Ideas 27 Voices for Europe | Croatia

Will the Croats, marked by mistrust, give in to populist sirens?

In Croatia, not only the voter turnout will be an interesting indicator, but also the answer to one of this election's most burning issues: The Europe-wide surge of the nationalist right.

Published on 6 May 2019 at 11:29
Miguel Ángel García  | Zagreb.

On the eve of the vote for the European Parliament, a group of European historians sent a dramatic open letter to the public, warning that the EU project is in disrepair and falling apart. The narratives of nation states which were dominant in the past are no longer sustainable, we need to recognize our pluralism, not to give up the feeling of unity, they write. No politician has missed this opportunity, so French President Emmanuel Macron sent an open letter to European citizens, advocating for the "European renaissance" and against "nationalism that exploits the anger of citizens".

Both of these letters should motivate citizens to participate in the upcoming elections. But is this really going to happen, especially in the Member States from Eastern Europe? During the last European elections in 2014, for example, the participation rate in Croatia was one of the lowest in the EU, only slightly over 25 percent.  Even worse was the participation rate in the Czech Republic – 18.20% – and Slovakia – 13.05 percent (the lowest rate) –  while Poland and Hungary scored slightly better, where participation rate was 23.83 percent and 28.97 percent, respectively. All these countries had a much lower participation rate in elections than the Western Member States. Why are their citizens not motivated to vote?             

The truth is that the EU is most often referred to as a "policeman", i.e. alerting Member States to corruption or failure of the judiciary or some other irregularity. When it comes to EU funding, Croatia is at the losing side for an obvious reason: There are not enough people who know the mechanisms of the EU funding, hence the country cannot fully reap the benefits of available EU funds.  On the other hand, the EU is not too popular because it is apparent that instead of real support for democratization, rule of law and anti-corruption measures in this region, the EU has chosen stability and has agreed to work with authoritarian, corrupt regimes.  

However, there are problems that do not have so much to do with external circumstances, as with psychology.  In general, citizens do not like to vote and hardly decide to go out for elections, even for national elections.  And this is actually the most interesting part because they are directly concerned when they vote for national elections, while the EU is still far and large.  The participation rate in the general parliamentary elections in Croatia was about 52.59 percent in 2016.

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Could it be said that the voters are lazy? No, they more probably do not see any sense in voting.  From the perspective of a regular voter, the so-called “ordinary man”, the experience of almost three decades of life in this kind of democracy tells him the following: Vote or not vote, you will be dealt the same hand.  One party is like the other, because all of them are against us the ordinary people. They only promise and when they come to power, they start to behave quite differently. They all lie and steal.

It is an obvious mistrust of political elites as well as of democracy itself - a phenomenon known in other Eastern European countries.  The worst thing is that the citizens are right, the fact is that some political systems are called democratic and they have basic democratic institutions.  Yet, the power functions are the same as in the old authoritarian system, so democracy exists only as an empty form.

The Eurobarometer shows that 79 percent of respondents in Croatia have no confidence in political parties, and 64 percent of them are not satisfied with the functioning of democracy in the country.  This is what makes voters unwilling to vote, who think that voting is a procedure that nobody is obliged to do unless it is obligatory. It should not be forgotten that democracy has never reigned in these parts of the world and that authoritarian traditions are not easily dispensed with in political terms.  They are especially to be dispensed with in psychological terms, and this is reflected on these elections as well. 

It should be added that many citizens of the former Socialist countries are supportive of strong leaders.  In a democratic process, you need to listen to various ideas and programmes, weigh the arguments and make decisions.  Democracy is complicated, but if there is a leader you believe, you do not need to do anything. In Eastern Europe, Vladimir Putin is actually becoming more and more popular as the followers of Viktor Orbán or Jarosław Kaczyński are growing.  This phenomenon of illiberal democracy was completely unpredictable.  And what is particularly worrying is the fact that it is a fruit of democracy itself (albeit a transitional one).

Perhaps the substantial difference between the attitude towards voting in the east and west of the EU, which obviously still exists, is best demonstrated by a recent Eurobarometer survey: More than half of the Slovaks will not vote for the European elections because they think their voice "does not mean anything" – while voters in Denmark are convinced that their voice is not only important, but voting is their democratic duty.

Everyone who was convinced in 1989 that Socialist states had changed enough to move the political system so that the transformation of society could be successful, was very deceived.  This did not take into account the time factor. The system can change overnight – but not habits, traditions, customs, and everything we call the mentality of a region, or of a country like Croatia.  Sociologist Ralph Dahrendorf wrote that it takes six months to change the political system, it takes six years to transform the economic system and it takes sixty years to change the society.

That is why EU elections in these countries will be extremely interesting.  In Croatia, not only the voter turnout will be an interesting indicator, but also the answer to one of this election's most burning issues: The Europe-wide surge of the nationalist right. Does the swing towards authoritarianism at all bother Croatian voters? Or will they rather contribute to further increasing right-wing influence in the EU? If the future of the EU depends on voters in Croatia and Eastern Europe, it is poorly written.  

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