Former NATO Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy Kolinda Grabar Kitarović has been elected Croatia's first woman president, defeating the incumbent president in the first presidential elections since the small southeastern European country joined the European Union last year.
Grabar Kitarović won in a tight race against incumbent President Ivo Jospović in the runoff in January 2015, netting 50.74% of the votes, according to preliminary results. She will be inaugurated on February 18, 2015.
As Croatia's first woman president, and the country's fourth elected president since independence, she will undoubtedly leave her mark on both the country and region. But despite her historic win, many citizens who would have preferred a different political representative are worried as to how their views and needs will be represented with her at the helm.
A member of the Croatian Democratic Union, the party instrumental in Croatia gaining independence in 1992, Grabar Kitarović is eager to bring what she has called “the Croatian spirit” back, as well as re-enforce “traditional” values. The country is highly divided between the available center-left and center-right political options, and she only defeated Josipović by only a few thousand votes.
Josipović becomes the first Croatian president since the country's independence who didn't win reelection for a second term, as both Franjo Tuđman, Croatia's first president, and Stjepan Mesić were both reelected for two full terms each. In the eyes of many voters, Josipović hasn't done much for Croatians during his mandate as president.
The road to a runoff
The race seems to have been dirty and expensive. The first round of elections was held on December 28, 2014, with four candidates for its presidency: Ivan Vilibor Sinčić, a young political activist, who was the biggest surprise and managed to take 16.42% of the vote; Milan Kujundžić, a right-wing politician, who won only 6.30% votes; Grabar Kitarović, representing the center-right Croatian Democratic Union, who took 37.88%; and incumbent President Josipović, who won 38.48% votes. The president can't be elected unless he or she secures more than 50% of the votes.
Because none of the four managed to surpass the 50% threshold (only 47.14% of the total electorate voted in first round), Grabar Kitarović and Josipović went head to head on January 11.
During the campaign, the candidates offered up many plans for the country, still struggling with a troubled economy, high unemployment, low GDP and corruption. However, despite the amount of money poured into the elections, presidential power is actually very limited within the Croatian government, with the president mainly acting as a representative within the country and abroad and performing ceremonial duties such as awarding important individuals.
Koliko god se mi dijelili na ovim i budućim izborima u postocima, oni loši gospodarski postoci su isti za sve #izboriprh
— Bruno Zupan (@komacore) enero 11, 2015
No matter how divided we are in these or future electoral percentages, the bad economical percentages are the same for everyone #izboriprh (#electionscroatia)
Nevertheless, candidates sought votes through television debates, which often left the average voter wanting for a concrete reason to give either candidate their vote. Debates did, however generate some humorous tweets from Croatian social media users under the hashtags #izboriprh (#electionscroatia), #izbori2014 (#elections2014), #debataRTL (#debateRTL), and #HRTizbori (#HRTelections).
— Vencislav Jularic (@VJularic) enero 8, 2015
— Ivan (@Setka_i) enero 8, 2015
Debate topics such as WWII war crimes and war profiteering during and after the Croatian War of Independence were inevitable during the televised face-off between Josipović and Grabar Kitarović, who also previously was ambassador of Croatia to the United States. History very much plays a role in Croatia today — politicians seem take any opportunity they can to focus on historical topics in public instead of more pressing, modern-day topics that directly affect the everyday citizen.
A deeply divided country
Grabar Kitarović is favored by the right-wing electorate and the Croatian diaspora, especially Croatian citizens living in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In both Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, polling stations were open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. on January 11, but by 7 p.m. in Mostar, Bosnia, hundreds of people were still waiting in line to vote, so the polling station there stayed open until each vote was cast. Voters queued up in long lines and traveled from all over Bosnia-Herzegovina to vote in Mostar, and many social media users in Croatia are joking that Grabar Kitarović is in fact the new Mostar mayor.
Croatia has always been divided politically, but it seems that the country has now hit a new peak in this divide. Regional media are quick to point out the trend of neo-nationalism in Croatia, which is, some say, a powder keg waiting to blow.
Although Grabar Kitarović said that she will be “working for a better Croatia” and would not discriminate or exclude citizens based on their political beliefs, some on the left remain skeptical. One tweet summed up the general sentiment:
Najtuznije je sto ovaj povijesni dogadaj za jednu patrijarhalnu drzavu vjerojatno ni jedna feministkinja ne smatra pobjedom. #izboriprh
— ena (@bluperception) enero 11, 2015
What is saddest is that this historical event, in a patriarchal state, is probably not seen as a victory by any feminist. #izboriprh
Libela.org, an independent portal on gender, sex and democracy in Croatia, asked whether Grabar Kitarović is capable of uniting the nation and working in favor of women's rights, despite the fact she did not play the “female card” during the elections.
A nation is made of people, and the people of Croatia have chosen Kolinda Grabar Kitarović to be their next president, as is supposed to happen in a democracy. Time will tell how much good the people's choice will bring the country.