Croatia: Rifts And Polarisation – What Now?

Premier, Andrej Plenkovic (L)
President,Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic (R)
Photo: Screenshot


Disagreements and rifts between the President of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, and the Premier, Andrej Plenkovic, had until a couple of weeks ago reached a critical level on a range of political and practical reform issues. From the whole country’s point of view the rift had to many become a source of embarrassment, anger, let alone disappointment; it appeared to poison any chance for hope for a better Croatia. For anyone truly wanting progress towards a fully functional state geared to alleviating problems and stumbling blocks in public administration – to benefit economic growth in particular – the hovering hostility between the two was shattering and painful to watch; even if such a rift meant possible success at overthrowing of a criticised government for some and for others – the strengthening of the government’s position.

The country appeared more divided than ever. People attribute this polarisation to a variety of sources, including the orchestrated and engineered rift between the Office of the President and the Government, the corrupting influence of special interests, and media outlets that give more time to outraged rants than to reasoned debate.

The value of leadership above partisanship is something that can be extracted and extrapolated from Croatia’s constitution. Ever since Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic was inaugurated as Croatia’s president (early 2015) the promise of leadership skills that was palpable during her election campaign soon began running into serious trouble. Bit by bit, she had failed miserably at fulfilling the expectations of significant masses that, after the pro-communist predecessors – Stjepan Mesic and Ivo Josipovic, Grabar Kitarovic would lead the way to a needed process of decommunisation of Croatia. To chip away at the communist Yugoslavia heritage and put it where it belongs: into history that has nothing to contribute to democracy and its functional state.

She promised that after the terrible phase of detudjmanisation and politically purposeful criminalisation of the Homeland War to revitalise Franjo Tudjman’s Croatia, and Franjo Tudjman was all about sovereign Croatia, gradually free from communist ties and oppressions of the past.

Soon, it became painfully clear that Grabar Kitarovic was more into partisanship than leadership. She chose certain advisers who steered her into a vicious rift between herself and the Premier/ head of government. The more the government disappointed (for lack of sovereignty spirit, suffocated by increasingly globalist/EU politics) or was perceived as disappointing, the greater and louder the rift became. The rift left the taste of ugly political crises, which inevitably sabotages full progress particularly in the economy and in getting rid of corruption and nepotism. She appeared to side with or favour some existing and some emerging political forces, some of which had mounted a war against Premier Andrej Plenkovic and his government.

While moves and scenarios to topple a government are no strangers to politics generally, a particularly unproductive situation developed in Croatia. The entire political spectrum (from left to right) saw the rise of even more new political parties, movements and individuals along with the rehashing and reinventing of existing players whose goal is to win seats in parliament, if not take over the government. The country, the voters, had thus become more atomised than ever and voter confusion and frustration more pronounced in many aspects. The sighs and calls from the people for unification of like-minded parties and movements, particularly those on the path of Croatian sovereignism, became an everyday occurrence, especially on the increasingly robust and influential social media and internet portals with a conservative political editorial policy.

Then, a rather unexpected turnaround by Grabar Kitarovic occurred just days before Christmas. She shafted some advisers including the one who is said to be responsible for the engineering of this rift at the top of Croatia’a leadership, saying: “I want to achieve a synergy between internal and external politics, of course of national security also, and I want to mark this year with positive initiatives to help the Croatian Government and the Croatian Parliament face the problems faced by Croatian society and finding solutions,” commenting on the changes in her advisory team, commenting on the dismissal of Mate Radeljic from his post as interior policy advisor. She said that every period requires some new ideas and solutions, and that she has decided to enter the new year “on the wings of positive initiatives from the past year, such as demography or branding”.

This turnaround has resulted in a raft of criticisms against Grabar Kitarovic, claiming she has lost a great deal of support from conservative voters with this move, even though the Croatian Democratic Union party in power from which bth Grabar Kitarovic and Plenkovic stem is centre-right. The veracity of such voter loss predictions is yet to be tested on the ground during this year when elections for the European Parliament surface in May and Presidential ones in Croatia towards the end if this year.

Notwithstanding the fact that Grabar Kitarovic turnaround to mend the rift with the Premier has caused a great deal of anger and disappointment among the more right or conservative voter corpus it is essential to look at the fallout and at the benefits rifts can bring to a democracy or budding democracy. Rifts and polarisation between major political parties as well as between a country’s leadership posts such as Premier and President damages democracy. Research and studies have shown that when political leaders cast their opponents as inadequate, even immoral or corrupt, they create “us” and “them” camps – called by political scientists and psychologists “in-groups” and “out-groups” – in the society.

In this tribal dynamic, each side views the other “out group” party with increasing distrust, bias and enmity.

Perceptions that “If you win, I lose” grow. Each side views the other and their supporters as a threat to the nation or their way of life if that other political party is in power.

For that reason, the incumbent’s followers tolerate more illiberal and increasingly authoritarian behaviour to stay in power, while the opponents are more and more willing to resort to drastic or forceful means to remove them from power. Certainly, Premier Plenkovic has been viewed and accused of employing increasingly authoritarian moves to stay in power. However, given the created or engineered divisions and rifts one must accept that in order to bring, or attempt to bring, even a semblance of order and overt relative harmony in society, a firm hand is often the only path to a solution, however painful this path may be to some.

In extreme polarisation, people feel distant from and suspicious of the “other” camp. At the same time, they feel loyal to, and trusting of, their own camp – without examining their biases or factual basis of their information.

Although this is a common phenomenon long identified by social psychology, it is even more pronounced in the age of social media 24-hour news cycles and more politicised media outlets who repeat and amplify the political attacks.

Given that the lack of lustration, or, rather, lack of shedding of communist public administration heritage, attributes significantly to the largely dysfunctional state lubricated by entrenched corruption and nepotism, are Croatians now stuck in animosity and anger that will further undermine democracy, or can the nation pull out of it? Can Croatia overcome the dynamics of polarisation, where certain phenomena – divisive and demonising rhetoric, tit-for-tat political retribution and long-standing unresolved rifts – lead to an even more diminished democracy?

Research shows that the most democratic of actions – participating in elections – is exactly the thing to do to help reduce polarisation. Whether the voters of Croatia will wake up to this fact and voter turnout at future elections see healthier numbers is, again, a matter to be seen at elections.

To avoid deepening the state of division and distrust that seems to pervade the society, both political leaders and citizens must play a part. Simply withdrawing from politics is not effective. Citizens can protect themselves and their democracy by being aware of the political and psychological workings of polarisation and the early warning signs of democratic erosion. With their vote they can bring about unity, or at least significantly reduce the number of polarising political parties or movements. Political leaders should be conscious that their words and actions can advance, prevent or reverse severe polarisation and perhaps for Croatia, this is the time when existing divisions can actually lead to significant consolidation. Whether the major political parties will take advantage of the existing divisions and use as ammunition the platform upon which divisions rest to bring about positive changes is to be seen.

Whether justifiable or not, public criticisms of Grabar Kitarovic’s recent shafting of her advisers leads one to conclude that apart from the obvious risks in meddling with the president’s (or premier’s) decisions regarding the composition of her/his closest team and domestic policy settings for domestic political gain, the trouble with this sort of campaigning is that it assumes blocs of voters can be picked off here and there with stormy sensational attacks, suggesting losses to patriotism, but when this happens brazenly, so obviously vengefully, it tends to insult the intelligence of those same voters. Rather than win votes or even retain a following, it may fuel disdain for the parties huddling too closely around divisive tactics or rather the personalities seen as their main drivers.

How long can a nation that secured its independence and sovereignty with blood tolerate the persistence of elements that promote and create major divisions in its midst but secure no rewards for the people? The ultimate solution to depolarise the contentiousness around Croatian national identity, which has been the point of national discontent, requires addressing such a debate head-on. No mercy for communist crimes including corruption and underground political deals for personal gains, no mercy to the 1990’s aggressor against Croatia, no mercy to anyone or anything that degrades the values of the Homeland War. Ina Vukic


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