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Back to the future?

Six months ago, half-way through his mandate and without any valid explanation, then Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader announced that he was resigning from his position as head of Government and that of head of the majority HDZ party.  To journalists’ questions about the reasons of that completely unexpected move, Sanader had simply said:  “I have done my part of the job, the time has come for new people.  It is my final decision and I do not wish to discuss it.”  

Well, in the same totally unexpected way, six months later, Sanader has decided it was time to officially come back to politics and announced at a press conference that his decision to retire from politics was a mistake.  He is going to “activate” his honorary HDZ presidency and maybe even his statutory right to a seat in Parliament.

Both his departure last July and today’s return are indicative of how Ivo Sanader and the majority of Croatia politicians understand their job: their role is their private property, to play as they wish on the stage that is Croatia.  Croatian citizens are to be a benevolent but silent audience.  They are accountable to no one, responsible of  nothing.

But what happened that has prompted this dramatically orchestrated comeback?

Firstly, Jadranka Kosor, the woman who was handpicked by Ivo Sanader as his successor and had for years been his shadow and right hand, proved to be more than his puppet.  Many last summer thought that Sanader would continue to control Croatia’s Government through Ms. Kosor.  Regardless of what one thinks of her policies and her style, she quickly showed that she intended to fully exercise her power both within the HDZ and the Government.  She was prompt to flex her political muscle by silencing and/or marginalizing those who openly showed their preference for Sanader.  By reaching a rapid compromise with Slovenia (albeit one that probably has much less to do with her talents than with behind the doors negotiations conducted prior to her appointment as Prime Minister) on a border dispute that had blocked Croatia’s EU accession procedure for over a year, she gained enough popularity to implement highly unpopular economic austerity measures and to allow a series of high-level corruption scandals within state-controlled companies to unravel.  So despite her previous ties to Sanader, she showed remarkable astuteness in distancing herself from his politics and in particular from his political failures.  It must have been extremely irritating for her political mentor to see that he had been brushed aside so easily by his former friends and allies, and so quickly forgotten by the public.

Secondly, Andrija Hebrang, the HDZ  presidential candidate – also handpicked by Sanader – did poorly in the first round of the election, coming in third with only 12,04% of the votes.  This result was predictable, given a fairly poor campaign and the fact that traditional HDZ votes were split between a number of centre-right candidates, some of them dissident HDZ members.  When Sanader left office in July 2009, many had already speculated that he did it with the firm intention to come back as the “saviour of the HDZ/Croatia”.  His statement today about “a winning HDZ, not a party of 12%” confirms this hypothesis.

And thirdly, the majority of corruption scandals that were finally let out in the open (many of them had been unofficially suspected for years) and are now in the hands of the justice system, lead back in one way or another to the former Prime Minister.  The immunity offered by a seat in Parliament therefore probably seems quite appealing at a time when many of the cronies Sanader had entrusted with safeguarding his carefully built political system have shifted their allegiance.

Sanader’s theatrical comeback unfortunately comes at a dangerous time for Croatia.  In addition to the fact that the state’s foundations have been severely shaken by the economic crisis as well as by the poor and corrupt governance that seems to pervade in the public economic sector, the first round of the presidential election has left both Croatian society and its political scene as divided as ever.  Croatian political parties, leaders and voters are polarized by a campaign in which current Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandić, although a member of the Social Democrats until a few weeks ago (he refused to participated in his party’s primaries and was expelled when he declared his candidacy) appears to be riding mostly on the wave of right-wing voters’ support.  Bandić’s supporters are a strange mixture of bitter, dissatisfied citizens, ranging from the forgotten, poorer countryside folk, big city retirees that have seen their living standard rapidly fall, war veterans that feel ignored and despised, extreme right activists, Croats from Bosnia fearing they will lose their identity.  They are all hearing all too well the Mayor’s populist message based on his three “supreme values”: “the love of God, the love of the Homeland and the love of Man/Family”.

So while Sanader obviously wanted today’s press conference to mark the return of the “providential leader” who is going to save the weakened HDZ and therefore, in his eyes, Croatia itself, there is a serious risk that it will actually deepen the crisis the ruling party is facing, as well as the rift within Croatian society.  The results of the second electoral round on January 10th, as well as the determination and power of the current Prime Minister to keep her predecessor off the political chess board will tell us if 2010 will be a hopeful one for Croatia.

 

 

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