Croatian Premier Plenkovic Suffers Setback in Tight Election

(Bloomberg) -- Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic suffered a setback in a tight national election as he confronted a challenge from President Zoran Milanovic, who has derided military aid to Ukraine.

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Plenkovic’s center-right Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ, was on track to secure 60 seats in Croatia’s 151-member parliament, short of the majority needed to stay in power after the vote Wednesday, according to projections based on a tally of more than 90% of polling stations by the State Election Commission. The Social Democrats, which Milanovic wants to lead as the next prime minister, were behind with 42.

Both main parties said they would move ahead with cobbling together a majority, though the coalition math suggests that neither has an easy path to form a government. With a surge in turnout, the prime minister’s party lost ground compared with 2020.

At risk is European Union unity over aid to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia for its invasion. Croatia under Plenkovic has been a stalwart EU supporter of Ukraine, while Milanovic has denounced NATO’s expansion in response to the Kremlin’s invasion in 2022, a conflict he’s deemed “not our war.”

A Milanovic-led government could push Croatia closer to a group of EU nations including Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Slovakia, whose government under Robert Fico has halted weapons deliveries to Kyiv. Plenkovic lashed out at the president during the campaign, saying Milanovic would push Croatia, the EU’s newest member state since joining the bloc in 2013, “into a Russian world.”

A former prime minister, Milanovic threw open the election campaign by unexpectedly declaring his bid for the premiership last month. The move prompted Croatia’s top court to declare the run “irreconcilable” with his duties as head of state. Milanovic responded by hurling insults at the judges and refusing to resign the presidency until he has a majority.

Corruption Allegations

Plenkovic had expected an easier path to a third term in power, buoyed by his record of adopting the European single currency and steering the nation of 3.9 million into the EU’s visa-free travel zone. But his party has struggled to shake off accusations of corruption, a cloud that’s lingered for more than a decade since the indictment of former HDZ leader and premier, Ivo Sanader.

Seven ministers left the cabinet during Plenkovic’s first term over a string of corruption cases, with several in various stages of investigation and indictment. Milanovic has capitalized on the public frustration.

Homeland Movement, a right-wing nationalist grouping, came third with 14 seats, though the two main parties will likely avoid coalition building with them so as not to alienate their voters or potential partners.

The centrist Bridge party, which won 11, has feuded with Plenkovic. Left-leaning Mozemo, which secured 10 seats, has said it may support a Social Democratic-led government. Eight further seats are reserved for ethnic minorities and three for Croatians abroad; both groups have supported the ruling coalition in the past.

Croatia’s economy has been one of the fastest-growing in the EU in the last two years, benefiting from access to EU funds and the euro-area entry in 2023. The government forecasts economic growth of 2.8% this year.

Plenkovic, a 53-year-old former diplomat and lawyer by training, has led the Adriatic Sea nation since 2016, the country’s longest-ruling premier since independence in 1991. The HDZ, founded as Croatia’s dominant nationalist party in 1989 as Yugoslavia was on the verge of collapse, has governed in coalitions with several smaller parties and minority lawmakers.

Milanovic, 57, led Croatia from 2011 to 2016 before being elected president in 2020. He’s gained a following among Croatian voters with increasingly vitriolic attacks against political opponents. He’s called Plenkovic a “protector of crime and corruption” and a “flaming badger.”

After the Constitutional Court in Zagreb pushed back on his premiership bid, he hectored the justices as “prostitutes” and “illiterate mobsters.”

(Updates tally in second paragraph.)

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