Perspectives | Croatia

How the good bunch beat the bad bunch

By - 26.05.2021

Is the Political Platform Možemo! really able to bring about change in Croatia?

Exactly four years ago, during the May general election campaign, a well-known political spin doctor in Croatia was dominating a conversation led by a group of journalists, myself included, and PR people in a Zagreb cafe. It came as no surprise that he sat at the head of the table: If anyone was successful, it was definitely him. This figure steered into power the current Social Democratic Party (SDP) president Zoran Milnović and Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) prime minister Andrej Plenković; both of their campaigns relied on his propaganda machine. 

He is perhaps the only person who would dare come up with “Vjerodostojno” (“Credibly”) as a campaign slogan for the HDZ — a political party brought to court for corruption and the abuse of office aimed at lining the party treasury and its members’ private pockets. Even though it looked like mockery to the average person — combined with HDZ being a self-proclaimed “supreme Croatian party” helped by extensive political marketing — the Croatian electorate did not rack its brain about this. So HDZ credibly went on to receive a court sentence, but also win the 2020 general elections.

Hence, the aforementioned person should be trusted. Like the famous musician Tonči Huljić — a hitmaker specializing in jovial ditties who was in the spotlight for at least 40 years — he knew that people never get enough of frivolities, and that they always want more, and more, and more.

In conversation with the group, he spoke condescendingly of the relative success that the Platform Možemo! (“We can!”) had in the local elections four years ago. I say “relative” because, back then, only a handful of activists who were clustered around the green-left coalition made it into the Zagreb City Assembly and “success” because they pulled it off in the first place.

“This is their first and last time. They’re gonna burn up in the blink of an eye,” he explained confidently, glaring at a person bold enough to have said that it was not really like that, and that global trends were going in their favor, and so on. “They don’t understand anything,” the spin doctor resolutely put an end to any further discussion — he was a man who had designed successful campaigns for conservatives, social democrats, liberals and populists alike, including Milan Bandić, the late mayor of Zagreb who was the longest serving official, who held office from 2000 until his death in 2021.

Drawing lessons

This lengthy introduction was necessary for understanding what happened in the most recent Croatian local elections held on Sunday, May 16, and the almost full support given to the platform Možemo! in Zagreb. Led by Tomislav Tomašević, the platform achieved solid results in a number of other cities, too, such as Split, Dubrovnik and Karlovac. Nevertheless, cities where none of the candidates got over 50 percent of votes, will go into the second round, including Zagreb. 

The political platform Možemo! is made up of: Zagreb je naš (“Zagreb is ours”), Nova ljevica (New Left) and Zelena alternativa (Green Alternative) — OraH,  parties that belong to the left specter composed of people who were activists in different spheres for a long time before entering formal political parties. 

As for the mayoral election, Tomašević from Možemo! won 147,631 votes — more than Milan Bandić, the decadeslong Zagreb sheriff, ever did — and almost won in the first round. Only HDZ managed to obtain more votes than them, but that was in the 90s, during wartime and when the mayor was not directly elected by the citizens, but instead by the City Assembly. In addition, the  main candidate was the then unquestionable authority, Franjo Tuđman: President of the country.

Step by step, day in and day out, the voters are not only increasingly recognizing their efforts, but they have also started turning their backs on the so-called big parties.

In recent years, while major parties have been burdened with numerous scandals and therefore dealt only with themselves, activists — whose careers used to be associated mostly with protest where they would try to defend the public interest with mixed success — are learning from other people’s examples and diligently examining political theories to figure out what Možemo! ought to do and how they ought to do it, in terms of political change and engagement.

The Platform’s Možemo! devotion brought them recognition from voters and they won seven parliamentary seats in last year’s general elections. This provided them with an even bigger platform for putting forward their views, persistently fighting for transparency and against clientelism, as well as for leading a vigorous anti-corruption and anti-nepotism campaign; all coupled with activists being ideologically sided with green and left policies and the unabated respect that they have for the anti-fascist heritage. And they have continued to remain outspoken both within their few seats at the Zagreb City Assembly and, more importantly, on the ground.

They have been everywhere, which is probably best illustrated by the fact that Tomašević has spoken in the Zagreb Assembly 550 times in the last four years, while his political opponent and — as he likes to call him —  a right-wing antipode, Zlatko Hasanbegović, has done the same 20 times.

Step by step, day in and day out, the voters are not only increasingly recognizing their efforts, but they have also started turning their backs on the so-called big parties.

The Social Democratic Party’s (SDP) members have been bickering among themselves for years now, spending energy that they should use to retain control over the party. The policies SDP is pushing for are probably no longer clear even to them. Now, when they achieved little to no success at the local level, they have found themselves in a situation where they will be forced to get behind Možemo!, as the platform needs only one more seat to have an absolute majority in the legislature. Anything other than that would be suicide and it would speed them up on their road to obscurity.

As the national ruling party, HDZ is not faring much better, even though they did win in most of the cities, and in that way they secured influence even in the future. Nevertheless, they face many challenges.

Prime minister Andrej Plenković is forced to sack a minister every now and then due to scandals and the mire of corruption that his party is wallowing in. Moreover, fierce pressure is coming from the HDZ’s sinewy right wing who Plenković is trying to marginalize, while everything is further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic; quite often, depending on political needs, victory is claimed over the pandemic before cafe closures and public gathering bans are rolled out all over again. Yet, these prohibitions are enforced in line with the old principle: Gods may do what cattle may not; that is, those in power are allowed to do what the common people are not.

A left turn

Možemo!’ s success is truly impressive. Like David’s victory over Goliath. Or like an old Western movie: When the weaker, but just, cowboys from town beat the stronger, evil bullies from a nearby farm.

The Croatian people said “no more” to political futility and the elites whose only goal is to keep their positions and make a profit off publicly and — until recently — socially owned properties. Preoccupied with themselves, just like their spin doctor from the introduction, they have not realized what is going on. They did not understand that something big was coming that could blow them off the political stage forever. 

Such events are known to take place in Western Europe, where it is normal for political parties to appear and disappear without there being — and this is the case in Croatia — a duopoly of the so-called right (HDZ) and left-wing (SDP) parties. Third way parties may shine here and there, but their light goes out very soon.

It is no secret that their role models are the Spanish Podemos ("We can") party and Ada Colau, the first woman mayor of Barcelona.

In the recent elections, the Možemo! progressive green agenda was backed up by other green and progressive mayors, including the mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony; the mayor of Innsbruck, Georg Willi; as well as the mayor of Grenoble, Éric Piolle. They called on voters via videos to vote for Tomašević and a better quality of life in urban areas, taking into account climate change and other challenges of the 21st century.

It is no secret that Možemo!’ s role models are the Spanish Podemos (“We can”) party and Ada Colau, the first woman mayor of Barcelona who is leading her city in line with the principles of civic participation. She gained popularity through her activist work as one of the founders of and a spokesperson for the “Platform for People Affected by Mortgages” (Platforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca) since 2009, fighting evictions in Barcelona. 

Just like Spanish right-wingers were not fond of the left turn in their country, neither were their Croatian counterparts fond of the left turn in Croatia. Immediately after the election results came in, a barrage of criticism was fired by a right-wing singer of mellow tunes and patriotic reveilles, Miroslav Škoro, who barely made it to the second round with Tomašević. The musician claimed that Možemo! is not really a green-left coalition, but a far-left organization that ought to be prevented from coming into power by any means necessary. This is particularly hypocritical when such words are uttered by a former co-owner of a hospital car parking lot notorious for prices that were among the highest in Zagreb.

Furthermore, Škoro would hope to discredit members of Možemo! by calling them “Soros” mercenaries supported by anonymous donations, “public money suckers” and “dangerous activists.” These claims are fairly similar to the ones liberal advocates would hear from right-wingers during the 90s in Croatia.

No wonder there is such behavior, fear makes the wolf bigger than it is. And Tomašević and Možemo! are announcing big things.

The coalition is announcing a detailed review of the city-level business activity, termination of unfavorable contracts, dismissals from top city positions, and a reconsideration of the employment policy. They are announcing a restoration of order, and that move does not sit right with many.

All in all, in order to succeed in their endeavors, they are going to need a lot of wisdom, and a little bit of luck. Their supporters will expect changes to be ushered in overnight, but one can easily burn out in a society steeped in corruption. It has been shown that they know what has to be done. Now, they have to show us how they are going to do it.

Feature image: Courtesy of Nina Đurđević and Možemo!