Croatia: Last Bastion For Political Third Way Emerging (?)

 

Andrej Plenkovic
Croatian Prime Minister
Photo: screenshot

Generally, political pragmatism holds in highest esteem and values reality over ideology. It’s recognition that while a politician’s first job is to get elected, the second job is to do what is right, to the extent that the politician can convince the people to support it. It is the recognition that half a loaf is better than no loaf at all. It is the willingness to strike a compromise whereby as many people as possible get as much of what they want as possible. It is the willingness to work with others on common goals, regardless of differences on other goals. It is the recognition by political leadership and by voters that in a democracy no one ever gets their way on everything. Each parliamentary representative is an ingredient in the mix of government. Each may do their utmost to bend outcomes in their direction, but ultimately each has to recognise that the rest of the nation also has their representatives and has just as much claim as they have.

And it would seem that in Croatia this is not recognised for what it is (determination to carry on with governing the country, which should be seen as a normal and desirous pursuit of all politicians) by many people even though facets of political pragmatism have been unfolding before our eyes for quite a few months with the political crises that threatened yet another fall of government and yet another snap election within a mere six-month period.

Political pragmatism appears to have been the driving and determined force behind HDZ/Croatian Democratic Union (led by Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic) fight for survival at the top, in power and in government. For a democracy this is nothing abnormal and nothing unexpected where power at the top means the artery through which election platforms for governing the country flow and are solidified or attempted to be solidified through goals.

On Friday 9 June 2017 HDZ/Croatian Democratic Union made its final moves to secure its minority government and it has saved its bacon. By forming coalition with its ideological opponent HNS (Croatian People’s Party) and the staunchly divisive Italian and Serb minority representatives – it averted a government fall and second snap elections. In essence, snap elections would most likely do more damage than good simply because new elections also mean inability to realise the promises made at elections. Interruptions.

Right or conservatively oriented HDZ’s securing of its tenure as senior partner in a minority government with left oriented HNS has been dubbed an unnatural alliance especially by other right oriented political players and political parties as well as the deteriorating left oriented Social Democrats/SDP. Ideology, or rather its alleged flimsiness, it seems, has been the major bone around which criticism against HDZ’s moves have been directed. This ideology behind HDZ’s right-oriented critics is the one that places “Croatianness” at the pinnacle where all practical ties with former communist regime are rejected and abhorred.

The political reality (and, therefore, the path to achieving needed reforms that would set Croatia on a path to economic stability in particular) over the past year or so in Croatia has been that of living in a political era fraught with unprecedented gridlock and an inability to reach and/or live-out compromises within minority government coalitions. Politics in Croatia has through the last two decades devolved into ideological warfare as politicians butt heads over their drastically different but equally dogmatic philosophies on how to govern this country. The camps of ideology on how to govern in Croatia while numerous, hence the existence of some 150 political parties, have essentially been of two different kinds: the one (the right oriented one) that seeks sovereignty built on national democracy away from any former communist regime ties and the one that upholds as the most holy of governance practices and habits inherited from former communist regime (the left oriented one that likes to refer to itself – wrongly – as antifascist). While ideological warfare is no stranger to other and more developed democracies in Croatia it is more accentuated largely due to the fact that lustration and systematic shedding of inherited communist mindset and practices has not occurred in public administration, cultural, political parties and other avenues.

Ideology is a systematically coordinated and cognitively salient set of politically focused beliefs and a question is put here as to what role it should play in politics. In an ideal world (yes, I understand the irony), all lawmakers would be rational, pragmatic decision-makers capable of divorcing themselves from their personal opinions in favour of working to produce the best possible policies that provide the greatest net benefit to society. Instead of working within a narrow worldview that prescribes a set of one-size-fits-all policies regardless of their overall societal utility, these solons would craft unique solutions on a case-by-case basis in order to maximise benefits and minimise costs.

Ideological purism encourages dogmatism by reinforcing the idea that one’s principles are incontrovertibly true, and any view deviating from those principles is invariably false. This sort of absolutism has drastically negative implications on the multiparty/democratic political system. First, it polarises parliament to the point where its members fall victim to ingroup and outgroup biases, causing them to demonise any position that conflicts with their ideologies, and by association, any fellow members who hold such positions. Debates over legislation often devolve into a set of ad hominem attacks that can often work antithetically to the creation of sound policy. Second, it mitigates any ability for lawmakers to reach compromises because neither side will concede. Compromise becomes a sign of weakness because it creates the impression that those involved are not firm in their convictions and would rather betray their principles by selling themselves out for short-term political gain. This leads to obstructionism and gridlock, which complicates a government’s ability to act swiftly and decisively in times of crisis, all while dissolving the political middle ground.

Politics should be about working in the best interests of society, and that generally necessitates compromise. Political parties with differing ideologies will always exist and disagree with one another, but they should be competing in a race to the middle, not a race to the fringes. Borne out of this conception of politics is “syncretic politics” (a union of opposing principles), the idea that legislators should break from the traditional confines of the left-right political spectrum in favour of aggregating a set of solutions from both sides that work most advantageously for society.

This would be THE foundation for a “Third Way” or “Third political force” Croatia, like all two-party political climates, has been searching for, for more than a decade. Over the years the emergence of political parties and/or political movements such as Democratic Centre, HRAST, various splits and re-assemblies of Croatian parties of Right, Croatian Dawn, ORAH, MOST/Bridge – to name but a few – testifies to the fact that a “Third Way” has been an almost constant subject in the search for the right/needed political solution in Croatia.

So far there have been no champions of the Third Way in Croatia. All attempts have been relatively insignificant, short-lived or suffocated to political oblivion or insignificance brokered by one of the two major political parties. The major parties in their quest for power had, as a rule, created a “space for deletion” of the Third Way. The success of Third Way suffocation so far could well be ascribed to the ideologically narrow platform embraced by the failed Third Way political protagonists whose short-lived lives in essence fed on politically like-minded bands of cheer-squads that made little or no room to infiltrate or convince opponents or the undecided about the righteousness for Croatia of their platforms in order to expand on popularity. And so a certain hunger for a Third Way continues vigorously in various sectors of Croatian society – many questions of ideological nature and the place ideology should play in addressing and bettering society’s daily living reality remain unrequited.

Recent Western world political history has demonstrated that perceived champions of the Third Way can exist and can be successful. E.g., Tony Blair in the UK and Bill Clinton in the USA had skilfully managed to combine ideas from both the left and the right to achieve reconciliation between opposing worldviews and formulate good policies. These political ThirdWays did good things but they neglected social solidarity and national cohesion. Obviously, disagreements are inevitable, but whenever they arise in parliament, lawmakers should work them out through horse-trading, smart concessions, and deal making in order to assuage both sides and solve societal problems. Admittedly, Croatia is a harder ideological nut to crack than what UK or USA might be because of its relatively recent communist past but it needs to be kept in mind that nothing is impossible when it comes to politics propped up by measures that make-up daily living reality that is in essence somewhat divorced from political ideology.

National cohesion is essential for Croatia otherwise the busiest route onwards is downwards when it comes to Croatian national interests, which by the way everyone talks about but rare are those who can name and point them out specifically – even though they are existent in one form or another contained within the Constitution.

I’m not saying that having a set political ideology is a bad thing when it comes to decision-making and passing legislation. In fact, it can be a very good, and sometimes necessary, thing. An overarching ideology can help standardise the way one calculates benefits to society by providing a targeted lens through which to view the world rather than an arbitrary method of assigning values to costs and benefits as one may see fit. For example, in economics, different schools of thought assign different values to efficiency and equity. Capitalists would argue that efficiency is a much greater benefit to society whereas Marxists would argue that equity should be society’s chief economic goal. Each side has a standardised worldview under which it operates, even if both sides have different interpretations of what is most important.

But don’t take this to mean that lawmakers (parliamentarians) should always work to promote whatever they view as most important regardless of other considerations. Ideology alone most rarely trumps rational decision-making; politicians’ worldviews should still operate within the framework of cost-benefit analysis, and in situations where adhering to an ideology would result in incurring a greater opportunity cost than deviating from it would, politicians should compromise their principles in favour of benefit maximisation.

Last week’s outcome favourable to HDZ’s continued lead in Croatia’s government is a case that may well serve as proof that staunch ideological purism (had HDZ stuck to those guns instead of striking alliances with political opposites or those that disagree with its ideology) is unfavourable politics and, had it worked towards the unknown of any new general elections it could have ceded control of government to other political camps that in essence hold no promise at this stage that reforms needed in the country would be achieved.

It is a blatant and often cruel reality that when one backs oneself into an ideological corner without room to maneuvre, it makes it more difficult to compromise and achieve ones goals for the betterment of society based on ideological premises. And as evil a word as “compromise” has become in the last several years, good government is about compromise. It is about people of different beliefs coming together. Whether HDZ will achieve this togetherness with its partners is yet to be seen even if both government partners – HDZ and HNS – promise a determined future solidarity with each other.

One could say that it’s the unrequited ideological stance that promotes full democracy and Croatian sovereignty, achieved through Homeland War sufferings and sacrifices, away from communist remnants, that have driven most past attempts at Third Way in politics and government.

 

Currently there is a political tide in Croatia channeling the creation of a new right-wing movement and a new political party that fits in various degrees this unrequited ideological stance. This political tide has become convincingly synonymous with three active politicians’ and members of parliament names: Bruna Esih, Zlatko Hasanbegovic and Zeljko Glasnovic. All three right wing, patriotically, conservative politics oriented.

From Left:
Zlatko Hasanbegovic, Bruna Esih, Zeljko Glasnovic
Photo: screenshot

 

Evidenced by various media coverages and social media outpours of support this new political movement or new political party in progress is seen by many supporters as that which will save Croatia from total obscurity and alienation of its original national goals in the creation of the modern and independent state of Croatia, thoroughly cleansed of communist mindsets and practices. This, of course, is not a new political reality nor sentiment; it is ingrained in the rather widespread quest for national Croatian democratic sovereignty. It is, though, amidst political crises in Croatia, seen by many as the last bastion for a Third Way that may have a chance of defending and solidifying the goals set in the beginning of Croatia’s secession from communist Yugoslavia. Whether the protagonists of this new Third Way will achieve the goals will, without doubt, depend on political pragmatism, on reaching out to the everyday reality that is multi-faceted and padded with a “garden variety” of ideological stepping stones.

The Third Way has almost become the subject of pamphlets – everywhere. As a political idea Third Way is at least as old as Eduard Bernstein’s bid in the last decade of the 19th century to detach the German Social Democrats from marxian communism by taking the parliamentary road. In 1959 the postwar German SPD did it again by ‘accepting’ capitalism.

Does the Third Way help relieve us of our present discontents? Or, to put that more concretely, are controls on international investment justified when, as the New York Times said way back on Sunday 20 September 1998, experts prepare to re-think systems as free flowing capital sinks nations? The Third Way is meant to be expunging from the domestic body politic. It is at this point that the intellectual weaknesses of the Third Way become obvious and hence, sinkage into oblivion or political insignificance experienced by previous Third Way attempts in Croatia.

I have always believed that politics is first and foremost about ideas. Without a powerful commitment to goals and values, governments are rudderless and ineffective, however large their majorities or small their minorities are. Furthermore, ideas need labels if they are to become popular and widely understood. The “Third Way” is, to my mind, the best label for the new politics which the progressive centre that embraces facets of both the right and the left.

The Third Way stands for a modernised social democracy, passionate in its commitment to social justice and the goals of a nation, but flexible, innovative and forward-looking in the means to achieve them. It is founded on the values which have guided progressive politics for more than a century – democracy, liberty, justice, mutual obligation as well as internationalism without which today’s economy would lose its legs. But it is a third way because it moves decisively beyond an old left preoccupied by state control, high taxation and producer interests.

My vision for Croatia is of a popular politics reconciling themes which in the past have wrongly been regarded as antagonistic – patriotism in particular; rights and responsibilities; the promotion of enterprise and the attack on poverty and discrimination. Croatia still has far to go to build the open, fair and prosperous society to which people aspire.

A successful Third Way is not an attempt to split the difference between right and left. It is about traditional values in a changed world. And it draws vitality from uniting the two streams to the levels that give it enough people-based validity to keep its goals running and in achievement mode. My political beliefs are rooted in a belief that we can only realise ourselves as individuals in a thriving civil society, comprising strong families and civic institutions buttressed by intelligent government. For most individuals to succeed, society must be strong. When society is weak, power and rewards go to the few not the many. Values are not absolute, and even the best can conflict. A Third Way’s mission should be to promote and reconcile the four values which are essential to a just society which maximises the freedom and potential of all our people – equal worth, opportunity for all, responsibility and community. After all, Croatia did fiercely fight its defensive Homeland War to achieve a democracy within which these four essential and core values would become the ingredients of the brand of democracy and freedom from communism it set its eyes ad determination upon. Equal opportunity in Croatia especially when it comes to employment is a far cry from the one effervescent in Western democracies and that fact alone, is an alarm bell that should be ringing in all ears as, for sure, it is the culprit of alarming injustice driven by communist era nepotism.

The question hovers in Croatia: can a Third Way, a Third political force succeed or not? Succeed in either capturing governmental rights or in remaining a political force that keeps a government on alert. Some, particularly guided by past experiences, will say no – it cannot succeed. Others, though, guided by possibilities and the reality of society’s needs on a national basis and possibilities that implementing the constitution means taking advantage and of the potential they offer to shape policy – will say yes. Presenting the latter in packages that appeal to people’s needs, that reverberate true is the key to any success, even a Third Way’s. Ina Vukic

 

 

Croatia: Dandelion-like First Round Local Elections Results

 

Bruna Esih list
Local Elections 2017
May spell out new directions
in Croatia’s political landscape
Photo: Screenshot bruna.hr

To some people the dandelion is simply a bother, to others it is something that means a great deal. Overall, blow on the dried dandelion flower and particles fly all over the place, with no definite pattern to rely upon unless their landing is scooped into a meaningful shape.

Were one to focus on the content of local election campaigns in Croatia during May 2017 one could not but see that national issues weighed more heavily than local ones, particularly in the city of Zagreb, the relatively largest voting population in one place in Croatia, which by the same fact could be used as some sort of barometer flaunting political issues affecting Croatia. A trend to be expected given the HDZ-led (Croatian Democratic Union) minority government crisis that still strongly flutters in the air and, indeed, the polls for the capital Zagreb 21 May dealt a major blow to HDZ’s candidate for the City of Zagreb, despite the fact that HDZ had some significant first round wins sprawled across regional or rural areas.

The first round local elections results give no clarity as to which way the second round polls on June 4 will fall. Confusion and deeper political mayhem may well result, giving the message that serious changes and new blood-lines in the political climate and practice are essential to Croatia’s future.

In about mid-May 2017, dealing with his minority government’s crisis that had as part of the crisis lost its coalition partner – MOST List of Independents, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic announced that the seats of the coalition partner in government will be filled after the local elections so that a workable government could be formed and snap-elections avoided. The first round of local elections took place on 21 May and second round to be held 4 June. The government and political crisis have led to an evident widening HDZ’s division lines (those for and those against Plenkovic as leader, particularly) and the shedding of some key members either through expulsions from the party or through self-propelled walk-aways, as well as first round victories in 42 towns/local councils and entering into second round in 44 others suggesting a serious or at least unpredictable at this stage voter based loyalty.

The results from 21 May polls do not at this stage give much clarity as to what to expect at the second round. Virtually all established political parties are at the losing end of the confidence spectrum, but in Zagreb the new player in the field – Bruna Esih list, which had several widely politically trusted right-orientation names (Dr. Zlatko Hasanbegovic, General Zeljko Glasnovic) with a strong history of determined actions towards clearing Croatia of the still-prevalent communist mindset, as well as war veterans of note such as Marko Rados, Croatian culture devotees such as Dr. Ana Lederer, and others. This new right stream headed by Bruna Esih is about the only force in the local elections mix that commands attention as it steers attention towards hope that political leadership in Croatia may indeed develop the badly needed positive changes, which in essence spell out a more assertive building of democracy and Croatian independence self-determination. Bruna Esih’s list saw comparatively excellent results in the first round, which were twice higher than those of the HDZ candidate Drago Prgomet. She won 10.98% of the votes, and Prgomet – 5.60%. In all practicality this means that Esih’s list will occupy several seats in the City of Zagreb Assembly, forming an important element upon which the final winner of the Mayor’s chair (incumbent Milan Bandic/ “365 party” or Anka Mrak Taritas/Croatian People’s Party HNS) may indeed need to depend upon to get things done. But even if such collaboration does not occur, encouraged by the solid results at local elections, Bruna Esih team has announced the formation of a new political party to be represented nationally in next general elections.

This may well herald wider than Zagreb favourable voter sentiments to come, similar to those that come with fresh new, needed, force on the map of Croatia’s political organism that is in desperate need of clear leadership. Similar perhaps to those when third political forces such as MOST or Live Wall were perceived as the forces that would break up the two-party monopoly, which left great majorities of disgruntled citizens, to put it mildly. However, MOST and Live Wall have failed dismally to push for changes the nation needs and needed.

To further demonstrate the evident influence national political issues and ongoing national government crisis have had on local elections one can also look at the appalling results MOST’s candidates have had. MOST – list of independents – is seen as orchestrating two government crises within a matter of six months and because of it second snap elections within the same period are a likely outcome. MOST ‘s success (if it can be called that) at 2017 local election is meaningless and degrading, a far cry from the success they achieved at previous local elections, from whence MOST group climbed the ladder of power within the national parliament elections that had followed. The other quick-rising club from last national elections is the Live Wall (Živi Zid) group and they too have come up against a very telling rejection at 2017 local elections. SDP or Social Democratic Party (the other major party besides HDZ) stays on relative ice when it comes to local elections even if it chose not to have candidates in a number of council areas – it did not experience embarrassing losses but apart from its stronghold city of Rijeka where its candidate seems certain to win the second round, it can bathe in no pool of laurels and this adds to the pressure against its president Davor Bernardic to move aside for fresh SDP leadership blood.

While most political parties and independent candidates invested a great deal of energy on focusing their council election campaigns on national issues, local elections, after all, should be a vote for local councillors who will be looking after local services and issues that matter in neighbourhoods and in people’s daily lives. That is, the essential city services, the support provided for most vulnerable people, and the local economy. But this does not seem to be the case for Croatia, which suggests that everyday lives are saturated with political or ideological issues and need to be aired one way or another before life can settle into some orderly processes one expects in a democracy.

Having said all this, Plenkovic’s resolve to stay in government power as long as possible, regardless of HDZ member splits from it occurring almost constantly, could see coalition with Milan Bandic’s party, which already has members in the parliament, if Bandic wins second round polls for Mayor of Zagreb. This would mean that HDZ would link up with the party whose leader – Bandic – has been linked to corruption on a number of occasions although evidence of that has not yet percolated to the visible surface. The eventual fall of the government and new elections would mean a new cycle of uncertainty over Croatia, another postponement of vital reforms – but then again, HDZ or SDP in their governing track records have not convinced the people they have what it takes to install and achieve needed reforms. Perhaps, a major overhaul in skills-oriented leadership of HDZ is needed if HDZ is to retain government for the remainder of its current mandate. Nevertheless, all arrows for reforms seem to point to a third political option, which does not yet formally exist – regretfully. Ina Vukic

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