Ex PM Wins Upset In Zagreb

A surprise win in the EU's newest member state.

Barely had the sun risen on the new decade than Croatia delivered the first upset to the political status quo of East-Central Europe. Against all expectations, Zoran Milanovic, the nation’s Social Democrat prime minister from 2011 to 2016, slipped past incumbent favorite Kolina Grabar-Kitarovic to win 53% in the second round of voting for the presidency on January 5. While a big win for Milanovic, many attribute the upset to the chaotic campaign run by the governing HDZ’s Grabar-Kitarovic, who was impacted by splits in her conservative party.

Although the presidency is a largely ceremonial post, observers reckon the election will change the balance of power within the government. “Milanovic will keep a check on the HDZ Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and attempt to set the agenda ahead of this year’s parliamentary elections,” says Ivor Sokolic, a research officer at the London School of Economics European Institute. “He may also focus on the [government’s] poor track record in tackling corruption, and tone down some of Grabar-Kitarovic’s populist and nationalist rhetoric, which damaged relations with Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

Milanovic, 53, takes office during Croatia’s EU presidency, bringing positive memories of his period in power. As prime minister, he headed a four-party leftist coalition that introduced a series of liberal measures and shepherded Croatia’s accession in 2013 as the 28th EU member.

Much needs to be done, however, if Croatia is to narrow the gap with other EU members. Besides corruption, the country of 4 million has been dogged by sluggish growth reflecting low productivity and imbalances stretching back to the Yugoslav era, which have held back foreign direct investment. Emigration is a big concern; since EU accession, over 5% of the population have left, which, coupled with a low birth rate, has made Croatia one of the world’s fastest-contracting countries.

Milanovic ran as an outsider to reinforce the sense that he is different from other politicians. In so doing, he took a leaf from the playbook of Slovakia’s Zuzana Caputova, who unexpectedly won the presidency last summer, and Romania’s Klaus Iohannis, who easily won re-election in November’s presidential election. In both cases, the new president has become far and away their country’s most popular and respected political figure. Milanovic is doubtless hoping to follow the same route.