Political foes fight for Croatia's PM post

The arch-rivals are both seeking to lure voters with promises of prosperity as Croatia grapples with widespread corruption, a chronic labour shortage, inflation and illegal migration.
Croatia's Prime Minister and President of Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party, Andrej Plenkovic (C) meets with supporters as he arrive for a rally in Zagreb.
Croatia's Prime Minister and President of Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party, Andrej Plenkovic (C) meets with supporters as he arrive for a rally in Zagreb.

Croatia holds parliamentary elections Wednesday with two main candidates to lead the government who have dominated the Balkan country's political scene for years.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, a conservative, will square off against the populist left-wing President Zoran Milanovic. The arch-rivals are both seeking to lure voters with promises of prosperity as Croatia grapples with widespread corruption, a chronic labour shortage, inflation and illegal migration.

Andrej Plenkovic

Plenkovic is Croatia's longest serving prime minister and is seeking a third term. He became prime minister in 2016, months after becoming leader of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which had been badly tarnished by a scandal that forced Plenkovic's predecessor to resign.

Known for his measured tone and ability to fight off corruption allegations targeting the HDZ, Plenkovic sought a more centrist path for the nationalist party that has dominated the Balkan country's politics since independence.

His campaign this time has highlighted his achievements bringing Croatia into Europe's visa-free Schengen zone and transitioning to the euro currency.

Opponents, however, have tried to highlight corruption cases involving the HDZ. Several ministers from the party have stepped down amid corruption allegations. One acting minister was arrested.

Weeks before the polls, the appointment of a high-ranking judge as Croatia's state attorney general brought people onto the streets over more corruption allegations.

The 54-year-old Plenkovic was born in Zagreb, studied law and began a diplomatic career at the foreign ministry, which saw him posted to Brussels and Paris.

Upon returning home, Plenkovic oversaw Croatia's path for European integration before becoming an HDZ legislator. He became a member of the European Parliament in 2013 when Croatia joined the European Union.

"I decided to be socially engaged and make Croatia better, contribute to everything that makes our society and economy stronger," he said in a recent social media post.

Zoran Mailanovic

Smart and driven but also often seen as quick-tempered and arrogant, Milanovic is bidding for a second try as prime minister, having held the post from 2011 until 2016.

Milanovic, whose five-year-term as president expires in January, surprised many by announcing that he would enter this year's contest as a candidate with the Social Democrats party (SDP).

Croatia's top court ruled against his participation in the vote while he is still president. But he has ignored the ruling and launched a de-facto campaign across the country.

When he became prime minister in 2011 at age 45, the SDP leader was perceived as a promising young politician, free of the corruption plaguing the rival HDZ.

But his government failed to implement much-needed reforms, perpetuating widespread patronage and poor economic trends.

After the SDP lost a 2015 vote, Milanovic quit as SDP head, withdrew from politics, and worked as a consultant. He returned to politics in 2019 as an SDP candidate for the presidency.

Describing himself as having a "leftist heart and conservative head" he won the election campaigning under the slogan: "the president with character".

In recent years, Milanovic has adopted more populist rhetoric and flirted with the ring wing.

He has been criticised for using profanity in speeches and interviews and regularly launches attacks against rivals, EU officials and critics.

"My character is not easy, but I will not remain silent," he wrote in a recent Facebook post and pledged to "form a national salvation government".

Born in Zagreb in 1966, Milanovic was considered one of the best law students of his generation and was an avid amateur boxer.

He worked in the foreign ministry during Croatia's 1990s war of independence and later served for three years with the country's EU and NATO missions in Brussels.

In 1999 he joined the SDP, formerly the communist party, which appealed to progressive, educated and urban voters. Married with two sons, Milanovic was elected party leader in 2007.

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