Croatia, a country with a population of almost 4.2 million, well-known for its scenic Adriatic coast went to the polls on the 22nd of December, 2019 to elect a new President. However, with no clear winner in sight, the elections went to a second round on the 5th of January where Zoran Milanovic defeated incumbent President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic.
Many around the world can instantly recognize Kitarovic for her fancy appearances at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, draped in her country’s flag, showing her passion and support for the national football team. A former ambassador to the United States and a George Washington University graduate, Kitarovic was also the country’s first post-independence female President.
In her way stood Zoran Milanovic, the country’s former Prime Minister from 2011 to 2015 from the Social Democratic Party of Croatia. Similar to Kitarovic, Milanovic also worked at the Croatian foreign ministry, was an advisor to the European Union and NATO in Brussels and has a master’s degree in European Union law. He joined the SDP in 1999.
The elections which have been viewed in the country as a form of renewal, were to the expectations of many, a success. The exit polls showed that Milanovic won the second round with 54% of votes, whereas, Kitarovic gained 46% of the votes. During the first round, the results looked like this: Milanovic with 29.6% of votes while Kitarovic took home 26.7% of votes.
Even though the role of the President in the small Mediterranean nation holds no concrete significance, the President does have a say in the running of the foreign policy and crucial defense matters.
The Social Democrats and the Croatian Democratic Union have been dominating the political scene in Croatia ever since its separation from Yugoslavia in 1991. Fast forward to 2020, Croatia is revelling in its role as the President of the European Union but major tasks remain ahead; the United Kingdom’s exit from the bloc, the accession of Albania and North Macedonia and the important decision on the seven-year budget for the European Union.
Even though Kitarovic’s defeat could be seen as inevitable, one must ask whether the new changes that the former Prime Minister and now President Milanovic will bring, will be acceptable or not? The social democrat says he has many new ideas and a vision that would help in resolving the problems that Croatia is currently embroiled in. However, leading experts believe that although this may come as a sign of victory, the changes would take time to implement. Croatians voted for progress and the results would give Brussels the idea that it’s not backtracking on its commitment of pursuing liberal democratic principles.
Milanovic’s main election promise was to fight corruption but the problems don’t just end there. Croatia is also facing the core issue of a stagnant economy and an influx of refugees from neighboring Serbia. Many Croatians are leaving the country due to the lack of employment opportunities. They’re finding jobs elsewhere in countries which have a comparatively better status and are more economically stable. Throughout his election rallies, Milanovic vowed to unite the country together and seek the return of the youth who have headed for newer pastures.
Milanovic has also promised to focus on the health and education sectors of Croatia, saying that he will reform institutions which have failed to produce the best outcome for citizens. He says the country will become more progressive by fighting for the rights of same-sex couples who have been left obscured under the tenure of conservative catholic Kitarovic. He says these trends are technically ‘unstoppable’ as they have a human element attached to them.
Croatia joined the European union in 2013 and also happens to be the bloc’s newest member. The European Union just recently gave Croatia the green signal for Schengen despite facing numerous security and migratory challenges in the region.
Zoran Milanovic will take office on the 19th of February but this time around the President will have a more solid profile due to Croatia’s EU Presidency.
Milanovic differs in many ways from Kitarovic whom he says is corrupt, overlooks the problems of Croatians and someone who can’t differentiate between ‘public and private property.’ During the highly-anticipated presidential debates, Milanovic left no stone unturned by elaborating his manifesto and also lashing out at Kitarovic.
The elimination of corruption, overseeing a growing economy, no preferential treatment for politicians, uniting the divided nation and turning incompetency into progression are some of the values that Milanovic claims. How successful they will be, only time will tell.
The former Croatian PM also believes that the European Union is the country’s biggest ally rather than the United States. He will be on the offensive in mending lost relations with neighboring states.
The experience of Milanovic could play an important role in determining the future of Croatia. By tackling fiscal policy problems and allowing more businesses to operate in Croatia, the idea might sound safe but its effectiveness will only be determined by the moves Milanovic makes. Hit or miss, they could be costly.