Last Sunday, the second round of the Croatian administrative elections took a radical turn: for the first time in the last twenty years, Zagreb will be led by a 40-year-old mayor, raised as an activist in the streets of the capital. Significant changes also in other cities
On Sunday night, Zagreb closed a 20-year parenthesis and opened a new chapter. Tomislav Tomasevic, 40, political scientist and environmental activist, was elected mayor. He succeeds controversial mayor Milan Bandic, in charge almost continuously since 2000, who died of a heart attack in February 2021. A rare, radical turning point for Croatia. If Bandic had become for many the symbol of all the evils of Croatian politics (a long-time ruler, switching from left to right, involved in countless corruption scandals, and even arrested in 2014, then released on bail), Tomasevic has won with promises of transparency, inclusion of citizens in the choices of the city, and great attention to the environment. The red-green coalition that supports him, grouped around the Mozemo! movement (literally, "We can!"), will be able to count on an almost absolute majority of seats in the city council. A single councillor, probably from SDP, will be enough to grant the mayor and his team the numbers necessary to implement the transformation of Zagreb. But let's get to the facts.
On Sunday night, in the second round of the municipal elections, Tomislav Tomasevic collected over 65% of the votes, against about 35% of Miroslav Skoro, the far-right candidate who had tried to unite all the conservatives around him to "block the left". The victory was clear, as the polls predicted and as we had already guessed in the first round, when Mozemo! had exceeded 45% of the votes (against Skoro's 12%). In his speech as the newly elected mayor of the first city of Croatia (where almost a million people live, or about a quarter of the country's population), Tomasevic announced big changes, with a time frame that goes beyond the four years of his mandate. "I believe that all citizens of this city, regardless of how they voted and whether or not they went to the polls, want better living conditions in their neighbourhoods, more accessible nurseries, better healthcare, more homes for the elderly and infirm, better public transport, better cycle paths, more green spaces, and they want this city to give a perspective to young people. This is our mission", said the new mayor.
In recent days Tomasevic and his team had announced that they wanted to verify all the agreements concluded by the municipality in recent years, i.e. during Milan Bandic's administration, also going through the internal dynamics of Zagrebacki Holding, the public company founded in 2006 and employing almost 8,000 persons, which provides numerous services, from city pharmacies to transport, from utilities to markets. Over the years – accuse Bandic's critics – the Holding has become a wide network of patronage catering to friends and friends of friends. It will not be easy to deal with what the representatives of Možemo! define "the octopus of corruption that has taken Zagreb hostage". In fact, many political observers note that the stakes are very high and those who have profited in the last twenty years now have a lot to lose, to the point that there are those who fear for the very physical safety of the new mayor.
In his victory speech, Tomasevic recalled that his electoral campaign "began as early as 1998", when the future mayor started his political activity at the age of 16. Also the Croatian press has been telling Tomasevic's evolution from activist to prominent politician, now holding one of the most important positions in the country. The Index portal remembers, for example, how "11 years ago [Tomasevic] was arrested by the police [during a demonstration], while now he is mayor". We told it ourselves in the aftermath of the first round: the new mayor of Zagreb was politically trained in the streets of the capital, during the demonstrations against Bandic that often led, megaphone in hand. For this reason his election, with such a solid victory, is an important turn in Croatian politics and, if the red-green coalition manages not to waste this opportunity, there will probably be talk of a "before" and an "after 2021" in Zagreb.
The result in the Croatian capital is also significant because, for the first time since the country’s independence, both traditional parties – the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) – were left out of the race for mayor of Zagreb. And this is not the only case. Also in Split, the second largest city in the country, a "new entry" in Croatian politics has emerged: Ivica Puljak, physicist, researcher, and liberal politician at the head of a centrist civic list. In the first two cities of Croatia, HDZ and SDP are now relegated to the margins, unable to influence decisions. Both parties, however, managed to find a way to claim victory on Sunday evening, with Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic even talking about a "colossal" result. In fact, having lost Zagreb, Split, and Vukovar (in favour of Ivan Penava, who moved to the far right), the HDZ can only celebrate victories at the regional (or county) level and in the city of Osijek. Little consolation also for the SDP, which managed to preserve Rijeka and the coastal-mountain region, also winning in the smaller towns of Sisak and Varazdin. It will be enough to keep secretary Pedja Grbin in charge, but it will take much more to return to being relevant in the public debate.
In short, we cannot yet speak of the end of HDZ-SDP bipolarism, but we are close to it. And the collapse of certainties also extends to Istria, where the Istrian Democratic Diet, which has always been the only protagonist of local politics, has lost Pula to independent candidate Filip Zoricic and Pazin to Suzana Jasic from Mozemo!. This latter victory marks a further evolution of the red-green coalition from urban movement, limited to the borders of Zagreb, to national force capable of obtaining satisfactory results (and also winning) in other municipalities.
Finally, the message from Zagreb is also interesting for the region. On Sunday evening, a delegation from Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd, Mozemo!'s Serbian twin, arrived in the Croatian capital to take part in the celebrations. It is difficult to extrapolate the big trends from the municipal elections, but it is not unlikely that the turn in Zagreb will now be inspiring other movements in the Balkans.