Croatia’s rightwing governing party has won the country’s parliamentary elections, amid controversy over a political intervention in the campaign by European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen.
With 95% of the votes counted on Monday morning, the governing Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) was set to win 66 seats in the 151-seat parliament, after an election that took place amid a spike in coronavirus cases. The HDZ is likely to form a ruling coalition with a number of smaller parties, which will give the prime minister, Andrej Plenković, a second term in office.
Plenković, speaking on Sunday night, said the result was a “great victory” but also came with obligations. “It is an obligation because we had a tough mandate full of challenges behind us, and the challenges ahead of us are even bigger,” he said.
A series of opinion polls before the vote had suggested that the HDZ would be neck-and-neck with the liberal Social Democrats (SDP), and may need the support of a far-right nationalist movement, led by the folk singer Miroslav Škoro, to form a government. However, the SDP managed only 41 seats.
In a presidential election in January, the HDZ incumbent, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, was defeated by the SDP-backed challenger, Zoran Milanović, but the party was unable to repeat the feat this time round. The party leader, Davor Bernadić, said on Sunday night he would resign.
Plenković has been trying to pull the HDZ, which has dominated the Croatian political scene since independence in the early 1990s, towards the political centre, and some of its more radical elements broke off to join Škoro’s Homeland party. Škoro came in third with 16 seats, but Plenković is likely to be able to build a coalition without them.
“Plenković is a very capable politician. He has managed to marginalise the hard right in his party and to fend off the challenges from them. Now, he will have a lot more leeway and we will see what his vision for Croatia – if he has one – really is,” said Tena Prelec, a researcher at Oxford University’s department of politics and international relations.
The HDZ is part of the European People’s party bloc in Brussels, and a number of leading politicians from other parties in the group appeared in a campaign video released shortly before the vote, repeating the HDZ slogan “Safe Croatia”. These included the Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, and the Slovenian prime minister Janez Janša, as well as Von der Leyen. She is from Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, also part of the EPP, but commission presidents usually steer clear of electioneering.
Croatia’s EU commissioner, Dubravka Šuica, appointed by Plenković, also took part in the video, although EU commissioners are meant to be independent from their governments.
After rival political groups criticised her “inappropriate” intervention, Von der Leyen’s spokesperson, Eric Mamer, said the contribution had been recorded “in her personal capacity”, adding: “Regrettably this was not made clear in the final version of the video.”
Alberto Alemanno, a professor of EU law at HEC Paris business school, has launched a formal complaint, citing a breach of the European commission’s code of conduct that is intended to ensure the EU executive does not take party political decisions, and dismissed the idea that the message was delivered in a personal capacity.
“Her video message was recorded and delivered from Ursula von der Leyen’s office in the Berlaymont building, by using her institutional title,” Alemanno said.
Along with last weekend’s presidential election in Poland, the vote was one of the first national elections to take place in the EU since the coronavirus pandemic began. Turnout was 46%, which was 6% lower than in the last parliamentary election four years ago.
Croatia came through the first wave of infections with lower numbers than most western European countries, but after opening up the country’s tourism industry in recent weeks, there has been a renewed spike, with new cases reaching around 100 per day, the same level as at the peak of the country’s epidemic.
There was a notable absence of social distancing or mask-wearing during victory celebrations by HDZ politicians and supporters.