As the ruling party reels from charges of fraud and corruption, analysts ponder the long-term impact.
By Drazen Remikovic for Southeast European Times in Zagreb -- 28/11/11
Croatia's Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor kicks off the ruling centre-right HDZ party's campaign for the upcoming December parliamentary elections in Zagreb. [Reuters]
Corruption scandals against Croatia's ruling HDZ party shook the country's political landscape. But do they mark the opening of a new era of transparency?
According to media reports, the Office for Suppression of Corruption and Organised Crime (USKOK) is looking into the party's use of more than 4m euros raised during parliamentary elections campaigns in 2003 and 2007, and during the presidential election campaign in 2005, when current prime minister Jadranka Kosor was the HDZ candidate.
At the same time, USKOK has probed allegations that the party used the Fimi media company as a front for sucking money out of state companies and ministries and transferring it to party coffers and the pockets of key leaders.
Dragan Zelic is executive director of GONG, an organisation that is engaged in monitoring the elections. He says discrepancies uncovered by his group should be enough to merit an investigation.
"At the parliamentary elections in 2007, we found that HDZ spent [double the amount] presented in the reports. The difference was obvious -- however, no one reacted," Zelic told SETimes.
GONG also found that millions were paid to HDZ from unknown sources during 2006 and 2007.
Ivo Sanader, former party leader and top advisor to Kosor, is charged with taking illegal kickbacks in dealings with the troubled Austrian Hypo Bank in the early 1990s, when he was deputy foreign minister. He was arrested this summer in Austria and extradited to Croatia to stand trial.
The former prime minister is also accused of financing his party through unlawful means. Amongst other things, he is being investigated for allegedly obtaining 10m euros in kickbacks from the Hungarian energy company MOL in return for granting it control over Croatia's oil and gas markets.
Croatian media reports say Ivan Jarnjak, vice-president of HDZ, is suspected of having participated in the corruption scandal as well.
Transparency International of Croatia President Nikola Kristic told SETimes that the investigation is a vital first step.
"Pictures from the courtrooms are the biggest warnings to Croatian citizens. There was not even one campaign which we could say was absolutely transparent," Kristic said.
Niko Milickovic, 41, from Zagreb told SETimes that he has not voted for years, and that political situations like this one only contribute to his choice.
"Everyone is the same. They don’t want to run the state but to steal more and more money from the state budget. The same characters have been on the political scene for years, and no one new has shown up. Therefore, I don’t have anybody to vote for," Milickovic said.
"This scandal is creating a poor picture of Croatia and I think that many citizens will not vote this year. People are losing trust in the election process and politicians, and with these cases a further loss of trust in politics is happening," Zarko Puhovski, a political analyst and professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Zagreb told SETimes.
Puhovski said that HDZ is trying to retain voters by appealing to patriotism. Herzegovina, where Croats are the majority, still seems to be solidly behind the ruling party.
Nearly 300,000 Croats from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) who have Croatian citizenship are expected to vote in the elections.
The diaspora in BiH has a special way of voting: people can vote in BiH where voter stations are opening at Croatia's embassy and consulates, and they can also return to Croatia, where their places of residence are located.
NGOs and opposition parties have objected strongly to the so-called "double voting system", saying it gives HDZ an unfair advantage. Croatia's authorities promise that they will resolve the problem by reducing the number of polling stations in BIH and ultimately abolishing dual residence.
Even the double-vote system may not be enough to save HDZ this time around, however.
"Voters should do everything to prevent the ruling party to come back to power," Predrag Miranovic, 34, from Varazdin, said.
"I am unable to vote in Bosnia, but if I could, I would definitely go there to vote one more time. Just against HDZ," Miranovic told SETimes.