Fulbright Experience in Croatia

By: Andrea Aldrich

As a Fulbright research fellow living and working in Zagreb, I have been given the unique opportunity to witness several exciting political phenomena that have informed not only to my research interests but can provide insight to many fields of political scientists. Nearly every month of my stay thus far has included important political and cultural events that have brought together the Croatian community and given me a glimpse into Croatian political life and national identity. These events have increased the depth of my understanding of Croatia and the region and allowed me to test the assumptions of my research. Some of the highlights of my stay include the opportunity to celebrate to the relationship between the United States and Croatia when I was introduced to the Croatian diplomatic community at a U.S. Embassy event for our presidential election. Here I was interviewed about the election and the nature of political competition in American. This interview appeared on Croatian TV during the national nightly news a few days later. I also attended a conference celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Zagreb which included scholars from Croatia, Europe, and the United States assessing Croatia’s political development. Shortly following this event, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia acquitted two Croatian generals on appeal for crimes during Croatia’s Homeland War. Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač were promptly returned to Croatia, creating much excitement in the city center and throughout the country. Croatians viewed this event as final closure on a turbulent period of its history, signifying that the country and its people were ready to move forward. Immediately following this event, former Prime Minister Ivo Sanadar was found guilty on corruption charges and sentenced to ten years in prison. This marked another step forward in Croatia’s break from the transitional period following its independence from Yugoslavia. It was no wonder Croatia’s upcoming entry to the European Union seemed like dull news with so much happening domestically that I could barely keep up. After the first of the year, the domestic scene began to shift its focus to the country’s upcoming entry into the European Union and my research became increasingly relevant.

One of the political phenomena that my dissertation examines is relationship between the behavior of members of the European Parliament (MEP) and candidate selection mechanisms within political parties. Therefore my stay is perfectly timed with Croatia’s entry into the EU as the country prepares to send its own parliamentarians to Brussels and Strasbourg next September. In February, this preparation came into the media as the elections MEPs entered public discourse. By following media reports and interviewing current parliamentary observers, I discovered the main issue in public debate was the timing of the elections, which must occur before Croatia officially joins the EU on July 1st. Division existed between the main parties in Croatia over whether or not to hold these elections at the same time as the local elections taking place on May 19th. The split on this issue resembles many of the divides in Croatian politics that are largely structured by competition between the two largest parties, the Christian Democratic Party HDZ (Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica), and the socialist SDP (Socialdemokratska partjia Hravatska).

Political competition has regularly revolved around these two major parties since Croatian independence in 1991. The main partner of the current ruling coalition is the SDP with Zoran Milanović as its president with a few smaller parties filling the ranks. The opposition party, the HDZ, originally argued for the elections to take place on the same day as the local elections. They argue that this will not only save millions of Kuna (Croatia’s local currency), but will also increase voter mobilization. Local elections, while important in their own right, only draw about 45% of the population, which is low by European standards. Many politicians fear turnout for the EP elections will fall below 20% if they are held separately.  Also, the HDZ generally does quite well in local elections throughout Croatia so the media speculated that same day elections will be an advantage for this party; thus further increasing competition on the issue. The SDP and the ruling coalition first argued against same day elections, not because of turnout but because European issues would be ignored in debate because local issues would take precedence. Croatia, like much of the world, is experiencing large scale economic problems that will certainly hurt re-election prospects of incumbents. It is likely that the SDP will experience a loss of vote share in both elections. The timing issue remained unresolved until March 1st, six weeks before the selected date of April 14th, 2013.

In addition, these elections are also important to the national parties and Croatian democracy because they will serve as the first time that Croatians will be able to cast individual votes for specific candidates. This has given me the unique opportunity to learn how changes in electoral design are viewed within parties and by candidates seeking election. Many different types of elections are used around the world and Croatians traditionally cast votes for parties only. Parties create lists of candidates and party leaders choose which representatives enter government office based on total vote share. Now, with the introduction of preferential voting, people can select individual candidates instead of just party lists. While Croatia’s party system has been quite stable since independence, the large parties are still very centralized and the majority of power is held by a just few leaders. Allowing for individual votes is one way to increase the influence of citizens in the political process and the politicians that I have interviewed are both excited and nervous about this possibility. Some candidates think this new possibility will help the smaller parties gain more seats. Some party members see it as an opportunity to introduce personalized campaigns and increase awareness of individual candidates. Other politicians are skeptical of the public’s ability to fully understand the new process.

Now as Croatia prepares for this election, the last few months of my Fulbright grant will entail its observation and many more interviews with candidates and party members. This experience has enabled me to see the theories we study in political science implemented in reality. It has been a rare opportunity to witness an immense amount of change and opportunity in an evolving political system. Not only has this increased the depth and accuracy of my own research, but it has also increased my understanding of Croatia and the region of Southeastern European as a whole. The opportunity is a once in a lifetime experience as Croatia is on the brink of entering the EU.