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The Predominant Party System in the Post-communist Croatia

Some Remarks

Vít Hloušek, Maxmilián Strmiska

It is possible to use various perspectives which enable us to make judgements on a genesis of party and political arrangement in Croatia in the 1990‘s. These perspectives include different methods of prefiguration of the field of study and presuppose a usage of different research approaches and strategies marked by various heuristic potentials. At the same time, it is obvious the character of a perspective having been chosen as a starting point predetermine an evaluation of socio-political transformation and Croatian transition to democracy in general, including comparison of its results with similar processes in other post-communist countries. Regardless of a possibility to use different models and methodological bases it is hardly possible to imagine an analysis of Croatian party and political arrangement that would ignore the problem of an establishment of a particular predominant party system in the post-communist Croatia. This brief article intends to be a partial contribution to the typology of Croatian party system; it is not designed as its comprehensive description. We pay our attention to the several selected and – in terms of party systems theory – key aspects of the formation process of this remarkable arrangement. Of course, we primarily concentrate on the main points in the genesis of a dominant position of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) and on the development of respective patterned party interactions within Croatian context.

The Making of a Predominant Party Arrangement

Our starting point can be stated as follows: rather than to explain why a party like HDZ could emerge within the Croatian context and why it could reach such an important success in the first “free” and competitive elections, it is our main concern to give an explanation why HDZ’s starting predominant position and role were successfully reproduced in the following stages of the Croatian party arrangement development as well.
Electoral victory of HDZ in spring 1990 was not a particularly remarkable or extraordinary event. This party could be regarded as a Croatian counterpart of anticommunist umbrella organisations or “movement parties” (Ágh 1998a: 104) which, in the initial stage of democratization, played exclusively important role in a series of post-communist countries. At first it was possible to consider election success of HDZ not only as “normal” but – in terms of an unfoldment of transition to democracy – as an event being benign in principle. But this could be said only in the beginning. As for the following development, the importance of the traits that the Croatian Democratic Community had in common with more or less liberal-democratic, anticommunist “movement parties” or “forum parties”, is much less substantial than in the case of those that differentiated HDZ from these entities and characterised it as a traditionalist-nationalist actor accepting horizon and “rules of a game” in democracy in a limited scope only. As a broad, national “movement party” with nationally-emancipatory and state-building vocation (and therefore – by definition – with sharply majority vocation), HDZ made use of a tendency – in the short run very strong and system-forming – to the political major-clustering asserting itself against tendency to “natural” and “normal” party-politics differentiation. The Croatian Democratic Community managed to gain profit through manipulation with all cleavages and problems which were important in terms of power and politics: old regime versus new one, a clash about control over transformation process and a nature of new regime (civic democracy and/or ethnocracy), issues of ideological-political and ethnical-political plurality. However, the development of Croatian embryonic politics and, consequently, party system after 1990 cannot be expounded in a simplistic way, as a linear, planned development or mere fulfilment of HDZ elite’s supposed intentions. Creation of Croatian predominant party system and semi-democratic polity must not be evaluated as a predestined output of a fatal coincidence of factors that are fixed in their substance in an unchanging environment but as a possible and probable product of a combined operation of changing body of different exogenous and endogenous factors; nevertheless, this product must not be seen as only possible and only imaginable one. The nature of Croatian political arrangement was determined by interactions among inner dispositions of Tudjmanian power elite and the development of the environment within which the elite operated. Here the escalation of ethnic-political conflict and its subsequent militarization played a formative role. As Attila Ágh neatly put it, Croatia's attempt to build a modern polity died in the civil war (Ágh 1998a: 176). It is within this context we must judge the formation of Croatian party system and its nature. Consolidation and reproduction of HDZ’s predominant position was only one – though very important – aspect of the process of distorted democratizing transformation in Croatia. It too is obvious that within given institutional and political framework, characterised by relatively insufficient division of powers and relatively insufficient control over the executive, HDZ’s predominance could acquire a special significance which would be unthinkable within another environment (cf. Marko, Kregar 1998: 169, 176-180). If we are thinking – in the case of Croatia – about a predominant party system, it is necessary to emphasize this arrangement cannot be seen at as a typical example of predominant party system in plural democracy. On the contrary, we face its peculiar variant whose typology can be a matter of question.

The Other Pole and the "Third Parties"

Consolidation of HDZ’s privileged, predominant position was strongly facilitated – among others – by both political opposition’s fragmentation, and fluid and inchoate character of interactions among actors comprising the party system. We must take into account the inchoate character of party arrangement at first complicates – in a certain degree – attainment of predominant position but, when this position is reached, in turn helps to consolidate and reproduce it. This was the case of Croatia. Moreover, it is necessary to remind a certain party’s predominance can never be judged only according to quantitative indicators (election results); we must consider qualitative elements as well (cf. Fiala, Strmiska 1998: 223-230). In this case this statement means we must (at least) briefly judge both election potential and sources of mobilisation, and sources of legitimacy of HDZ and its main – real and possible – opponents.
In the early 1990’s the biggest chance of attaining the position of the second main pole and thus the most relevant opponent of HDZ was attributed to the Croatian post-communists who were concentrated in the “successional” party of the League of Communists of Croatia, the Party for Democratic Transformation, renamed and transformed in the Social Democratic Party of Croatia (SDP). However, from the very beginning the position of Croatian post-communists was not easy; this was caused by the fact the post-communists lacked abilities needed to realize rapid and effective “social-democratisation”, and by their somewhat ambivalent stance towards status and internal organization of the Croatian state, particularly in the relation to the position of Serbian population. Croatian post-communists lost very important segments of their Serbian electorate and, on top of it, had to face consequences following from the separation of certain factions; these factions have subsequently formed other leftist parties of social-democratic orientation. Even if we omit difficulties SDP had to solve in relation to the applied sources of legitimacy (social-democratic identity), this situation was reflected in the dramatic fall of election potential which temporarily disqualified SDP as a contender for the role of hegemonic leader of the opposition against HDZ. Nevertheless, from 1995 it is possible to talk about apparent reinforcement of SDP’s position; in the second half of 1990’s the post-communists reached a capacity to form – at least – an autonomous secondary pole of Croatian political sphere.
Results of parliamentary election in 1992 showed the role of potential second main pole and a leader of the opposition against HDZ had been appropriated by the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS). This modernizer and Europeanizer centrist party (according to Ágh‘s terminology; Ágh 1998b: 198) was in many respects better disposed to embody main force of democratic opposition against HDZ and Tudjman’s regime than the Croatian post-communists. However, mobilization sources of HSLS were not huge enough to enable it to gain a position of autonomous, second major pole of the Croatian party arrangement. Since a hegemonization of anti-Tudjmanian opposition was in fact impossible, the problem of compatibility of this opposition’s potential core with possible allies grew still more important. In the case of HSLS this compatibility reached quite a high level but was devaluate – in a certain degree – by HSLS itself and its intermittent attempts to find something common with the most pragmatic elements within HDZ. Furthermore, HSLS suffered from very hard personal disputes which in January 1998 resulted in the intra-party clash. A part of the leadership left HSLS and founded the Liberal Party (LS).
Other formations comprising Croatian party system played the role of mere “third parties” whose possibilities (if we omit levels of regional and local politics) were strongly limited. As for those “third parties”, in the course of this decade only the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS) which was theoretically able to function as a core of alliance consisting of minor parties could make a claim to the position of autonomous minor pole (Cohen 1997: 108-109). It became clear a formation of effective major counter-pole that would undoubtedly manage to eliminate predominance of HDZ is impossible without co-operation of opposition parties and a policy of creating an alliance. If we do not take into account a possibility of a sudden implosion of HDZ or its division, such a second pole is imaginable only in a composed form, as an outcome of forming an alliance. Of course, to find suitable and sufficiently functional formulae of such a policy was quite a difficult task; the rather that the development of Croatian party system in the recent years did not show any apparent tendency to lower fragmentation and to the reduction of the number of in a way important fields of party interactions, let alone the number of political parties – the direction was quite the contrary. In fact, this situation still works for HDZ, although in the second half of 1990’s – seen in general – the conditions and broad environment for maintaining its predominance were rather getting worse.

There and Back Again?

Understandably, the problem of persistence of a party’s predominance primarily consists in a degree of successful reproduction of legitimizing and mobilizing sources of a party standing in a predominant position. This process is influenced by different exogenous and endogenous factors whose importance often varies. Under these circumstances it is relatively difficult to analyse and grasp the dynamics of the predominant party system, the rather that this system appears to be stable but also quite a fragile as well (cf. Fiala, Strmiska 1998: 223-229). The Croatian party system is not an exception. In this brief article we cannot make any claim to final conclusions or comprehensive evaluation relating to the past and present development of the Croatian party arrangement, let alone its future. Nevertheless, in conclusion we would like to stress two important and interesting points.
First, while in early 1990‘s the predominance of the Croatian Democratic Community was primarily enabled by the factors that in relation to the party system were exogenous, i.e. by the environmental factors, and the endogenous ones, including a set of party interactions, were of a secondary importance, at present the situation is quite the contrary. The prevailing trends in the Croatian polity do not favour HDZ’s hegemony any more. Since 1995 the government of HDZ has failed to reach bigger successes and the mobilizing and legitimizing potential of HDZ has increasingly grown exhausted. Moreover, a considerable heterogeneity of the party does not allow fluent programme innovations which could strengthen the electoral and political potential. The question is in which way these trends will be reflected in the Croatian party system. Surely, this system will face – sooner or later – marked changes whose scope, dynamics, and consequences can be hardly guessed by now.
Second, the supposed re-structurization of the Croatian party arrangement can result – in a certain degree – in a temporary return to its formative stage in early 1990’s. Not only did the predominance of HDZ not allow to try an alternation of the governing parties and substantially retarded the learning process of the democratic party elite, but helped to maintain some elements of inchoateness in the party arrangement as a whole (cf. Cohen 1997: 99; Ágh 1998b: 199; Marko, Kregar 1998: 176, 180). Elimination of the predominance has the character of a condition of (any) changes in the Croatian party system, but it also is conditio sine qua non of a development of political parties system corresponding to the needs of a plural democratic polity as well. It would be a mistake to consider a period of HDZ predominance – if it comes to an end – as a sterile intermezzo. This predominance is sure to influence circumstances for re-democratization of the Croatian society; at the same time it is necessary to say these circumstances need not be better than those in 1989-1990. Only the future development will show what face the actual system-building impact of the heritage of HDZ predominance will acquire.

The List of the Croatian Parties (Only parties present in the House of Deputies in the year 1999):

Alliance of Croatian Coast And Mountains Department (Primorsko Gorenski Savez - PGS)
Croatian Christian Democratic Union (Hrvatska kršćanska demokratska unija - HKDU)
Croatian Democratic Comunity (Hrvatska demokratska zajednica - HDZ)
Croatian Independent Democrats (Hrvatski nezavisni demokrati - HND)
Croatian Party of Rights (Hrvatska stranka prava - HSP)
Croatian Party of Slavonia And Barania (Slavonsko-baranjska hrvatska stranka - SBHS)
Croatian Peasant Party (Hrvatska seljačka stranka - HSS)
Croatian People’s Party (Hrvatska narodna stranka - HNS)
Croatian Pure Party of Rights (Hrvatska čista stranka prava - HČSP)
Croatian Social Liberal Party (Hrvatska socijalno-liberalna stranka - HSLS)
Independent Democratic Serbian Party (Samostalna demokratska srpska stranka - SDSS)
Istrian Democratic Assembly (Istarski demokratski sabor / Dieta democratice istriana / Istrski demokratski zbor - IDS / DDI / IDZ)
Istrian Democratic Forum (Istarski demokratski forum / Foro democratico Istriano - IDF / FDI)
League of Communists of Croatia (Savez komunista Hrvatske - SKH)
Liberal Party (Liberalna stranka - LS)
Party of Croatian Equity (Stranka hrvatske ravnice - SHR)
Serb People’s Party (Srpska narodna stranka - SNS)
Social Democratic Party of Croatia (Socijaldemokratska partija Hrvatske - SDP)

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