In wake of presidential defeat, instability hits Croatia’s ruling party

Croatia’s centre-right ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) is currently at risk of fragmenting under the pressure of in-fighting, which has revealed significant factional rifts. 

Ahead of HDZ party elections on March 15, former foreign minister Miro Kovač has announced that he will run for the party leadership against incumbent Andrej Plenković, the Croatian prime minister (pictured above, centre). 

This is symptomatic of the rift between the moderate and conservative factions of the party, which vice president Milijan Brkić argues rose to the surface during a 2018 vote on the Istanbul Convention, a convention put forward by the Council of Europe to combat domestic violence. This resulted in more conservative members of the government, and public, protesting against its ratification, Mr Kovač included.

“We did not need that divisiveness. We should have approached the issue of domestic violence differently,” says Mr Brkić. 

Mr Brkić has since come out to endorse Mr Kovač, accusing the current Mr Plenković of a destructive personality cult, surrounding himself with those not loyal to the party, but himself.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Kovač has echoed these sentiments in his campaign, vowing to put the party back on the straight and narrow.

“The membership will now have a great chance to show, without fear, to whom it wants to show confidence for leadership. We are convinced that this is us, we want the HDZ to be a normal, not left, but democratic party that wants Croatia to be prosperous, to have those who are honest and capable in power in Croatia . We are for a pure Croatia with clean hands, and only the HDZ can do that,” he has said.

In recent months, the HDZ has experienced major setbacks, including losing the presidency when the incumbent and pre-election favourite, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, a close ally of Mr Plenković, lost out to Zoran Milanović, a social democrat.

This is a trend that Mr Kovač aims to reverse.

However, he has ruled out a grand coalition with the Social Democratic party, partly due to differing ideology and voter base. “We must not clash with our voters, members and sympathisers, or with people who have traditionally patriotic attitudes,” he added.

This is not the first time Mr Kovač has squabbled with the prime minister. In 2018 Mr Plenković sacked Mr Kovač, along with his conservative colleague Davor Ivo Stier from their senior posts, citing insufficient trust between them. 

The inter-party elections will operate on a “one member, one vote” basis, with an expected 220,000 party members to participate. This will bring factional problems to the surface, with HDZ sources telling the daily Croatian newspaper Jutarnji List, “Now begins a war in the party, with everyone against Plenković.”

The Croatian parliament is set for elections this year, and rumours say Mr Plenković will call for them immediately after the end of the EU presidency it currently holds, in June. Analysts say this could give him an opportunity to quash opposition within the party It could, however, simultaneously expose the party to new vulnerabilities. 

Mr Milanović will take office on February 19, and has vowed to restore hope and heal divisions. He is also likely to be another thorn in Mr Plenković’s side.