Neoliberalism in the Rose Garden

Croatia's SDP is a depressing case study of neoliberalized social democracy.

Then–Croatian SDP leader and prime minister Zoran Milanović (center) at a European Council meeting in 2013. European Council / Flickr

On November 26, the Croatian Social-Democratic Party (SDP), the country’s leading left formation, got a new leader. In the second round of party elections, Davor Bernandić, leader of the Zagreb branch, crushed his opponent, Ranko Ostojić, former minister of internal affairs, with well over 60 percent of the vote.

But Bernandić has little reason to celebrate. The party over which he now presides is in a dreadful state. Since the most recent election in September — which saw the conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) take first place — it’s lost 150,000 voters. And less than half of the party’s members participated in the leadership vote.

During the campaign, most candidates advocated a “return to real social democracy” and the working class. Unfortunately, with the exception of Karolina Leaković — who called for a Jeremy Corbyn–like turn in the party, but won less than 1 percent in the first round of voting — these were empty populist slogans. And members, well aware that their party has become a social-democratic formation in name only, seemed to see the rhetoric as just that.

The SDP, though one of Croatia’s two major parties since Yugoslavia’s collapse, has largely spent its life in opposition. Only when the HDZ is experiencing great inter-party crisis has the SDP been able to take over.

Historically, the party, a successor to the League of Communists of Croatia (SKH), found support in the industrial centers and ethnically mixed regions. During the war in the 1990s, however, the party’s power collapsed, violence and deindustrialization eroding its former strongholds.

Over the last fifteen years, the SDP has responded by capturing the political space once held by liberal and moderate bourgeois parties, like the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS) and the Croatian People’s Party (HNS).

In the most recent parliamentary elections, for example, it created a grouping so capacious that it included the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS), a center-right Catholic formation.

Rightward-moving electoral alliances have been underpinned by a deep commitment to Third Way policies. During a recent stint in power, from 2011 to 2015, the party busied itself not with fighting for workers’ rights but with weakening labor law and pushing privatization. This experience turned the last remnants of the party’s working-class base against it. The party now relies on voters in the most economically developed regions and the most educated segments of the population.

The SDP has become a bourgeois party in the fullest sense. Bereft of a working-class base, the party is left to advocate Euro-Atlantic integration or criticize the HDZ’s vulgar nationalism, at the same time it aligns itself with the “moderate” nationalist, neoliberal HNS or the regional center-left party Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS).

For Croatian elites, it’s all for the better. They’ve managed to build a strong neoliberal, pro-European Union, pro-NATO consensus that spans the political spectrum. From the HDZ to the SDP to the new technocratic Bridge (MOST), austerity is the order of the day. It’s just a matter of selling it. First the politicians exonerate themselves with references to negotiations with the European Union, then declare the need for belt tightening, and finally claim that they will put the stumbling Croatian economy on more favorable ground.

In Croatian politics, World War II–era narratives and identities also remain important, especially with respect to the fascist Ustaše government and the antifascist Yugoslav partisans. Croatian political leaders deploy nationalist myths to try to diminish the Ustaše’s crimes during World War II and their role in the Holocaust, putting them in the context of postwar retaliation from the partisans.

And even supposedly left figures join in at times. At one point, during a nationally televised debate with the HDZ, then–SDP leader and prime minister Zoran Milanović declared, unprompted, that his family sided with the Ustašes in World War II — a clear play for right-wing voters at the expense of the party’s historic base.

Other politicians, including the new prime minister, the HDZ’s Andrej Plenković, call for “conciliation” and “national unity” — the primary purpose of which is to ensure peace and stability for the neoliberal order, no matter its devastation.

Is there an institutional left alternative that could supplant the prevailing consensus? At the moment, no. Most of the purportedly left parties are nothing of the sort. While the decaying Croatian Laborists–Labor Party was founded to stake out a position to the left of the SDP, it eventually joined its center-left coalition. The populist group Human Shield is often portrayed as part of the left, but it offers more conspiracies theories than progressive policies. Taken together, the SDP, the Labor Party, and Human Shield show the decrepitude of the institutional left in Croatia.

Could the largest of those formations, the SDP, come back to life? Judging from Bernandić’s campaign statements about “cutting taxes that make things hard for entrepreneurs” and “connecting the university with business,” the SDP will remain the same neoliberal party of coxcombs. That said, none of the other major candidates would have reinvigorated the party with a working-class politics. Considering its present social base, it’s hard to see the party making a pivot to the left.

Meanwhile, the new HDZ-MOST government is slowly but confidently consolidating itself. While it promised to respect and foster social dialogue with the working class, the recent strike by workers at the Zagreb Student Center — who walked out when management refused to sign the collective agreement they negotiated — shows that labor cannot count on any political party to advance its interests.

This leads to an even broader question: are independent, working-class politics possible in post-Communist countries in the region? With few exceptions, the Right holds power, and the opposition merely promotes a different shade of nationalist, neoliberal policies. The labor movement is moribund. Politics is reduced to an expression of historical allegiances, and workers’ rights are eroded with every new government, left or right.

None of this is to say things can’t change, but it’s important to at least face the cold reality in Croatia: the SDP has no real interest in protecting working-class interests. Blairite social democracy is just neoliberalism in the rose garden.