Saturday, February 05, 2005

Where More Isn't Merrier

When he announced a bid for the post of Zagreb mayor, Boris Mikšić (Boris Miksic) said that he won’t form a new party because there are “too many political parties in Croatia”. Of course, this is just an excuse for lack of organisational abilities and political experience necessary for such endeavour, which Mikšić displayed during his post-election debacle. However, his words are more or less in tune what most of Croatian political establishment and the people in the street have been telling for years.

At this time, there are somewhere between 80 and 100 political parties registered in Croatia. For the nation of 4.5 million inhabitants this seems a lot. But overwhelming majority Croatians, including political pundits are (in many cases blissfully) unaware that most of those parties exist. All that changes during election campaigns when election laws force television, radio and other public media to give equal space to any political party that had fielded candidates. In practice, this means that anybody trying to find out what some serious mainstream party stands for has to withstand barrage of fringe candidates and personalities, many of them more fit for some institutions other than parliaments or assemblies.

And after every such election campaign there are calls for the laws to be changed in order to have as little political parties as possible.

Another reason why Croatians don’t like large number of political parties is the fact the country is being ruled by coalition governments for the past five years. It is perceived that too much depends on small parties who are always able to paralyse serious decision-making or have too much influence over budget, personnel and other policies.

However, the most important reason is in the confusion that large number of political parties create among average Croatians, and that includes even the parties that are perceived to be “premier league”. Ideology plays little or no part in the way Croatian political parties are formed or perceived in public – any comparison between political platforms would show that most Croatian political parties are more-or-less ideologically identical. The differences are mostly in terms of rhetoric or, in the case of HDZ and SDP, based on the way their average members perceive WW2. In terms of practical policies situation is even more confusing. HSLS, which is supposed to be “liberal” party had many of its prominent members advocating ban on abortion. SDP, which was nominally social-democratic leftist party, pushed for privatisation and labour laws that would put Pinochet and Thatcher to shame. HDZ, which is supposed to be embodiment of Croatian right wing, demanded, at least while in opposition, restoration of social benefits that even the looniest of the left in post-Communist countries view as unrealistic.

Throughout years all this was used as a pretext for number of political parties, at least those relevant, to be limited via electoral legislation.

Interestingly enough, all those moves were made in Tudjman years, when HDZ had more than solid majority in Sabor and when the big number of parties wasn’t looking as annoying as it looks today.

Those moves date even to the actual start of multi-party democracy in Croatia. In 1990 Josip Manolić (Josip Manolic), who used to be Tudjman’s No. 2 at the time, floated idea of Croatia adopting two-party system. HDZ was supposed to transform into centre-right party very much like Christian Democrats in many European countries, while the ex-Communist SDP was to transform into centre-left party very much like European Social Democrats. Manolić’s clever plan was to have any eventual opposition to HDZ steered towards the party that could always be branded by its Yugoslav and Communist party.

Few years later Manolić fell out of favour, but the new idea of reducing number of Croatian political parties was introduced. It was never spelled out, but it was very palpable to those who followed HRT, state-run television and its editorial choices of politicians to represent opposition. Almost always those opposition politicians only to two parties – liberal HSLS and agrarian HSS. Even at the time commentators noticed strange similarity between HSLS and SD - Democratic Party, as well as the similarity between HSS and ZSL - United Peasant’s Party. Since SD and ZSL were allowed to exist in 1945-1989 Poland, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to conclude what party was supposed to be Croatian equivalent of PURP and what Croatian democracy was supposed to look under it.

At the eve of 2000 elections, Mirjana Kasapović (Mirjana Kasapovic), Globus political commentator which always can be read as the Voice of the Establishment, wrote the piece in which she complained about the too many parties on Croatian political scene and called for electoral laws and other measures to reduce that number to four – one centre-right, one centre-left, one far right and one strict centre. Centre-right was supposed to be HDZ, while the other roles were supposed to be filled by SDP, HSP and HSLS. Since the latter three weren’t unlikely to form any kind of governing coalition, this scheme more-or-less guaranteed that HDZ will continue to be in power.

However, despite the rhetoric and despite the ultimate desires behind the rhetoric, number of political parties remained high not only in Croatia, but even in Sabor.

There are various reasons for that. The most important is tendency of Croatian political parties to splinter rather than allow various factions to exist within single party. So, despite all the legislation directed towards making few strong parties those strong parties tend to fracture into many smaller ones. HSLS, once the leading opposition party in Croatia, is the one of the victims of such practice.

Another reason is in lack of ideological diversity that created void filled by single-issue parties that voters can identify with more clearly. Those parties tend to be smaller because of the limited voting base – pensioners, ethnic minorities, farmers etc. Croatia being made out of very individual regions contributes to this phenomenon by adding regionalist parties to the mix; sometimes they don’t participate in any elections other than local, but it can change depending on the circumstances.

Finally, big parties also contribute to the high number of smaller parties by creating joint tickets. Many of smaller parties enjoy support in single digits, and some enjoy even less. However, those few votes can, at times, make all the difference in a very close election, and November 2003 elections were very close. Big parties, therefore, are more willing to sacrifice a Sabor seat or two in favour of hopeless losers than to risk losing Sabor majority because of puny number of votes.

Local and regional politics, where coalitions tend to be very different from those on national levels, also allow for many parties to survive.

In the end, the high number of political parties in Croatia might look annoying and confusing to many, but it is more of a symptom than a problem. It all depends on the human factor – the people who form the party and the people who vote for those parties. So, any attempt to reduce the number of parties through legislation is doomed to failure until that issue is addressed. And engineering human character is much more difficult than passing election laws.

Finally, the answer to the question “how many political parties Croatia should have” is already given in the most legitimate way possible ties. While the pe problem. The re very close. Big parties, there- on the elections and by those very people those parties are supposed to represent.


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