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Croatia - Politics

Preliminary results from Croatia's 11 September 2016 snap election suggested that both major parties have failed to gain a clear majority. That prospect could lead to months of negotiations to form a government. Nearly complete results showed 54 seats in the Croatian parliament going to left-leaning Social Democrats (SDP) and 61 seats for the conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). Smaller parties would therefore likely be crucial to forming governing coalitions in the 151-seat parliament.

The center-right Most ("Bridge") party came in third with 15 percent of the vote, or 13 seats. Polls in the run-up to the election had already suggested a slight lead for the coalition led by the Social Democrats and former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, who was in power for four years until November 2015. The HDZ meanwhile hoped to stay in power with a new and more moderate leader, Andrej Plenkovic, who pledged to move the party away from populism and nationalism. Political analysts did not hold out much hope that a new government will make any progress in solving the country's problems.

Nationalist rhetoric and overtly neofascist symbols are everywhere. During World War II, the Ustasha regime collaborated with Nazi Germany to abuse Serbs, Jews and communists and even erected concentration camps; now, that government is portrayed as the "patriotic defender of Croatian interests in difficult times." Every year, on August 4 and 5, the country celebrates the anniversary of the 1995 Oluja (Storm) military operation and Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day and the Day of Croatian Defenders. During the Oluja, the Croatian army captured Serb-controlled areas within a matter of days. A large number of Serb civilians were murdered during the operation, which also forced an estimated 200,000 Serbs out of Croatia. Each year, the event, which is seen as the official symbol of Croatian liberation.

Since its declaration of independence in 1991, Croatia faced the dual challenge of creating an independent state and establishing a democratic system of government. Dubbed the "father of the Republic" for having led the country to independence from Yugoslavia, Franjo Tudjman was elected President in 1992 and quickly established a firm grip on state institutions, the economy, the military, and civic institutions, including the media. The war in Croatia and BosniaHercegovina, which dominated the political landscape through 1996, fostered the formation of a single-party state run by Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and guided by fervent nationalism. In parliamentary elections in 1993, opposition parties managed to gain some seats in the legislature, demonstrating that diversity of political opinion had begun to take root. Following Operations Flash and Storm in 1995, during which Croatia ousted renegade Krajina Serbs, President Tudjman called new parliamentary elections in an effort to regain the HDZ's firm control of the more powerful house of the country's bicameral legislature. Despite the military successes, the HDZ failed to capture the two-thirds majority necessary to pass amendments to the constitution.

In June 1997, Tudjman was easily re-elected President of the Republic with 56 percent of the vote, twice that of his nearest rival. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued a statement declaring that "the process leading up to the elections was fundamentally flawed and did not meet the minimum standards for a meaningful and democratic election." The HDZ had monopolized access to the national media, unilaterally made changes to the election law without adequately informing voters, restricted access to voters lists and denied accreditation to nonpartisan election monitors despite an aggressive NGO advocacy campaign. In early 1998, the Interior Ministry deployed heavily armed special forces to disperse a series of labor protests against the HDZ's economic policies. The spectacle of military hardware and a massive police presence opposing unarmed citizens as they exercised their political rights led to serious criticism of the governing regime from both Croatians and the international community. The death of President Tudjman in December 1999, followed by the election of a coalition government and president in early 2000, brought significant changes to Croatia.

Right-wing extremist iconography is part of everyday life in Croatia. President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic [elected January 2015], for instance, publicly appears with known right-wing leaders and even accused war criminals, and she occasionally goes off on hate-filled tirades in TV interviews. Even 20 years after the war, Croatia is living in an atmosphere dominated by wartime rhetori. Independent Croatia grew out of a right-wing political movement. And patriotic rhetoric is still the measure of all things here.

Independent media are active and expressed without restraint a wide variety of views. Restrictions on material deemed hate speech applied to print media as well. While many private newspapers and magazines were published without government interference, observers cited lack of transparency in media ownership as a challenge to media and government accountability. Publicly available information frequently did not clearly indicate who actually owned several local media outlets. A number of journalists reported that publishers and media owners frequently practiced self-censorship to avoid reporting negatively on advertisers or those politically linked to key advertisers. According to Josip Juratovic, a German Social Democrat MP with Croatian roots, instead of implementing the necessary reforms, the country's political elite is focused on itself. This does not come as a surprise. Local political structures were organized in a way that favors power, maintenance of power and redistribution of power as opposed to dealing with the country's future. Intraparty democracy simply doesn't work in Croatia. Therefore, the same players keep shaping the same policies, only with a different entourage. If they had had any ideas, they would already have realized them.

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