Election preview: Croatia (presidency)

Not all electoral events shut down for Christmas. Croatia goes to the polls on Sunday in the first round of its presidential election; the second round (which will certainly be required) will be two weeks later, on 5 January.

The Croatian president is a Westminster-style figurehead, so the direct political impact of the election is minimal. But like other presidential direct elections in eastern Europe it is closely watched as a pointer to political trends.

Incumbent Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, from the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), was elected five years ago, narrowly beating her predecessor, Ivo Josipović (an independent backed by the centre-left), with just 50.7% in the runoff after trailing in the first round. She is now seeking re-election.

And it could again be very close. There are 11 candidates (a big jump from four last time), but only four who are serious contenders: Grabar-Kitarović; former prime minister and centre-left leader Zoran Milanović; folk musician and anti-establishment independent Miroslav Škoro; and former judge and anti-corruption campaigner Mislav Kolakušić.

The opinion polls show Grabar-Kitarović and Milanović running neck-and-neck, both in the high 20s, with Škoro – who also has some backing from the far right – close behind and well within sight of making the runoff. Kolakušić, who in May performed the rare feat of winning a seat in the European parliament as an independent, is trailing with around 10%.

Hypothetical second-round polls put Grabar-Kitarović ahead, but her lead seems to have narrowed significantly. It’s also worth noting that the polls last time were badly wrong, substantially overstating Josipović’s support.

Milanović and his Social Democrats were in office at that time, but they lost power in parliamentary elections in November 2015, when an independent list, “Bridge”, won the balance of power between centre-left and centre-right. A coalition was formed between Bridge and the HDZ, but it lasted less than a year; an early election in September 2016 strengthened the HDZ’s hand, and it has been in government ever since.

Prime minister Andrej Plenković will face re-election in late 2020, so if his party colleague fares badly on Sunday that will not be a good omen. It may, however, be an opportunity for disaffected voters to blow off some steam; there is evidence that some voters prefer to balance president and prime minister rather than concentrate too much power in the same hands.

As the newest member of the European Union – a distinction it looks like retaining for some time – Croatia still has major problems with poverty and corruption. Polls show low levels of satisfaction with the country’s progress and trust in its politicians. Turnout at the 2016 election only reached 52.6%, and in this year’s European parliament election it was just 29.9%.

Nonetheless, for a country that didn’t even exist 30 years ago the growth in political stability in recent times has been impressive. Sunday will give Croatia’s voters another opportunity to make their voice heard.

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