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Croatia - Political Parties - Overview

Croatia is a multiparty democracy in which all citizens 18 years of age and older have the right to vote by secret ballot. The president, elected for 5 years, exercises substantial power, authority, and influence but is constitutionally limited to two terms. Parliament is comprised of the House of Representatives and the House of Zupanije or counties. The formation of political parties is free. The internal organisation of political parties must conform to the basic constitutional democratic principles. Parties must publicly account for the origin of its funds and properties. Political parties who with their program or violent activity tend towards undermining the democratic constitutional order or threaten the survival of the Republic of Croatia are non-constitutional. The Constitutional Court of the Republic of Croatia decides on the non-constitutionality of a political party. The position and financing of political parties is regulated by law.

Tudjmans Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) had ruled the country since independence in 1991, presiding over a semi-authoritarian dictatorship that retarded the growth of democratic political institutions. Since his death in 1999, Croatia has made great strides in its democratic development. But party field offices, while having strengthened their organization and management, did not have strong communication mechanisms connecting them with party headquarters, nearby districts and local officials. Party decision-making was centralized at the top echelons of party structures with little or no opportunity for rank-and-file members and local party leaders to share their views with party leadership, leading to member disillusion with the parties. Coordination with and training for the local councilors elected in the May 2001 local elections was particularly weak. Likewise, party headquarters, party caucuses and government ministers often worked in isolation of each other. While parties had begun to use direct voter contact techniques, they were not utilizing available technology to target voters and recruit volunteers.

Political parties lacked strong communication mechanisms between their headquarters, government ministers, parliamentary caucuses and field offices and decision-making was centralized at the top echelons of party structures, leaving rank-and-file members generally underrepresented in policy formation. While parties had begun to use direct voter contact techniques, they were not utilizing available technology to target voters and recruit volunteers. In many parties, the role of women and youth was still marginalized.

The governing coalition led by the Social Democratic Party (SDP) was plagued by internal turmoil. The members of the coalition were the Croatian Peasants Party (HSS), Croatian Peoples Party (HNS), Liberal Party (LS), and the Croatian Social Liberal Party. The coalition, which represented all ends of the ideological spectrum and was brought together by a common desire to see the nationalist HDZ removed from power, was unable to agree on many policy issues ranging from economic reform to cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). This infighting began to hurt the coalitions standing with the public. In 2002, the SDP and its coalition partners approval ratings began to fall, while the popularity of the HDZ began to rise. It became increasingly apparent that one of the biggest challenges to Croatias democratic institutions was the lack of support by citizens for their parliament and political parties.

The November 2003 parliamentary election saw the HDZ defeat the SDP-led coalition and return to power. Throughout the campaign, the HDZ attempted to shed its nationalist face and present itself to the electorate as reformed and committed to move Croatia closer to the European Union, essentially embracing the reform agenda of the SDP-led coalition. Led by Ivo Sanader, the HDZ won 66 of the 152 seats in parliament, falling short of a majority of 76 seats. The HDZ found support for its government from small center-right parties, the Croatian Pensioners Party (HSU) and the minority representatives. While the aforementioned agreed to support the HDZ, only the Democratic Center (DC) agreed to enter the government.

The primary challenge during the election for the SDP-led government was its inability to present a united front to voters. The SDP, HSS and the Croatian Peoples Party all ran separately and competed for the same voters. The HDZ, which ran on many of the same issues as the SDPjoining Europe, the return of displaced Serbs and cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY)left the voters confused and questioning whether a difference existed among the parties. The inability of the former governing partners to form a coalition was more detrimental than just the splitting of votes. Croatia uses the dhondt system, which redistributes votes for parties that did not cross the five percent threshold proportionally to the parties that received the most votes. As the HDZ won the highest percentage of votes, it received more of these votes than did the parties that chose to run alone, translating into 15 additional seats for the HDZ.

Following the 25 November 2007 parliamentary elections in Croatia, Transparency International Croatia (TIH) and GONG, an election monitoring organization, have published their report on campaign spending. During the official campaign season 3 - 23 November, Croatian political parties spent more than 50 million kuna ($10 million). The ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) led campaign spending with over 25 million kuna, or more than all other parties combined. The main opposition party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), was a distant second, spending just over 8 million kuna. While the SDP's campaign won fewer seats than the HDZ, it was much more cost effective. The SDP spent approximately 145,000 kuna (or $29,000) per each of its 56 seats in the Sabor, while the HDZ spent over 400,000 kuna (or $80,000) for each of the 61 seats it won inside Croatia. Both parties did far better however, than the right-wing Croatian Party of Rights (HSP), which spent 3m kuna ($600,000) to win a single seat. For the elections as a whole, the average seat in Parliament cost around 350,000 kuna ($70,000).

There was no specific law in Croatia to regulate campaign financing for parliamentary elections. The existing statute only governs the overall financing of political parties, independent lists and candidates. Enacted in December 2006, the law defines political parties as nonprofit organizations which are partially subsidized from the state budget. All parties with at least one representative in the Sabor are eligible for state funds, and the money is divided proportionally among the parties. Parties are eligible for a 10 percent bonus for each representative of an "under-represented gender" (i.e. - female). The State Audit Office at the Ministry of Finance requires end-of-year financial statements from the parties, who must publish the same on their public websites.

Croatia's system of providing state funds to political parties based on their representation in parliament meant the rich will get richer. SDP's gains in the 2007 elections translated to better funding of future campaigns. HSP's loss of seats increased the party's reliance on private funding. Shifts in public support toward the establishment of two or three primary political parties would only increase the imbalance in funding between those parties and smaller parties focused on specific regions or interests.

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