" and "communists" in the SPD.
And he played a role in a controversial event late last year regarding a remembrance day for the victims of Vukovar, a Croatian town that was the site of a massacre in 1991.
The official procession was blocked by the Committee for the Defence of Vukovar, resulting in neither the president or the prime minister being able to reach the cemetery. Karamarko, for his part, decided to join an unofficial procession organised by the same defence committee.
Green newcomers make waves
The surprise of April's opinion poll results is that a newly established political party OraH (Walnut) has 10.8 percent support.
Former SDP member Mirela Holy founded the party. Previously an environment minister, she is now the second most popular politician in the country with 63 percent of support second only to President Ivo Josipovic on 68 percent.
The Walnut programme for the EU elections is based on the policy of the European Green Party (European Greens).
Today, Walnut is lying third in the polls and is the only party that has seen growing support in recent months.
With just weeks until the EU elections, Walnut is ahead of the Croatian Labour Party, which has 8.8 percent of the voters, and one seat in the out-going EU parliament.
The radical right wing political party, Alliance for Croatia, is on 6.1 percent of the votes and is unlikely to get a seat in the EP. Other candidate lists, there are 25 in total, are also unlikely to pass the threshold for the EU elections.
There are 275 Croatian candidates for 11 allocated seats in the European Parliament.
The large number of lists has less to do with Croatians' interest in the European Parliament and rather more to do with the good work conditions and high salary that comes with the job of MEP.
The Economist recently ranked Croatia the 10th worst economy in the world while the American public policy research organisation, the Cato Institute, placed Croatia 15th on its world misery index.
Among other EU member states, only Greece and Cyprus were ranked lower, on 10th and 14th place respectively.