The sharp-tongued president livening up Croatia’s election

The involvement of Croatia’s sharp-tongued president in the country’s parliamentary election on Wednesday may not be constitutional. But it is certainly livening up what had threatened to be a predictable affair.

The country’s parliamentary polls tend to follow a pattern. A centre-left coalition led by the Social Democrats (SDP) runs against the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), whose support runs from centre-right to right-wing nationalist.

Most of the time, the HDZ wins. It consistently reaps the rewards of a large membership base and strong organisation - though opposition parties claim that patronage and corruption are just as influential.

But this election looks like it might be different. And that is all down to the presence of Zoran Milanovic.

He has consistently been rated as the country’s most popular politician since he became president four years ago, even though as head of state he has little actual power in running the country.

So, announcing that he would be the SDP’s candidate for prime minister - the most senior political position in Croatia - meant that all bets were off.

"The elections were already decided before that move," says Kresimir Macan, a political analyst and consultant.

"It was obvious that the ruling party, the HDZ, would be in a position to make a new governing coalition quite easily. But then Milanovic started a crusade against corruption and everything he says [the current] Prime Minister, Andrej Plenkovic, stands for."

"People may not approve of Milanovic as president, but they like the way he talks."

Getty Images A man walks past election posters in Croatia Getty Images

Whatever the result of the election, Mr Milanovic is likely to remain centre stage

Promoting the president as a potential prime minister had an immediate impact on the opinion polls. The previously yawning gap between the SDP and HDZ narrowed significantly. Smaller parties started smacking their lips at the prospect of being kingmakers in the formation of a new government.

But then the judiciary intervened. Croatia’s constitution insists that the president should not be a party-political figure - but act as the head of state for all citizens. And the Constitutional Court duly ruled that Mr Milanovic could play no part in the election campaign - unless he resigned.

The president’s response was, predictably, one of outrage. He accused the judges of doing the bidding of the HDZ - "the gangster clique", as he put it.

Just for good measure, he described the country’s senior jurists as "peasants" and labelled their judgement "illiterate".

For Mr Milanovic, this was very much on-brand. Officially, he is no longer a candidate in the election, but that has not stopped him from travelling around the country and launching invective at the HDZ.

This has been highly discomfiting for Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, who has been in office since 2017. He finds himself having to respond to the president’s accusations and comments, despite Mr Milanovic’s lack of an official role in the campaign.

This was very much the situation on a sunny late afternoon in the capital, Zagreb, when the prime minister attended an event at a children’s playground in the city and faced the media under the shade of some nearby trees.

Prime Minister Plenković

Prime Minister Plenković has found himself having to respond to the president’s accusations and comments

He rattled off a list of his government’s achievements - and set out his plans for his next term. But reporters still wanted to hear his views about the president’s latest comments.

"It’s bizarre," Mr Plenkovic told the BBC.

"I’m trying to minimise the negative effects of the unconstitutional acts that were committed by the president. The Constitutional Court couldn’t have been clearer. For us, it’s the continuation of a very odd behaviour, to be very polite, for the BBC."

The president, on the other hand, relishes being impolite. And he is not just rude about the prime minister and his party.

People in neighbouring Bosnia, illegal immigration, and military aid to Ukraine have all been lashed by Mr Milanovic’s sharp tongue. Meanwhile, he has spoken admiringly about Russia’s military prowess.

These are all unusual positions for an ostensibly centre-left leader to adopt. Not to mention worrying for people who would rather Croatia did not have a populist government.

For now, however, many on the left are hoping that the president is playing a cunning game, rather than revealing his true character.