Croatia: Speakeasy Lingers At Local Government Elections

According to the Croatian Electoral Office 46.96% of eligible voters in Croatia turned up to vote at the Local government elections Sunday 19 May. One may well conclude that, although not as high as the 54.32% turnout at December 2011 parliamentary elections, such a turnout is pretty solid, but not as solid as one would want. The below 50% turnout could well signify that majority of voters still either “don’t care” or continue ruminating within a kind of a speakeasy that has nestled among their thoughts, having yet to muster enough courage to vote in line with their preferences – which most likely have a great deal to do with their disillusionment with the major political parties on offer. The freedom of expressing ones thoughts (through votes, for example) has evidently not yet fully left the oppressive filters of the former totalitarian communist system of former Yugoslavia even though Croatia has been out of it for over two decades. Old habits die hard, and there just has not been enough effort placed into public education on citizens’ rights and responsibilities in a democracy in Croatia. So voters either don’t care or are afraid to vote, and I think it’s more the latter than the former because in the staunched environment of overwhelming political elitism, as is Croatia, voting for something new automatically carries with it a good dose of fear of the unknown.

I say the above having in mind that low voter turnout is not unusual in countries of well established democracies and that Croatians should be exempt from being compared to such occurrences, which are often commented upon as “just one of those things that are normal in democracy”. Why, you may ask? Because 94% voted in the 1991 elections (to secede from communist Yugoslavia) and this fact suggests that Croats want and can activate themselves to vote. So, in a relatively young democracy, which has emerged from a totalitarian system, one expects that people would want to participate in elections on a large scale in order to shape the future they want.

So, something is brewing at grassroots level! And it doesn’t appear to favour the major political parties.

The Prohibition era in the United States of America (1920’s into 1930’s) saw a prominence of speakeasy establishments about which one only spoke very quietly, if at all, in public. The significant voter abstinence at elections in Croatia is often commented by phrases such as: “They’re all the same”, “Same people, different cloaks”, “What’s the use, they’re all corrupt”, “They haven’t got a clue”, “If I knew for sure they’ll secure a job for my children, I’d vote for them”… All those who do not vote have formed their opinion as to how things should be in Croatia politically, but evidently have little courage to speak out en masse or make changes through action.  And so, mental speakeasies linger on.

In Sunday’s Local government elections an overwhelming number of candidates failed to win 50% or more votes. This means that second round of elections will occur in two of weeks (2 June). Second round elections involve voting for two top scoring candidates from the first round and the one who gets the higher number of votes in the second round is the winner.

Therefore, those who are not locked inside a mental speakeasy and came out to vote on Sunday demonstrate a noticeable departure from supporting the Social Democrats/SDP (main party in government) and the Croatian Democratic Union/HDZ (largest party in opposition) is regaining its ground at the grassroots, local level.

HDZ is particularly delighted with the fact that it won in major or larger Croatian cities such as Zadar, Sibenik, Velika Gorica, Bjelovar, Sisak – in the 2009 local elections HDZ’s defeat was huge, almost debilitating.  Most of the votes counted yeasterday and today show that HDZ candidates and/or partners have won first round of elections in the larger cities of Gospic, Zadar, Sibenik, Karlovac, Sisak, Velika Gorica, Krapina, Bjelovar, Virovitica. SDP and its partners have won in Rijeka, Split, Cakovec, Koprivnica,Vukovar, Varazdin, Pozega. HNS and its partners without SDP won Bjelovar, Dubrovnik and Pazin. IDS without coalition won Pula and HDSSB won Osijek. Victory for the capital of Zagreb went to current Mayor Milan Bandic (independent) and Slavonski Brod went to the independent Mirko Duspara.

HDZ believes that it will gain more victorious ground in the second round of elections, particularly Split and Vukovar where the difference in votes between HDZ second place and SDP first place is very narrow.

Certainly, what these Local elections show is that there is a shift away from the governing coalition parties and a significant voter swing towards HDZ and/or its partners. Results in larger cities and towns usually reflect the mood of those that voted.

The electoral gains by HDZ can to a great extent be attributed to a greater public confidence in that party, which many attribute to the purges and changes the party has been undergoing since its disastrous loss at 2011 general elections and since Tomislav Karamarko took leadership.

According to Tomislav Klauski, journalist of 24sata, Zoran Milanovic, Prime Minister and leader of SDP, has vowed to relinquish responsibility for the SDP electoral defeats, threatens with membership purges, disbandment of leadership in local disobedient SDP branches, announces the introduction of loyalty as criteria of survival, expects gratitude from his vassals … Well, well not even Tomislav Karamarko went that far (at least publicly) when he set about reviving and changing HDZ.

What this SDP brandishing of swords resembles is, actually, the mindset of a totalitarian, dictatorial system not far removed from the communist one Croatia thought it had left behind a few years ago.

It’s a real pity more voters didn’t cast their say at Local elections – there was certainly quite a varied selection of candidates/parties on offer, which did not fit the political elite, major party mold. Certainly, taking a chance with the new and untested seems like a great opportunity to bring about the change most of the non-voters seems to be hankering for or pondering upon. One simply cannot avoid the feeling that if recycling of the same parties with more or less same people at the helm continues, and low voter turnout persists, not much will change for Croatia except, perhaps, more loud street rallies full of demands that have no action plans. And so the body of the majority of eligible voters that do not vote becomes and is a toothless tiger that political elite recognises only too well. Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)

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