Croatia – Presidential election to be decided in runoff between centre-left incumbent Ivo Josipovic and conservative Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic

Presidential elections were held in Croatia on 28 December 2014. Incumbent Ivo Josipovic of the ruling Social Democratic Party ran for re-election and had three challengers. He finished the race almost neck and neck with Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, the candidate supported by the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union. As none of the candidates passed the 50% threshold, a run-off will be organized on 11 January 2015.

The Croatian Electoral Commission reported a turnout of 47.14%, slightly higher than in 2009, and the following results:

  • Ivo Josipovic (Social Democratic Party, SDP) – 38.46%
  • Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic (Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ) – 37.22%
  • Ivan-Vilibor Sincic (Zivi Zid) – 16.42%
  • Milan Kujundzic (Croatian DawnPeople’s Party, HZ) – 6.30%

Due to the limited powers of the head of state, the presidential contest was regarded as a key test for political parties before the 2015 general election. A severe economic crisis during which Croatia’s economy shrunk for six consecutive years has dented the popularity of both SDP and President Josipovic. Grabar-Kitarovic – NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy since July 2011, a former Ambassador of Croatia to the United States (2008 – 2011) and minister of European Integration (2003-2005) and Foreign Affairs (2005-2008) – has particularly focused her campaign on economic issues and constantly challenged President Josipovic’s ability to deal with the deep economic and social crisis.

The presidential election also drew attention to the good performance of the new populist parties set up by 25-year-old activist Ivan-Vilibor Sincic and Milan Kujundzic in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

The Croatian presidency is nowadays seen as a largely ceremonial institution, after the 2000 constitutional amendment shifted considerable power from the presidency to the parliament. Under the 1990 Constitution, the head of state had the power to appoint and dismiss the prime minister (Art. 98). Moreover, the government was responsible to both the parliament and the head of state (Art. 111).

Under the 2000 Constitution, the president has been constrained to nominate as candidate for the Prime Minister position the person who enjoys the support of the majority in the parliament after the distribution of seats (Art. 97). Moreover, the cabinet is solely responsible to the legislature (Art. 114). Thus, although the President retains some influence over the process of government formation and may be able to decide on the organization of early elections under certain circumstances (Art. 109-111), the head of state’s involvement in the making and breaking of governments has been considerably diminished.

Thus, among semi-presidential states, Croatia is classified as a president-parliamentary sub-type between 1991 and 2000 and as a premier-presidential sub-type since 2001.

Despite the decrease in the extent of presidential powers, the 2000 Constitution does grant the head of state several prerogatives that are not negligible. Although lacking the power to veto legislation, the President has the right to challenge parliamentary bills to the Constitutional Court before signing them into law (Art. 88). Additionally, he or she has an important say in the formulation and execution of foreign policy (Art. 98), is the commander of the armed forces (Art. 99), and has exceptional powers during the state of war (Art. 100). The president also has the right to initiate constitutional changes, which must be approved by a two-thirds majority of all MPs (Art. 142-144), and to call for a referendum at the government’s proposal and with the counter-signature of the Prime Minster (Art. 86).

Both candidates who will contest the runoff on 11 January promise to increase the influence of the presidency over internal politics. Ivo Josipovic has pledged to initiate a constitutional amendment so that citizens can ask for any subject that is supported by at least 10,000 signatures to be debated in parliament. Additionally, he is supporting the adoption of a mixed electoral system and a territorial reform that would reorganize Croatia’s 20 counties into 5 to 8 regions, for which he would be ready to call for referenda.

While Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic is against any modification of the Constitution, her presidential programme includes a wide range of social and economic measures. She promises to strengthen the rule of law, to protect the rights of the members of the armed forces and war veterans, to promote economic growth, and to solve the economic crisis for which she holds the centre-left government and President Josipovic responsible. However, she has not indicated the means through which she would be able to push these reforms given the absence of presidential powers over these domains.

Ultimately, the ability of either candidate to enforce their electoral promises after the 11 January poll depends not only on their formal powers but also on their relation with the government and the parliamentary majority. If Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic wins the presidency, then her influence on the political system might be limited during the period of cohabitation with the SDP-led government that would ensue until at least late 2015, when the next general election is scheduled. However, cohabitation might not be avoided after the next parliamentary election even if Ivo Josipovic wins the presidential runoff, as current polls show SDP losing ground in favour of a new left-wing rival, while HDZ remains the most popular party in the country.

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