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Graft scandals threaten conservatives' bid for third term in Croatia election

Published 12/04/2024, 11:03
Updated 12/04/2024, 11:36
© Reuters. Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic speaks to the press as he attends a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium March 21, 2024. REUTERS/Johanna Geron/ File photo

By Antonio Bronic

ZAGREB (Reuters) - Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic will bid for a third term in Croatia's parliamentary election next week but polls indicate his conservative HDZ party will lose its majority after a welter of graft scandals.

If the outcome puts a Social Democrat-led coalition into power, it could change the small southeastern European Union country's stance on major issues such as support for Ukraine in its war with Russia.

Plenkovic's main rival, President Zoran Milanovic, who said he would resign to become the head of government if his Social Democratic Party (SDP) wins, opposes aid for Ukraine unlike the majority of EU member states.

For many Croats, however, the country's topsy-turvy domestic politics looms larger.

The HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union), which has dominated politics since Croatia's independence from a crumbling federal Yugoslavia in 1991, has overseen its accession to the EU and the euro zone, and a tourism boom along its stunning Adriatic coast.

In January, the average salary had grown 8.6% since the same month in 2023, and Croatia posted economic growth of 2.8% last year, well above the 27-nation EU average.

But opposition to what many critics see as a pattern of corruption and nepotism during Plenkovic's tenure has grown. He denies wrongdoing, but his reputation has taken a hit.

The most recent poll for the April 17 election published on state television on Wednesday indicated the HDZ could be knocked back to 60 seats from 66 now in the 151-seat parliament.

That would cost the HDZ the slim majority it maintained with an additional 11 seats held by minority and diaspora allies.

The latest poll put the SDP at 44 seats, three more than in 2020, with the right-wing anti-immigration Homeland Movement set to come third with 14 seats and the ecologist Mozemo with nine.

To oust the HDZ, the right and the greens could become kingmakers in a new SDP-led coalition including ethnic minorities and diaspora lawmakers, who are guaranteed a role in government under Croatian law.

"Summing up the mandate of Andrej Plenkovic, some 30 ministers in total have left the government (over eight years) because of corruption and this was used by the opposition in the campaign," said Ivan Rimac, law professor at Zagreb University.

"There have been affairs linked to misuse of EU funds, losses in public companies," Rimac said.

In one such case, a European Public Prosecutor's Office inquiry led to the arrest in November of 29 people including the dean of the university's geology faculty for alleged money laundering linked to the misapplication of EU development funds.

"When after April 17 we get the chance to form a government, Croatia won't be the same, not only because there won't be (state) theft, but because we will take care of the real problems facing our citizens," said SDP president Pedja Grbin, alluding to inflation and a shortage of affordable housing.

© Reuters. Croatian President Zoran Milanovic speaks to the media at the Presidential Palace in Zagreb, Croatia, April 11, 2024. REUTERS/Antonio Bronic

A large anti-government protest was held in February when correspondence between Attorney General Ivan Turudic and an ex-government official under investigation by Croatia's Office for Suppression of Corruption and Organised Crime emerged. Turudic, who was a senior judge at the time, denied wrongdoing.

"Even if there have been mistakes, we are fixing them," Plenkovic told supporters at a rally in Zagreb earlier this month, "and what we have is energy, enthusiasm, devotion and love for our homeland."

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