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Convention of Contention

Sisters praying psalms

These days, two Croatian politicians find themselves between the proverbial rocks and hard places, both related to a fairly simple issue of ratifying a Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence.

The Convention, commonly known as the „Istanbul Convention“, is a relatively straightforward convention providing more elaborate protection to women against violence based on gender roles, not only on sex. It was ratified, so far, by 29 CoE member states, and a number of others are in the process. So far, all par for the course.

But in Croatia, the issue of ratification quickly became political as extreme conservative catholic organisations and the Catholic Church itself, took issue with the role of gender in the Convention, declaring it to be against the Church doctrine and the natural law when it was signed way back in 2013. So the centre-left government, then in place, decided to postpone ratification indefinitely. The right-wing conservative HDZ then campaigned, among others, on the issue of this Convention, and promised to “implement fully all obligations from the Convention” which the HDZ believed “came into force, for Croatia, in 2014”.

But when PM Plenković decided the Government would send a ratification act to the Parliament, the issue exploded first within his own party. Some of his most senior colleagues openly defied Plenković, claiming that the Convention goes against HDZ basic principles and wowing not to allow its ratification. This was a(n extremely) rare show of disagreement within the HDZ leadership,  and an even rarer opposition to a sitting Chairman.

Some spectators were surprised by the audacity and organization of the opposition, some thought it was relatively moderate. Most agreed on how serious a blow to Plenković’s leadership this was, and many were surprised to see his confident posture when he initiating the project was not based on extensive consultations within his own party. To make things worse, some MP’s announced loudly that they will vote against, and some top ranked HDZ leaders stated that they will back them. Former MFA and the HDZ Political Secretary, Davor Ivo Stier, sent a long letter opposing the ratification, and Plenković’s deputy in HDZ, and the Deputy Speaker of the Parliament, Milijan Brkić, stated publicly that he intends to vote against it. HDZ Presidency supported the ratification with 19 votes in favor, and only 6 opposed. But those six are very prominent names generally seen as leaders of the ultra-conservative faction within the party.

In the meantime, the street protest machinery, used by HDZ so well on previous occasions when it campaigned against liberal causes, was mobilized and gained momentum sufficient to stage a mass protest on Zagreb’s main square, although much less in numbers than when they have full backing of the HDZ (indicating to some observers the primacy of the party machinery over the conservative movement). Its prominent personalities managed several interviews in which the notion of ratification was attacked, and their web sites started publishing numerous articles denouncing the Convention and the ideology. The arch-catholic movements, and the Church itself which seemed to join the melee on the side opposing ratification, in spite of the fact that the Vatican supported its ratification in Italy some time ago. At one point the public frenzy included international conspiracy elements, including Russian financing of extreme right-wing organizations behind the protest. Although there are certainly international cooperation elements among the right-wing movements, it is at present undemonstrated that they can sway public policy to such an extent.

The HDZ chief whip, Mr Bačić, stated that the party has not yet decided whether to allow its deputies to vote on their own, or to demand that they vote the party line. This later option would open the way for HDZ deputies to sink the Government proposal as the current majority hinges on one or two votes. HDZ coalition partners also stand on opposite sides, with the HNS (who saved the coalition when it joined the Government on MOST’s ouster) demanding that the ratification proceed, and the HRAST saying it would be a “breaking point for the coalition”. So from all of that, it would seem that the PM is going to have a hard time with his own coalition, and might end up losing some of their votes at least on this one issue.  

There are also those who see this as a confrontation planned to force a reckoning within the HDZ itself, with Plenković poised to win not only over his opponents within the HDZ but also over the more radical catholic fringe supporters. We do not agree with this view, but it may just come to pass.

Thus PM Plenković took the familiar route of external propaganda, internal persuasion by threats or otherwise, introduction of various “explanatory statements” and an occasional closure of a chapter that disagreed too loudly.

At the same time, the arch-rival SDP was put in front of a serious dilemma: vote for ratification of an international instrument that the party had supported since signing (but has not rushed to ratify), or abstain and let Plenković fall on his own sword. Arguments for both sides are clear – SDP is building its opposition image on protection of human rights, so ratifying this Convention would be more than just expected, it would be a part of its identity. On the other hand, local legislation already provides for protection from violence and discrimination, so ratification should not have immediately visible impact, but losing a vote in the Parliament would certainly spell Plenković’s doom. Whether his government would implode immediately or a bit later is almost immaterial in this case. So the SDP position seems to be the one familiar to every politician – political ideals vs. political pragmatism.

But SDP’s Bernardić’s response was somewhat less conventional and, same as Plenković, seemed to demonstrate lack of serious preparation within the party. So some prominent party members decided to vote for ratification, some to abstain as a vote against the government, and Bernardić himself went back and forth between both positions, settling on an “aye” in the end. Although the situation is less than clear, it would seem that an important factor in SDP’s deliberations was fear of elections. However weak Plenković’s position seems, the SDP is far from certain it would be able to gather sufficient votes to take over. In that case, Plenković would probably come out of elections strengthened as it would give him a chance to purge the party and almost certainly gather at least the same number of seats as he now holds.  And in that position the last thing anyone would expect is the SDP chair to attack opposition parties, as it would need every last vote and every last hand to have a chance at forming a government. Yet this is precisely what Bernardić did, surprising both his former (and likely future) coalition partners and apparently many in his own party. His attack on IDS for cooperating with HDZ in Istria left many baffled, and immediately prompted speculations that he is angling for a coalition with HDZ himself. Senior SDP figures stated that they intend to vote for ratification, regardless of what the party leadership thinks or what interpretative statements the Government attaches. Others, in the end including Bernardić, claimed that they will vote for if the Government does not change the substance with its interpretative statements. But no one took the possibility of displacing the HDZ seriously, which seems to be an indication of SDP’s belief in its own strength (or lack thereof).  

In the end, it seems that the Convention will get adopted in the Parliament, Plenković is likely to suffer some damages to his standing in his own party because of the wide opposition to the Convention, and the SDP is likely to continue floating between the rock and the hard place of deciding what to oppose and what not. If one had to guess, it would seem that in the end the situation will stay much the same, whatever support Plenković loses is likely to be offset by his legislative victory against party opponents, and no conservative activist is, in the end, likely to risk their position of alignment with the Government. This was demonstrated by the Church itself, which after having opposed any notion of ratification for several weeks, came out over the last couple of days in direct support of ratification. This was justified by the Government’s “interpretative statements”, but is a clear change of heart, although for reasons yet unclear. As a side note, the “interpretative statement” turns out to be a stroke of genius, as it allowed both the Church and the SDP to align themselves to the Government position.

The SDP will satisfy and dissatisfy probably an equal number of supporters, and continue hovering around it’s claimed native support of around 20%.

But the issue has revealed several important problems on both sides, primarily lack of planning and preparation by both leaders, and lack of general vision and preparation on the SDP side. Plenković is likely to emerge victorious because he employs a party machinery that is apparently much stronger than anything else around, and does so skillfully.

But the SDP so far seems at least as interested in maintaining the status quo as the HDZ, as it seems completely unprepared to face elections on any level.

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