Social Democrat defeats outgoing Conservative

Zoran Milanovic obtained 52.73% of the votes against 47.27% for the outgoing president Darko Bandic / AP / SIPA

A former Social Democratic Prime Minister advocating a Croatia of tolerance eager to turn the page on past wars won the presidential election on Sunday before the outgoing conservative who failed to seduce the radical right. The second round of this election took place a few days after Croatia’s accession to the rotating presidency of a European Union which will have to manage the post-Brexit era.

The poll revealed the rise of the hard right in a country which faces pressure from migrants at its borders and is confronted like its Balkan neighbors with endemic corruption as well as the mass exodus of its inhabitants.

But voters preferred the “normal Croatia” promised by the social democrat Zoran Milanovic to “authentic Croatia” that the outgoing Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic claimed to be the only one to represent with the conservative HDZ. According to the almost final results of the Election Commission, Zoran Milanovic obtained 52.73% of the votes against 47.27% for the outgoing president.

The new president, a 53-year-old former diplomat, pledged during the campaign to make Croatia a democracy in which the rights of all are respected. “Croatia is a Republic for all, for equal citizens”, he insisted. Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, 51, who became the first head of the Croatian state in 2015, lost her comfortable lead over her rivals over the course of the campaign.

The “war is over”

Despite her appeals to the nationalist right, her repeated references to her patriotism and the 1991-1995 war of independence, she failed to convince the many voters who voted in the first round for a populist singer to return to the conservative fold.

Zoran Milanovic kept reminding that “the war was over” and that it was time for Croatia to “fight for its place in Europe”. The Social Democrat repeated by voting that the ballot “was not a battle against someone but an attempt to become a normal, honest country”. In Croatia, the functions of Head of State are largely honorary.

But the defeat of the outgoing will singularly complicate the task of the HDZ chaired by moderate Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic in the legislative elections scheduled for the fall. The center-right formation which has dominated political life since independence had put all its weight behind the candidacy of Ms. Grabar-Kitarovic.

This failure “weakens” the HDZ before the legislative elections, notes analyst Tihomir Cipek. It “harms the reputation” of its president while internal elections to this increasingly fractured formation between moderates and hard wing are planned for the spring.

Gaffer against elitist

The conservative president had portrayed herself in the guise of a mother like the others, highlighting her modest origins. But his protesters reproached him in particular for numerous blunders, in particular for having sung on the birthday of the mayor of Zagreb, involved in several corruption cases. She had thus promised to bring him “cakes” if he ended up “in prison”.

Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic has also been criticized for downplaying the crimes of the collaborating Ustasha regime of Nazi Germany during World War II, which has sparked growing nostalgia in Croatia. For their part, fans of the winner see him as an intelligent and ambitious man even if he is considered a snob by his opponents.

His supporters had welcomed in 2011 the arrival at the head of the government of a man exempt from corruption charges tarnishing the reputation of many members of the HDZ. But his cabinet had disappointed, unable to fight the prevailing clientelism or develop the economy.

Zoran Milanovic arrives at the presidency in a country which took over the EU on January 1 for six months. Four main topics are on the agenda: relations between the EU and London after Brexit, the desire for membership of the Western Balkan countries, climate change and the next multi-annual EU budget.

Croatia is the last country to join the EU in 2013. However, its economy, which is highly dependent on tourism, is among the weakest in the member states. Membership has accelerated the exodus of Croats who seek a better life elsewhere in Europe but who also flee clientelism or the poor quality of public services.

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