The Croatian parliamentary elections are over and the party which lead the country for 17 out of 21 years of our independence has been dethroned. I believe a few words of reflection on the past 8 years are in order because they cast a very specific shadow on this election’s results.
The economy is as good a place to start as any. During the last two terms, the party in power (HDZ) made multiple budget rebalances per year common practice, putting Croatia in the company of countries like Zimbabwe and Uganda. This should come as no surprise since the person previously in charge of finance – I.Suker, the former minister of finance – went so far as to lie that he got his economics degree no less than 14 years earlier than he actually managed it. Over the years, the government poured mind-boggling amounts of money – billions of Euro – into our shipyards, none of which still function properly today. The immensity of the mistake is probably best illustrated by the fact that the shipyards would have lost much less money if they simply paid the employees to stay at home and didn’t build anything. What the government was doing was buying support from some 35 000 employees working in or around ship construction and their families – at the taxpayers’ expense. The country has been steadily falling into debt and is now so indebted that we are a single step away from having our state bonds labelled by independent agencies as junk – or, as it is politely said, “speculative bonds”. To put it another way, people say “Spain and Portugal are unstable, but Greece is on the brink of collapse”, but as recently as May 2011, Greece’s credit rating was better than Croatia’s. Finally, Croatia is about 30 places behind neighbouring Slovenia and Montenegro when it comes to overall competitiveness. If you lived on another planet and only knew these two facts – large debt increase, poor competitiveness – you would easily conclude that borrowed money was not used to increase Croatia’s ability to produce and earn – the only possible valid excuse for such a debt increase.
Then there is the small matter of rampant crime. In recent years, at least two former HDZ ministers (B. Roncevic, D. Polancec) have been found guilty in a court of law (on charges of corruption): so was a founding member of the party, N. Jurica. The former minister of internal affairs, I. Kirin, was caught spending his time hunting with a Croatian general who was supposed to be spending his parole under house arrest. As of the moment of this article’s writing, formal charges are being prepared against the party’s former secretary (M. Barisic) and secretary of state (B. Matkovic). The former party spokesman (R.Macek) is buying his freedom by testifying against the former PM. On top of all of this, the former prime minister himself already spent time in an Austrian detention facility after he was caught trying to slip out of reach of Croatian police: a court is currently considering most serious corruption charges against him, as well. Finally, in spite of vigorous denials of accusations made by the opposition, charges are currently being prepared by the Office for the Prevention of Corruption and Organized Crime (USKOK) against the political party itself: HDZ (as a legal entity) is now being prosecuted by the state attorney. In a way, it was only a matter of time, considering that on top of all the crimes its leadership has been involved in, the party illegally financed election campaigns using off-the-records money and that at least 500 000 Euro was used to buy off local media.
It can hardly be said that things have improved significantly now that some of the aforementioned functionaries have been imprisoned. The minister of transport (B. Kalmeta) makes winning the lottery look like child’s play, compared to the chances of him still walking free, having been linked by the media with as many affairs as he has. The minister of health (D. Milinovic) lied about the size (and, quite likely, the cost) of the house he is building for himself, supposedly to avoid inconvenient questions about how he will settle the sizeable bill. The current party leader (J. Kosor) failed to set high standards of statesmen conduct herself: she attempted to manipulate the public by lying about the cost of a national referendum (in a clumsy attempt to avoid it. The next attempt was much better, though…); she stalled serious changes for the better by not calling for an election when her former PM resigned (exactly the opposite of what the Australian PM, J. Gillard, did); she is being directly accused by the former PM in an official organised crime investigation; her defence in the case of a harmful contract regarding the sale of a state-owned oil company (INA) was that she didn’t read what she was signing…the list just goes on.
As hard to believe as it might be, the party I just described won over 25% of all votes (and 3 out of 3 votes from voters living abroad, by the way). This leaves me with a single question: what lesson can one learn from the results of this election? The only one I see is that a criminal organization disguised as a political party can ruin the country’s economy and lie and cheat their way through each term and a quarter of our population won’t notice anything wrong or they don’t believe we can do better. I am hard-pressed to say which is worse.