May 19, 2020

CROATIA: Heading to the polls

BY Andrius Tursa

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Yesterday, 18 May, parliament voted in favor of its dissolution, thereby paving the way for an early general election within the next 60 days instead of the regular poll scheduled for the autumn. The move was initiated by Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic (Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ), who is seeking to capitalize on the recent surge of his party in the polls after the successful containment of Covid-19 in the country. The election will see a close fight between the ruling HDZ and the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP), with the former holding a slightly higher chance of leading the next coalition government.

Although Croatia is still holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, Plenkovic said that his center-right government had achieved all key ambitions during its term in office and that a newly-elected cabinet should focus on the economic recovery after the Covid-19 crisis.

According to the constitution, the date of the new general poll – to be announced by the president – must fall within the 60 days of the dissolution of parliament, making 12 July the latest possible day for the vote. Croatia uses a proportional system with ten constituencies and a 5% hurdle on the constituency level. Eight seats are reserved for ethnic minorities and three for Croatians living abroad.

The HDZ’s push for a snap poll is likely related to its recent surge in the polls, as most voters assess the government’s actions in handling the pandemic positively. After losing the January presidential elections, the HDZ has now regained the status of the most popular party in the country, polling around 33%, ahead of its key rival SDP with 30%. Plenkovic understands that the ruling party’s prospects of maintaining the lead in the polls may be limited as the country’s tourism-dependent economy is expected to be one of the most affected by Covid-19, according to the IMF. Moreover, the presidency of the EU gives the Plenkovic administration additional high-profile media coverage, which could help in the election campaign.

The economic recovery post-Covid-19 will be the overarching theme of the campaign. The ruling HDZ will seek to capitalize on its relatively positive economic track record since the beginning of its term in October 2016, as well as the good handling of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the opposition SDP-led five-party Restart Coalition is expected to attack Plenkovic for failing to tackle corruption and push ahead with education and healthcare reforms. Both parties aim to maintain Croatia’s westward orientation, with membership in the OECD and the Eurozone among their key objectives.

Considering the highly fragmented political landscape, neither HDZ nor the Restart Coalition is expected to gain a parliamentary majority in the upcoming poll, and any new coalition government will have to rely on the backing from smaller parties. The newly established right-wing Homeland Movement (DPMS) – which ranks third with an approval rating of around 10% – could become an important player in this respect. Ideologically, DPMS would be a more natural ally of the center-right government, thereby making the HDZ-led coalition cabinet a more likely outcome at this point.

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