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Croatia - 2011 parliamentary elections

Following the dissolution of the parliament on 28 October 2011, President Ivo Josipovic called for parliamentary elections to be held on 4 December. These elections were the seventh parliamentary elections following Croatias independence and the first since the conclusion of European Union (EU) accession negotiations on 30 June 2011.

In July 2009, Prime Minister Sanader was forced to resign over allegations of corruption and abuse of power. Jadranka Kosor (HDZ) succeeded him, thereby becoming the country's first woman Prime Minister since independence. She subsequently launched a strong anti-corruption campaign in view of concluding the EU accession talks. In October, Sanader (who had turned down his parliamentary seat in 2007 to become prime minister) was sworn in as a parliamentarian.

In January 2010, Ivo Josipovic (SDP) won the run-off presidential election. In December, Mr. Sanader fled to Austria hours before parliament was due to vote on lifting his immunity. He was subsequently arrested and extradited to Croatia. The July 2010 constitutional amendments put the number of members elected from abroad at three, thereby setting the statutory number of members in the new legislature at 151. Previously, the number had not been set and the total number of members varied according to the legislature.

The corruption charges against Sanader continued to cast a shadow over the HDZ. On 05 September 2011, parliament's Credentials and Privileges Committee lifted Mr. Sanader's immunity. On 27 October, the State Attorney's Office for the Suppression of Corruption and Organized Crime (USKOK) expanded the probe to the HDZ as a whole. On 28 October, parliament was dissolved with a view to general elections.

The outgoing center-right government was formed by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), together with the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS) and the Independent Democratic Serbian Party (SDSS), with the support of national minority Members of Parliament (MPs). In the run up to the 2011 elections, the center-left opposition Social Democratic Party of Croatia (SDP) formed the Kukuriku electoral coalition together with the Croatian Peoples Party Liberal Democrats (HNS), the Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS), and the Croatian Party of Pensioners (HSU). At the time of its dissolution, the parliament also included nine independent MPs, as well as representatives from the Croatian Democratic Alliance of Slavonija and Baranja (HDSSB), the Croatian Party of Rights (HSP), the Party of Democratic Action of Croatia (SDAH), the Croatian Social Democrats (HSD) and Croatian Labourists.

The elections took place against a background of a major corruption scandal involving members of the former HDZ leadership, including indictments against ex-Prime Minister Ivo Sanader. On 27 October, it was announced that the State Attorneys Office for the Suppression of Corruption and Organized Crime (USKOK) had expanded the investigation to the HDZ as a legal entity.

Under the Constitution, the parliament (Sabor) is a unicameral body consisting of 100 to 160 members, directly elected on the basis of universal and equal suffrage through secret ballot. The LERCP regulates the number of MPs and the manner in which they are elected. A total of 151 MPs are elected from 12 multi-member constituencies to serve a four-year term. The territory of Croatia is divided into ten territorial constituencies, each electing 14 MPs under a closed-list proportional representation system. There is a five per cent threshold for the allocation of mandates.

In addition, there are two non-territorial constituencies. One represents Croatian citizens residing abroad and three MPs are elected under a closed-list proportional representation system, also with a five per cent threshold. The other constituency elects 8 MPs to represent the 22 constitutionally recognized minorities of Croatia in 6 separate elections under a majoritarian system.

The official election campaign started on 17 November, after the conclusion of candidate registration, and ended at midnight on 2 December. However, according to several OSCE/ODIHR LEOM interlocutors, pre-campaign activities had already commenced in early autumn when the ruling party HDZ organized a series of regional assembly meetings and the opposition Kukuriku coalition parties toured the country to present their joint electoral platform.

Electoral contestants were able to conduct their activities freely. The tone of the campaign was measured and intensified only during the final week before the elections. Billboards, posters, and candidate meetings were visible across the country, especially in cities. HDZ and Kukuriku ran the most prominent campaigns, but other parties, including the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS) and Croatian Labourists, presented themselves actively as an alternative to the two main blocs. Regional contestants, such as the HDSSB and the independent lists of Milan Bandic and Stipe Petrina, ran particularly visible campaigns in their respective constituencies.

Some smaller parties informed the OSCE/ODIHR LEOM that limited funding negatively affected their ability to reach out to the electorate. Several contestants, especially Kukuriku, HSLS and the Croatian Labourists, made increased use of the internet, including YouTube and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, to publicize their programmes and connect with voters. Some interlocutors alleged that the absence of debates among leading contestants had a detrimental effect on voters ability to make an informed choice on election day.

The campaign was focused primarily on economic issues, including rising unemployment, taxation, and investments in infrastructure. Although the elections took place at a time when the ex-Prime Minister Ivo Sanader and several HDZ officials faced corruption charges, the extension of the investigation to the party as a legal entity did not dominate the campaign. Similarly, given a wide consensus in favour of EU accession, the planned referendum on membership played a secondary role in candidate speeches and meetings. Among the parties represented in the outgoing parliament, only HSP voiced opposition to EU membership as part of its electoral platform. Recurring recourse to nationalist rhetoric, in part related to recent trials and convictions of war crimes suspects, was a more prominent feature of the pre-campaign, rather than of the official campaign period.

In line with previous recommendations made by the OSCE/ODIHR, as well as the Group of States against Corruption of the Council of Europe (GRECO),19 campaign finance regulations were strengthened and consolidated in the 2011 Law on Political Activity and Election Campaign Financing. Political parties, candidates, and independent lists of candidates can finance their campaign activities with their own financial resources and donations.20 Foreign and anonymous donations are prohibited and in-kind contributions must be accounted for at market value. Total campaign costs per candidate list should not exceed HRK 1.5 million per constituency. The law also provides for the proportional reimbursement of campaign costs for lists that obtain at least five per cent of the valid votes in their constituency. Varying levels of compensation are additionally provided to national minority candidates.

Croatia has a diverse media environment which includes some 170 radio stations, 31 TV channels, and 15 daily newspapers, offering citizens a variety of political views. Some 60 per cent of households have access to the internet. However, television remains the predominant source of information. Nine TV channels have nationwide coverage. Seven are privately owned, out of which two, Nova TV and RTL broadcast regular news and current affairs programs.

The HDZ, which was seeking a third consecutive term, formed a coalition with the Democratic Centre (DC) and the Croatian Civic Party (HGS). The HDZ-led coalition was challenged by the SDP-led Alliance for change (KUKURIKU). The latter comprised the SDP, the Croatian People's Party (HNS), the Croatian Pensioners' Party (HSU) and the Istrian Democratic Party (IDS).

With both coalitions supporting the country's accession to the EU, the election campaign focused on unemployment, taxation, and infrastructure. In October 2011, the unemployment rate reached 17.4 per cent, and the country's budget deficit soared to 4.9 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Prime Minister Kosor's HDZ ran on the government's record. The Prime Minister underscored that the economic recovery programme launched in April 2010 had helped to create jobs. She pledged to reduce the budget deficit to 1.9 per cent of GDP by 2014. She promised to give incentives and benefits for entrepreneurs to employ more young people in order to reduce unemployment. The Prime Minister refrained from commenting on the work of the Chief State Prosecutor in the investigation into the HDZ. She instead stated that the fight against corruption must not stop and that it had to be a permanent obligation for all.

The SDP-led KUKURIKU promised to implement more austerity measures to revive industry and attract foreign investment. SDP leader, Zoran Milanovic, promised to increase GDP by 4 per cent by 2015 and create 140,000 jobs. While the Prime Minister refused to approach the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan, Milanovic said he would not rule it out as a "last resort".

In all, 54.32 per cent of the 4.2 million registered voters turned out at the polls. The KUKURIKU won 80 of the 151 seats, thereby securing a majority in the new parliament. The HDZ coalition took 47. The remainder went to small parties. Eight members representing ethnic minorities announced that they would back the KUKURIKU. On 14 December, President Josipovic designated Milanovic as the new Prime Minister.

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