In its second election in the last year, Croatia was once again left with an inconclusive result.
Polls going into the election had the center left Patriotic Coalition, led by former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic of the Social Democratic Party of Croatia, leading by what seemed an almost insurmountable 7-8%. While exit polls tempered expectations somewhat, they still put the SDP and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) in a heads-up tie, which could be perceived as a victory for Milanovic considering the more fractured nature of the political left in Croatia.
The reality, however, was a modest and unexpected victory for the HDZ, which took 61 seats to the 54 of the Patriotic Coalition. The disappointing result was enough to lead to the unofficial ousting of longtime SDP leader Milanovic, who had survived a similar disappointing result in the elections last November.
The HDZ, meanwhile, has little to celebrate. While it did take in the most seats, all told the center-right is going to have a difficult time putting together a viable long-term coalition. In addition to the 61 seats held by the HDZ, only one other definitively center-right party won seats, the party led by the Mayor of Zagreb Milan Bandic (popularly known as MB365), which took 2.
On the left, 8 seats were won by Zivi Zid, a populist party generally considered to be left-of-center, while 3 seats went to the Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS), a regionalist party representing the interests of Istria, one of Croatia's most developed regions. Both parties are more natural partners of the Patriotic Coalition. IDS, in fact, was a member of the coalition supporting Milanovic when he was Prime Minister from 2011-2015.
The kingmaker will once again be the Bridge of Independent Lists (MOST) led by Bozo Petrov, which won 13 seats. Despite winning far fewer seats than in the November 2015 election, when the party arose from nowhere to win 19, MOST will again be the pivotal party. It has the unsavory task of deciding which party grouping to support.
Following the 2015 election, MOST supported an HDZ-dominated coalition led by a political outsider and compromise Prime Minister, Tihomir Oreskovic. The coalition bargaining process was brutally long and stretched into 2016. In the process, MOST faced a series of defections, with 4 parliamentarians leaving the party over disagreements about forming a coalition with the HDZ.
The Oreskovic government was left with a weak, fractured support base and collapsed entirely following a corruption scandal involving the leader of the HDZ and Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Karamarko.
In the run-up to this new election, MOST has publicly made it a priority to join a coalition with a strong majority, so as to have a more stable platform from which to implement its plate of policy reforms. It faces major trade-offs in the process of making a decision.
Supporting a center-right HDZ-led coalition would result in a coalition with the barest possible majority, holding just 76 of 151 seats. It is possible the coalition would have shadow support from the HDSSB, a far-right party that holds 1 seat but is seen as too extreme to be involved in a formal coalition; and/or from Zeljko Glasnovic, a retired general who won a seat representing the Croatian diaspora. That would leave the coalition with just 78 seats, and still relatively susceptible to collapse.
Leaders of the center right will undoubtedly look to leaders of the minority communities, who combined have 8 seats, to tip the balance, but this will likely prove difficult. Minority community leaders I spoke with following the 2015 election are almost universally uneasy with the idea of being in a king-making position, seeing it as potentially threatening to their unique status in the political system. At the time there was also a creeping sense of distrust towards the HDZ, which had tilted towards strong nationalism under Karamarko. These concerns may have been mitigated with the election of Andrej Plenkovic as head of the party, a former EU parliamentarian who has a reputation as strongly centrist.
Beyond those concerns, the largest group, the Independent Democratic Serb Party (SDSS) led by Milorad Pupovac, is unlikely to ever join a coalition with even tacit support from the HDSSB or Glasnovic. Other leaders, including Veljko Kajtazi of the Roma community, Vladimir Bilek of the Czech and Slovak communities and Furio Radin of the Italian community, have found a more natural home in previous elections with the left-of-center coalition, and are unlikely coalition partners. This leaves just Robert Jankovics of the Hungarian community and Ermina Lekaj Prljaskaj of the Albanian community as likely potential coalition supporters. They are both relative wild-cards.
The situation on the left is just as complicated. To govern, the Patriotic Coalition would require not only the support of MOST, but also Zivi Zid and the IDS. This group would have 78 seats. It could likely count on the support, either tacitly or actively, of Radin, Bilek and Kajtazi, which would give the coalition 81 seats. But it would be an unwieldy coalition. Despite both being populist movements, it is unclear whether the anti-free trade Zivi Zid and the pro-free trade MOST could co-exist in a unified government. It is theoretically possible that the SDSS could replace Zivi Zid, but the resulting coalition would have just 76 seats, and it seems unlikely it would be more palatable to MOST than the weak coalition of the right. At least that coalition would have fewer moving parts.
This comically complicated coalition bargaining dynamic is an outcome of Croatia's increasingly dysfunctional electoral and party systems. Croatia's electoral system is divided up into geographic regions, like most, and each has 14 seats. This electoral arrangement creates a modestly strong over-representation of the two largest parties in the system, the SDP and the HDZ, at the expense of smaller parties. In the 2015 election, both major parties received significantly larger shares of the allotted seats (56 for each party, or 37.1%) than their share of the vote (33.36% for the HDZ, 33.2% for the SDP). These seats came at the expense not primarily of extra-parliamentary parties, but instead parties that made it into parliament but saw most of their votes cast in districts where they just barely fell below the effective electoral threshold of 7%. These parties alone lost 9 seats in favor of the larger parties in the system.
This might on the surface seem like a good thing. More powerful large parties should be able to build more stable coalitions needing fewer coalition partners. However, this has not been happening. The SDP and HDZ are, more or less, neck and neck in their popular support. The HDZ gets a slight boost in more elections because it has historically been dominant in the diaspora district. Neither, however, can actually govern on its own. Increasingly it seems unlikely that they can govern with a single coalition partner, especially as their respective support bases shrink.
Therein lies the problem, however. The electoral system, for better or worse, is still creating incentives to reward large parties and push them over the edge, or nearer to the edge, so that coalitions are easier to form. Creeping disproportionality can be seen as a problem not only because it creates unrepresentative governments dominated by only modest pluralities. It also threatens democratic legitimacy. After this election, we are very likely going to see an HDZ dominated government, yet the HDZ likely got no more than 35% of the national vote. This was the result of the 2015 election. It is no wonder that turnout declined in this election by almost 9%.
So, no matter who MOST decides to support, it seems unlikely the new government is going to be able to accomplish much or last long. That doesn't make it impossible. Plenkovic could turn out to be the perfect type of centrist managerial leader that Croatia needs to escape its ongoing economic woes. But the cards are stacked against him. And unless electoral reform occurs, or the party system consolidates, this is likely to be the state of affairs into the future. The days of single party or single coalition governance seem like they might be past. It might be time for Croatia to revisit the electoral system reform discussions that were tabled some years ago. It would be one way to escape the worst of all worlds outcomes the country currently faces, where it must deal with both a lack of proportionality and a lack of stability in government.