Croatia heading for possible early elections

Today @ 09:56 CET
Croatia is facing the prospect of early elections following a call by the country's leading opposition group, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), for a parliamentary vote of confidence in the government.
The prospect of the ultimate government test for prime minister Jadranka Kosor's government comes just a few days after the collapse of the Kosovan government, but it is just the latest twist in a protracted political power game that has been continuing in Croatia for a year and a half.
Jadranka Kosor's government may face a no-confidence vote (Photo: Croatian Government)
The trouble started when former prime minister Ivo Sanader stepped down in July 2009 while his successor Ms Kosor supported a fierce anti-corruption campaign.
Earlier this year, former deputy prime minister and economy minister Damir Polancec was arrested along with several other prominent members of the governing Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party over the dubious sale of the state oil company INA. Matters became even worse for the government when Mladen Barisic, the head of the country's customs authority, was also detained.
Mr Barisic was also treasurer of HDZ at the time and investigations allegedly showed that the governing party was partly financed by profits skimmed off public companies. Leading HDZ figures have all publicly proclaimed their innocence but their claims have been widely met with disbelief in Croatia.
The prime minister is due more trouble from the parliamentary committee investigating the sale of INA to the Hungarian company MOL. Prime minister Kosor and her cabinet have repeatedly said that Mr Polancec was the only HDZ top rank person involved in the shady deal. But he and Mr Sanader, who returned to Croatia to testify in the case, openly accused the government and the HDZ presidency of being fully aware of what went on.
Mr Sanader is battling to regain his seat in the Sabor, the Croatian parliament. As an MP, he is certain to attack the government and perhaps even steal some HDZ seats in the elections.
Two parties have already defected from the governing coalition: the social liberals (HSLS), whose head Darinko Kosor is the prime minister's nephew, and the pensioners' party (HSU). But the government still commands a majority in the Sabor. SDP leader Zoran Milanovic has openly urged the junior parties in the coalition to reconsider their support.
These appeals are almost certain to fall on deaf ears in the peasant party (HSS). Its leaders plan to set up joint lists with HDZ for the next elections in a similar arrangement to the traditional cooperation of CDU and CSU, the two German conservative parties.
Mr Milanovic stands a better chance of causing upheaval with the Independent Democratic Serbian Party (SDSS), which entered into a coalition with HDZ in 2003. This move was welcomed at the time by the international community as a sign of reconciliation in the country.
If the SDSS were to leave the coalition, it would no doubt be followed by other MPs from minority parliamentary groups. At the end of the day, the government could lose seven votes and its majority in the Sabor, which would open the path to early elections.
But the SDP, which wants elections as soon as possible, faces a problem in the opposition camp. The Croatian People's Party (HNS) argues that the best time for new elections is next spring (HDZ proposes November 2011) because negotiations for EU accession will probably have been completed by then.
The government also argues that snap elections would slow the negotiations and prevent their conclusion in the first part of next year. It appears doubtful, however, that a weakened government would in be a position to bring talks with the EU to a successful end on the two trickiest issues: reform of the judiciary and restructuring of the shipyards industry.
A newly elected government, whether dominated by the HDZ or SDP, may have more political clout to make the necessary tough decisions.
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