In Electing a Leftist Mayor, Croatia Follows European Trends

Tomislav Tomasevic’s imminent victory in Zagreb matches a pattern emerging across Europe – where big cities choose radical mayors – but not ones drawn from the traditional parties of the left.

The Croatian state’s founding father, the warrior-politician and nationalist Franjo Tudjman, must be spinning in his grave, which lies under a vast black marble slab in Zagreb’s Mirogoj cemetery – Inscription: “Always, Everything for Croatia.”

In the May 30 run-off local elections his beloved capital looks set to fall firmly into the hands of someone who represents the opposite of pretty much everything he believed in.

Barring a miracle for the right, Zagreb’s next boss will be Tomislav Tomasevic, 39-year-old leader of a left-green insurgent party called Mozemo! [We Can!] – a former environmental activist with zero connection to the brand of socially conservative, churchy, flag-based nationalism that Tudjman lived and breathed for.

While Croatia’s ruling centre-right conservatives can console themselves with respectable results outside the capital in the local elections, the May 16 first round in the local elections brought no such comfort to Croatia’s traditional left-wing standard bearers, the Social Democrats, SDP. In left-leaning Zagreb, they did even worse than the conservatives.

“Croatia has reached the stage in … development where urban hipsters overtake the former communist as the main political movement on the left,” a London-based Croat writer and analyst, Luka Ivan Jukic, mulled.

As that tweet said, Croatia’s local election results suggest that the country’s politics increasingly correspond to a trend making itself felt up and down Europe. While centre-right and right-wing forces are holding their own nationally, and even tapping into new votes – the left in Europe is strengthening its grip in big cities but also breaking apart – as green, radical alternatives contest and overtake older, established social democratic parties.

Besides Croatia, Germany is a telling case of this; a poll taken three ago, months before September’s elections, showed the Greens for the first time in the lead nationally with 28 per cent of the vote.

What is equally interesting about the poll is that while the Greens are just inches ahead of Angela Merkel’s governing conservatives, they are miles ahead of the long established Social Democrats, now trailing on 13 per cent.

Unless something changes, if the right loses the September elections, Germany’s next chancellor won’t be a Social Democrat but Annalena Baerbock from the Greens – which would be a shock not just for Germany but for Europe, given Germany’s central, agenda-setting role.

Next door, in France, the left’s traditional party, the Socialists, have been in decline for decades, the glory days of the 1980s under Francois Mitterrand long forgotten. No one expects the candidate of the deeply divided left to win the 2022 presidential elections, which will almost certainly pit the incumbent centrist, Emmanuel Macron, against the far-right’s Marine Le Pen.

In Britain, the decay of the traditional party of the left looks just as unstoppable. Labour once branded itself “the natural party of government”, but last won a general election 16 years ago and seems no closer to winning one now, despite the ruling Conservatives’ often chaotic handling of the pandemic.

In the UK’s May local elections, old Labour bastions in the deprived and run-down north of England tumbled to the Conservatives, while the alternative left-wing force of the Scottish Nationalists crushed Labour – again – in Scotland.

As in many other parts of Europe, the left has no rival in England’s big cities except other left-green forces, but cities alone don’t deliver national power.

In Hungary and Turkey, voters have made the same choices as in London and Zagreb. Strong pressure from powerful right-wing national governments failed to stop Budapest and Istanbul from choosing oppositional leaders as mayors.

As in Zagreb, neither city chose a mayor from the ranks of the “old”, established opposition. The victor in Budapest in 2019, Gergely Karacsony, is a liberal who has little in common with the ex-communist apparatchiks who long dominated the Hungarian Socialists, the established party of the left.

Europe being Europe, there are – of course – exceptions. The right won hands down in Spain’s local elections in Madrid two weeks ago. But Madrid looks like the exception to the rule rather than a trendsetter.

So, what is going on? Writing about the “strange malaise of Europe’s centre-left”, Britain’s Financial Times last week wrote: “The global financial crisis seemed a golden opportunity for party traditions founded on reining in market excesses, but most of them failed to make themselves relevant. The pandemic has triggered a desire for more solidarity and has increased voters’ tolerance for a more interventionist state. But again social democrats seem unable to grasp the moment.”

The nightmare for the European left generally is that while the left splits between old and new, the right stays together and retains power nationally, almost everywhere. The New Statesman magazine in the UK raised this grim possibility last week, mulling a future in which Britain’s Labour Party remains “too weak to win, too strong to die”.

According to this article, Labour is coming apart, unable to hold together a coalition of older, white working-class voters and new middle-class, urban, “woke” radicals. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is somehow keeping old-style free-enterprise Conservatives and poorer, culturally right-wing Britons under one umbrella.

If that scenario holds over most of Europe, the left will rule big cities in future, but the right will still run governments. If that applies to Croatia as well, its conservative PM, Andrej Plenkovic, can relax for now.

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