On Elections – an Interview with Nenad Zakošek, the Dean of the Faculty of Political Science

Zagreb, 14.04.2013 - U Hrvatskoj su u sedam sati otvorena birališta na kojima æe biraèi glasovati za izbor 12 èlanova u Europski parlament (EP) koji æe Hrvatsku u tom tijelu predstavljati od ulaska Hrvatske u Europsku uniju, 1. srpnja, do redovitih izbora za èlanove EP-a na razini cijele Unije, iduæe godine. Arhivska fotografija od 25.11.2007. godine prikazuje graðane dok glasuju. foto FaH/ Dario GRZELJ /ds

Nenad Zakošek, the Dean of the Faculty of Political Science, leader of the project, “Elections, Political Parties, and the Parliament in Croatia,” and a member of GONG‘s Council talked to Zdenko Duka about the upcoming elections, and provided some insightful commentary on the spate of investigations into corruption and the illegal campaign funding indictment brought against HDZ.

Nenad Zakošek, the Dean of the Faculty of Political Science, leader of the project, “Elections, Political Parties, and the Parliament in Croatia,” and a member of GONG’s Council talked to Zdenko Duka about the upcoming elections, and provided some insightful commentary on the spate of investigations into corruption and the illegal campaign funding indictment brought against HDZ.
-It seems as if the winner of the elections is already known. The Kukuriku Coalition, according to the latest Ipsos Puls poll has twice the support of HDZ, 39% to 20%, respectively. The coalition’s support is only getting stronger while HDZ’s continues to fall. Milanović’s rate is 46% and Jadranka Kosor’s 26%. Is it possible that the situation dramatically changes in the next 40 days?

One should always look closely at the way a particular poll has been conducted – whether it was done in the field or over the telephone. A slightly lower score is recorded for HDZ in the polls because their supporters are more suspicious; they more easily refuse the interview. In telephone-interview polls, HDZ voters are often indecisive, they don’t speak their mind. It is a kind of reserve. But professionally conducted polls and such are undoubtedly those conducted by Ipsos Puls that you mentioned; they have always predicted what was going to happen.
I believe that the coalition victory can only be tainted by some huge mistake in the campaign, i.e. a split within the coalition or an uncovering of some corruption affair that would burden a coalition partner. But such a mistake is definitely not Linić’s statement about calling on the IMF, for example.

-It has been the second example of Linić’s excess. However, Linić is probably realistic in predicting IMF engagement.

Yes, it might be a realistic option. But it is not in accordance with marketing.

-Do you think that this excess may have been previously agreed upon? It is not a bad idea to engage in both fronts – the marketing front and the other more realistic. Although, Milanović distanced himself from Linić.

Slavko Linić only conditionally mentioned the IMF. I don’t think it has been agreed upon. I believe that Linić is the type of player who is sufficiently independent and does not ask permission for media appearances that are usually attractive.

-And how do you evaluate HDZ’s campaign? 

As opposed to 2007, HDZ has not strategically thought out the campaign. They also have some individual performances, which differ from the statements given by the prime minister, Šeks, Luka Bebić. The cacophony is bigger than in the coalition parties. Sanader brilliantly managed the campaign in 2007; it was perfectly conducted and designed, they had huge financial resources, regardless of the fact that we have reason to be suspicious about the origin of that money today, which questions the legitimacy of the elections, i.e. HDZ’s election score. Without a doubt, however, the HDZ campaign in 2007 was much better conducted than the one in 2011.

-HDZ’s campaign has no content except that which is negative and directed against alleged communism and the reds?

One could easily predict which topics would be put up front in the HDZ campaign, but it doesn’t seem that they are very successful in implanting their ideas. The formula is simple: negative campaigning; mobilization against the red danger, gather all who want to prevent SDP from coming to power. On the other hand, there are three positive messages. The first is HDZ’s success in ending EU negotiations and Croatia’s accession to the EU. It is undoubtedly a fact that Jadranka Kosor unblocked these negotiations. The second is the message to the voters that Croatia is out of its recession due to government policies.

-However, this is highly doubtful?

It seems to me that the thesis about economic recovery has failed. Citizens do not trust it. The main reason for this is that economic trends are not unambiguously positive. For example, we still have growth in the unemployment sector, except during the tourist season. Industry production, the construction industry, trade, and the overall social product are volatile; there is still ambiguity about long-term growth. The third message regards the prime minister and HDZ’s success in combating corruption. This is not quite convincing, either, because everyone knows that HDZ has also been the biggest culprit of corruption at the highest levels. The problem lies in the fact that Jadranka Kosor can hardly mobilize the HDZ electorate by positive messages, particularly where it concerns reminding them of HDZ’s role in EU accession because HDZ voters are indifferent or even against this achievement. Jadranka Kosor probably knows that this pro-European message won’t bring many votes. It may influence only some voters close to the center, but she dissuades them by other, negative messages.

-What about her fight against corruption?

Yes, credit should go to the prime minister. But HDZ is really frightened that something else might come out of the closet. We are witness to speculations about tensions between the State Attorney’s Office and HDZ because no one can predict what facts might come to light before the elections in the investigations or court trials, particularly the one against the former prime minister. Consequently, the State Attorney’s Office can directly affect voters’ decisions. I think that it is obvious now that the government does not have control over the State Attorney’s Office. It is good; however, the same cannot be said for the period of rule under Ivo Sanader.

-I am not sure whether any political party in Europe could win the elections with the president of the party and former prime minister in jail, indicted on multiple counts, along with huge corruption scandals connected to some conspicuous and influential members of the same party.

You are right. And also, there is the impression that it has not been completely clarified. It is hard to believe that members of the top leadership of HDZ, who still hold their positions, didn’t know anything about illegal financing established by Ivo Sanader.

-And negative campaigning has a negative effect – HDZ is still losing support. Do we live in a different time? Are citizens more mature? 

Yes, but there is also another essential difference. Sanader succeeded in collecting votes from HSP and some smaller rightist parties in 2007. He sharpened the political rhetoric and practically marginalized the right. Today, after the sentence for Generals Gotovina and Markač, the right is trying to articulate itself independently, beyond HDZ. Their voters are more distanced from HDZ than they were in 2007. The protests at the beginning of this year had a role in this. I believe that Jadranka Kosor did not manage to attract voters on the right by her negative campaign against “the reds.” This is why various factions within the right will go to different smaller right profiled lists, from Kerum to Bandić, and various Croatian Party of Rights coalitions and parties. And a part of their voters will simply abstain from voting or will cross the ballot.

-I believe that it is unrealistic to expect that the actual right will get a serious amount of votes in this election. 

In earlier elections, radical right parties beyond HSP would combine for 8 to 10% of the total number of votes, but separately they were below the electoral threshold because votes dispersed to too many parties. The same might happen today.

-Can you compare the turning point at the end of 1999 with today’s situation? It seems to me that we are in an even more difficult economic condition today than we were in 1999. 

I don’t think the situation is worse today. We were in a crisis due to unsuccessful privatization and the collapse of three banks, the sanitization of which cost us a few billion dollars. However, it is true that Croatian foreign debt was much lower at the time.

-The political situation was worse then due to the heritage of long-term Tuđmanism.

Then we had a smaller decrease of BDP, banks needed to be sanitized and Tuđman decided to privatize the Croatian telecom network. He tried to win the elections by raising salaries. It is impossible today; there is no room for election gifts. HDZ tried not to have major cuts in this election year. It is postponed for the period after the elections. Another similarity of today’s situation with 1999 is the signs of disintegration within HDZ. The illness and then the death of Franjo Tuđman brought about a sort of paralysis to the party; they gained only 25% of the votes, i.e. almost half of what it was in the nineties. It seems that HDZ may have the same results today.

-There are some similarities in the coalitional organization of the opposition.

There were two coalitions in 1999 and today there is only one election list. This is why the choice today is simpler and the result, in a political sense, should be unambiguous. In the January 3rd, 2000 elections, HSS – the leader of the helping coalition of “the four” – could ask more for themselves and held an independent position within the governing coalition. Having a unique opposition list, realistic relationships among the coalition partners should be more clearly defined before the elections. The legitimacy of the coalition based on the electorate vote will be clear, which should lead to less disagreements between the coalition’s partners than there were after the 2000 elections. However, political reality will confirm this expectation.

-What are the political and ethical implications of a possible indictment against HDZ for dirty funds? The State Attorney’s Office has a deadline to begin the indictment or refuse it that is due before the elections.

The evidence connected to dirty funds should be cleared to the last detail because it is extremely dangerous when dirty funds are used in election campaigns. It leads to a complete distortion of the electoral competition because dirty funds provide an advantage on the public communication end of the media, which is impossible to compensate for. This is why it is extremely important that the State Attorney’s Office delivers an indictment if there is enough evidence for it that will show that HDZ, as a political party, is burdened by abuse and dirty funds. It seems that the State Attorney’s Office is finally doing their job and that the respective indictment has already been written. It is up to the voters to evaluate the responsibility of the party itself for using dirty funds in the presidential campaign of Jadranka Kosor in 2005 and the parliamentary elections in 2007, i.e. the possibly of dirty funds being used in some other campaigns.

-The legal provisions concerning campaign financing were more liberal in 2005; however it was obvious that twice as much was spent in comparison to what was reported.

Yes, the origin of the money was hidden. I believe that this fact can additionally weaken HDZ. Citizens monitor all that is going on and I believe that the citizens will monitor the court trial against Ivo Sanader. Here we have the first indictment for war profiteering.

-One can say that the EU incited the fight against corruption in Croatia. However, credit should be given to Jadranka Kosor because she enabled the State Attorney’s Office to operate more freely. And now she is saying – if the coalition wins – there will not be a fight against corruption! What is your opinion on this? What can happen in the transition of power? Will the fight against corruption really deflate? 

I would just like to point out that one of the main reasons for the failure of Račan’s government in 2003 was voter punishment for not being able to clean up and punish the criminal elements involved in privatization and transition. It was a sad picture of the overall functioning of the state apparatus. Some reforms in the judicial system were conducted, but citizens could not see them because there were no major cases as there are today. Now, the State Attorney’s Office, as well as the whole of the judiciary, can operate independently, they have more authority, and they are not being blocked politically. Nowadays, the circumstances are much more favorable than at the beginning of 2000. However, there is still a lot to be done on ensuring the inner integrity, quality control, and harmonization of the courts’ operation. It is absolutely important to prevent corruption in the justice system because its consequences are catastrophic. I hope that it will never happen again that the State Attorney’s Office politically calculated and avoided open confrontation with the executive branch. The new authorities should protect the independence of the judiciary system and finish the reforms of the legal system.
Jadranka Kosor may say that she removed such political obstacles. But the moment she removed the political obstacles – the whole process becomes independent of the political will. Today she does not deserve credit for the independent operation of the State Attorney’s Office.


-What is your opinion on the election system?

I believe that the time has come to talk about the election model. What is definitely missing is the possibility of personalizing choices. There are different ways to change this. Croatia can model itself after Germany: voters have two ballots – one for the party and the other for an individual. But it can be done differently, too. The model should be discussed. I believe that immediately after the elections an expert committee that would include members of the parliament, as well as experts and representatives of the civil society, should be set up. Using the help of the State Elections Committee, they should analyze all of the necessary changes needed for the electoral legislation, including correcting the present model of voting. It is time to annex our basic election system, but also to finally get a unique election bill that would integrate in a systematic way all of the various kinds of elections and their accompanying rules.


-How do you evaluate the coalition’s pre-election campaign?

I see three good things about it. First, they have offered a comprehensive program that covers all the areas of public policy. Of course, there are no clear answers for all of the vital issues, but the program can be a solid starting point for government policies. Also, there is no negative campaign (as was the case in 2007) – although there are exceptions – and they try to talk about topics that the coalition enforces. Second, they have chosen a formula that allows communication with voters: they say – here’s what we plan to do, but we want to hear what voters think about it. They began to travel around Croatia and organize meetings that enable direct contact with citizens. Dialogue with citizens is always a good idea, even if it is only a marketing strategy. Third, there is no excessive personalization of the campaign as was the case in 2007 – the leaders of the Kukuriku Coalition are not on the front lines that much, though we can see that many individuals appear in public. SDP’s message in 2007 was “People Are the Power” and “The Team”; everything was actually about Milanović and Jurčić. The idea of team work is much more expressed now.


-Branimir Glavaš, the sentenced war criminal, wants to be the holder of HDSSB lists. It is not prohibited by law, which is probably a legal oversight. How can this be resolved?

The US legal system provides for the possibility of abolishing some citizen’s rights in such instances. I don’t see any reason against resolving it in the same manner, with a sense for proportions. Citizens who have been sentenced for a felony should lose their passive right to vote during their sentence or even for a longer period, and they should also be banned from any active participation in elections and political life in general.

-If a person is sentenced, a mandate is taken. But Glavaš would not be a member of parliament; he would only be the holder of an election list.

It is also a political risk that his party would take. At present, it is only about Glavaš being the holder of the list. I believe that changes should be made so that there are no list holders who are not candidates on the lists at the same time. What we have is the result of HDZ’s tailoring of the electoral system that wanted to use the popularity of Franjo Tuđman, using his charisma to hide the mass of unrecognizable HDZ candidates. It should definitely be changed.