Former Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanović won Sunday’s runoff presidential election, narrowly beating the incumbent in a rebuke of the right-wing politics that have largely dominated the newest EU member in recent history.
With nearly all votes counted, Milanović, a social democrat, came in first at 52.7 percent, just 5 percentage points ahead of conservative Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović — the first democratically elected female president of Croatia in 2015 and the candidate supported by the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).
The role of president in Croatia is largely ceremonial, but the results could bode well for Milanović’s Social Democratic Party (SDP) in parliamentary elections at the end of the year.
“We are a small, but tough and cheerful nation,” Milanović said in his victory speech at the SDP’s headquarters. “If this narrow and clear victory has brought me a little faith in our society, I am a happy man.”
Grabar-Kitarović had served as president since 2015 and became internationally recognized as the checkerboard-clad leader cheering enthusiastically on the sidelines of the 2018 World Cup.
“Voters chose moderate change, but what we know for sure now is that in the next four or so years, Croatia will not go down the path of Poland or Hungary” — Dejan Jović, a political science professor at the University of Zagreb
During her reelection campaign, she tried to appeal to patriotic sentiments within the country and abroad, and received the endorsement of Croatian nationalist Julienne Bušić, who was convicted for her role in the 1976 hijacking of TWA Flight 355.
As president, Grabar-Kitarović also at times echoed far-right beliefs such as those voiced by veterans’ groups and TV personalities who support a revisionist history of the role of the country’s pro-Nazi World War II regime.
The Croatian Democratic Union was formed during the disintegration of Yugoslavia on a nationalist platform and led the country during the war in the Balkans in the 1990s, producing the country’s first democratically elected president, Franjo Tuđman.
But while Sunday’s results may indicate a rejection by voters of hard-right sentiments espoused by the ruling party, the change in attitudes isn’t so radical, according to Dejan Jović, a political science professor at the University of Zagreb.
“This is not some sort of radical turn. Voters chose moderate change, but what we know for sure now is that in the next four or so years, Croatia will not go down the path of Poland or Hungary,” Jović said, referring to concerns in Brussels about backsliding on liberal democratic principles.
Jović added that while the election loss may push the HDZ to “become transformed into a modern conservative party, not unlike the Christian Democratic Union in Germany,” it might also push those who supported the far-right wing of the party to create their own Euroskeptic group.
Milanović’s Social Democrats, on the other hand, are the successors to the League of Communists of Croatia and promote pro-European, socially progressive views as well as liberal market policies.
He promised to try to unite the country of 4 million despite its divisions.
“I will lead the country in dialogue, aware that there are differences between our citizens,” said Milanović, who served as prime minister from 2011 to 2016.
“We are a multi-party parliamentary democracy. It’s not perfect, but we don’t have better than that. Everything else is a way into autocracy.”