Opinion: Next weekend's presidential election in the country is a battle of the populists 

"Croatia will be among the most developed countries of the EU and the world", Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović said enthusiastically in her victory speech upon winning her first term in office in January 2015. "I promise you that here, tonight".

Grabar-Kitarović is again running for office, though without fulfilling her ambitious promise. Although looking slightly better than in 2015, Croatia is far from being the most developed country in the EU, heavily relying on uncontrolled tourism – responsible for around 20% of GDP – and massive outward emigration.

But not only was this promise unrealistic, she could also not take much credit for it had such an economic miracle had occurred. Like Ireland, Croatia has a parliamentary system where presidents have limited authorities in representing the state abroad and helping the executive power, centred in the government, alongside other ceremonial duties. 

Euronews report on Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović's election as Croatia's first female president in 2015

Grabar-Kitarović's promise from 2015 nicely rounds-up the theme of the upcoming presidential election on December 22nd: populism. For years now, Grabar-Kitarović was making promises and empty gestures, while portraying herself as a "down to Earth" stateswomen. This approach climaxed globally with her emotional performance at 2018 World Cup Finals award ceremony. Whatever she did, she made an impression, focussing more on the form rather than the content.

In the meantime, traditionally troubled relations with Croatia’s neighbours, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, deteriorated. Supported by the ruling centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), Grabar-Kitarović swung from moderate to far-right positions, creating enemies on all sides. Her critiques of the HDZ’s government have now backfired as she needs the party’s support to get re-elected. She has promised to "rip-out" Croatia from the ex-Yugoslav region, improve the demographic decline, strengthen the military and police and many other promises that she likely will not fulfil.

Her biggest contender is Zoran Milanović, the candidate of the centre-left Social-Democratic Party (SDP). Milanović, who was prime minister from 2011 to 2015, relies on his rhetorical skills, Latin sayings and impressing people with his self-confidence. However, he is also widely as a loser, failing to win three general elections.

France 24 2015 interview with then Croatian prime minister Zoran Milanović about the European migrant crisis

Milanović is often criticised for flirting with nationalism, desperately and unsuccessfully trying to appeal to right-wing voters and losing the more realistic ones on the left. At times, he wanted to present himself as the biggest disciple of the 1990s Croatian President Franjo Tuđman, who was autocratically curbing the opposition at the time. In the ongoing campaign, Milanović again tries to voice the position of standing against growing nationalism and chauvinism in society, while still staying under Tuđman’s umbrella. All that, while his campaign slogan promotes him as the only normal choice.

The third candidate is a famous singer, Miroslav Škoro, a showman prone to sometimes inappropriate humour. He is also an entrepreneur whose companies are doing business with the state and local governments. Claiming to be out of politics, he sang for HDZ in 2007 election campaign, won a seat in the parliament and was named the country's general consul in Hungary.

Now, Škoro presents himself as the anti-establishment person, criticising both the government and opposition. He advocates widening of presidential powers, allowing him to call for referendums upon his wishes. A range of marginal and parliamentary right-wing and far-right parties, groups and associations support Škoro, as he swayed them with radical and warmongering rhetoric. What is more important, Škoro seems to represent the vote of dissatisfied part of HDZ’s leadership and voters, who do not like party’s new moderate course.

Election video by Miroslav Škoro

The last candidate with some chances for the second round on January 5th is Mislav Kolakušić. A commercial court judge, he is known for advocating against bankruptcy and seizure laws, a fighter against corruption and the whole political establishment. A recent entrant to politics, Kolakušić won a seat in the European Parliament and successfully stepped into the vacuum created by the decline of some relatively popular anti-establishment parties. He acts as a typical populist, giving impossible promises or offering unlawful solutions – like putting existing abortion rights on a referendum - and showing autocratic tendencies by wanting to be president, prime minister and minister of the interior at the same time. 

Seven other candidates in the race will fight for scraps without much chance of making the second round. According to recent opinion polls, Grabar-Kitarović (27.4%) is still the safest bet for the second round, although her lead has fallen in favour of Milanović (24%). Škoro at 23% is breathing at their necks, focusing on smearing Grabar-Kitarović as they fight for the right-wing votes. While his popularity rose rapidly among disappointed voters across the spectrum, Kolakušić is still far behind with 8.2% and his success will hurt Škoro’s chance the most.

Polls show that a second round between Grabar-Kitarović and Škoro is not so unlikely, which leaves centre-left voters unrepresented. Although Škoro and Kolakušić will win some of those centre voters, Milanović should enter the second round. Grabar-Kitarović will try to keep Škoro at bay in the first round, as polls show that she would lose to him in the second round. The turnout in the second round between Grabar-Kitarović and Milanović will be the game-changer. If Škoro’s and Kolakušić’s disappointed voters stay at home, then Grabar-Kitarović should grab her second term. Otherwise, all bets are off. In any case, Croatia is unlikely to get a president of which they should not be ashamed at an international level.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ