What has led to these somewhat early elections?

This year’s election was due in September, but an early dissolution of parliament in March prompted President Zoran Milanović, to call for an April election. He chose a Wednesday, an unusual weekday, instead of a Sunday, claiming this would boost turnout.

During February and March, opposition parties mobilised in anti-corruption protests and calls for early elections. This was triggered by two peculiar events. One was the decision of the governing Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), a conservative and Christian democratic party, together with their smaller coalition partners (ethnic minority representatives and small liberal and Christian democratic parties) to appoint Judge Ivan Turudić as the new attorney general.

The opposition vehemently opposed this appointment as Turudić has had private contact with suspects and defendants in criminal cases and is perceived as too close to HDZ. In addition, to stop the leaking of private messages intercepted in criminal cases, the government changed the criminal code, making it punishable for public officials who handle such materials (police, judiciary, public prosecutors) to disclose them to journalists. The opposition and media outlets decried this as steps going against freedom of the press.

Presidential Gambit

President Zoran Milanović, who was head of a government led by the Social Democratic Party (SDP) from 2011 to 2015 shocked the public on March 15th when he announced that he would be his former party’s lead candidate for the prime minister’s office. The Constitutional Court barred him from officially taking part in the campaign and appearing as a candidate on the ballot.

The Court decided that his move was against the spirit of the constitution and concluded that Milanović should first step down if he wished to take part in the parliamentary election. However, he responded by publicly bashing the constitutional judges and initiating the centre-left Rivers of Justice coalition, naming it after a popular 1980s pop song.

The President, who has been the unofficial leader of the opposition for some time, overshadowing SDP leader Peđa Grbin, stylied the campaign as a broad alliance against corruption and state capture. His politically cunning yet unconstitutional move gave a short-term boost to the centre-left in the polls but could not sustain their whole campaign.

After an all-time low in July 2020 (46.4 per cent), turnout increased substantially, reaching 62.3 per cent. However, while both left-wing and right-wing opposition parties hoped that high turnout would mean clear government change, in the end, HDZ also managed to mobilise additional voters against the president and his rogue prime ministerial bid.

Gamblers, winners, and losers

The ruling party, together with their coalition partners, lost 5 seats. However, given the fact that Plenković has been prime minister for eight years now and that the current government experienced both unprecedented challenges (pandemic, inflation, two devastating earthquakes in 2021) and a series of corruption scandals involving several cabinet ministers and other high-ranking officials, these results can be interpreted as a victory.

SDP and their Rivers of Justice coalition, comprised of an agrarian, three liberal, and one anti-corruption centrist party, had high hopes of capitalising on Milanović’s rogue candidacy and public discontent over corruption cases involving government officials.

However, the list underperformed and gained just one seat more than the previous joint list led by the SDP, the Restart Coalition, in 2020. On the contrary, Social Democrats, a splinter group of SDP MPs led by former SDP leader Davor Bernardić, suffered an electoral disaster and lost all 17 of their parliamentary seats.

The biggest winner of this election was the nationally conservative and populist Homeland Movement. Although their list won fewer seats (14, instead of 16) then four years ago, they are now in a kingmaker position since most coalition scenarios will have to include them.

Before the election, the Homeland Movement had criticised the government for being too lax in protecting the border against irregular migration. Also, given their staunchly nationalist profile, the party mobilised against the participation of the ethnic Serb SDSS party in Plenković’s government.

The green-left party Možemo, somewhat modelled after the Spanish Podemos, doubled its number of seats, going from 5 to 10. It also started expanding from its base in the capital city of Zagreb, where it has held the mayor’s office since 2021.

The socially conservative, loudly anti-corruption, and mildly Eurosceptic Most (The Bridge) party did, broadly speaking, achieve its goals of winning a double-digit number of seats, yet cannot truly be seen as an electoral winner since their joint listwith the Croatian Sovereignists, a mildly Eurosceptic party, fell from 12 to 11 seats.

Possible coalition scenarios: musical chairs and Game of Thrones

After the election, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković did not hide his preference regarding potential coalition partners. In this scenario, HDZ would win over the support of the small liberal Fokus party and two liberal regionalist parties (Independent Platform of the North, Istrian Democratic Assembly. However, this would still mean that two additional MPs would have to cross the floor, either from the Homeland Movement or the Croatian Sovereignists.

A more likely scenario is that they form a government with the Homeland Movement. However, in that case, since the Homeland Movement has insisted that it does not want to see the ethnic Serb SDSS party anywhere near the government, this would mean that they would not be able to rely on the whole ethnic minorities’ bloc of 8 MPs. Yet, in this case, they would need only two additional MPs to form a majority.

Finally, the SDP-led Rivers of Justice coalition might attempt to form a minority government. This government would then be supported by a wide range of other groups, including the green-left, the liberals and liberal regionalists, ethnic minorities, but also the socially conservative Most and the Homeland Movement or just the Homeland Movement.

Therein lies the biggest challenge for such a government – both Možemo and Most have vowed not to work together, but could they both strategically support an anti-HDZ government run by President Milanović, who would then step down and indeed become prime minister, remain the question.

What are the main challenges for the new government?

The new government will have to deal with inflation (down to 4.1 in March 2024 from a high of 13.5 percent in November 2022), as well as steep demographic decline due to emigration of young singles and whole families to other, more prosperous EU member states, primarily Austria, Germany, and Ireland. In addition, the new executive will have to deal with rising housing prices in large cities and poverty among the elderly.

Further, the country has experienced an influx of low-skilled foreign workers from Asian countries but does not have a coherent immigration and labour market policy. Also, Croatia, a recent Schengen member on the external EU border, experiences challenges with undocumented migration coming through the overland ‘Balkan route’. Finally, the government will have to find a way to curb the national economy’s overreliance on revenues generated from mass tourism.

This parliamentary election was only the start of a super-election year in Croatia. In June, the country will elect its 12 members of the European Parliament, where the same five main parties are expected to win seats. Around Christmas, citizens will cast their votes regarding the country’s president, and next year, in May, regional and local elections will be held.

About the author

Višeslav Raos is an Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Zagreb and has contributed with expert coding to the Bertelsmann Transformation Index.

Read more in our 2024 election series