Andrej Plenkovic has four weeks to persuade voters that he’s the right man to lead his country but the trouble is that many Croatians have no idea who he is, the Politico weekly magazine reported in its latest edition on Thursday.
Like most members of the European Parliament, Plenkovic has a limited profile in his home country, the European edition of this reputable American magazine wrote in an article titled "Mystery man hoping to rule Croatia."
Plenkovic has a mission to rescue the Croatian centre-right, which was in power for the first half of the year and remains in turmoil.
“What I want is a new start,” Plenkovic said, adding that a break with the past may be refreshing on the Croatian political scene, especially since, under the leadership of the Croatian Democratic Union's (HDZ) by Tomislav Karamarko, many saw worrying flirtations with the Ustasha.
The then political leadership was accused of failing to condemn the use of Ustasha symbols and chants, including at a controversial World War II memorial ceremony in Bleiburg, Austria and at an international football match against Israel.
Politico writes that outgoing culture minister Zlatko Hasanbegovic was photographed next to a flag featuring the Ustasha logo as well as recently attending the unveiling of a statue of a Croatian nationalist involved in the assassination of Yugoslavia’s ambassador to Sweden in the 1970s.
Plenkovic is hoping to end these undiplomatic incidents, not least because he wants cordial relations with neighbouring Serbia, Politico says in the article.
While Plenkovic is a relative unknown, polling at least is promising. Support for HDZ has risen from 21 to 28 percent since Plenkovic took over, putting it just 1 percentage point behind the SDP, according to recent polls.
While seen by some as rather aloof and unsuited to the rough-and-tumble of domestic Croatian politics, Plenkovic has been welcomed by the liberal wing of the party as a breath of fresh air after the Karamarko era.
“Plenkovic could be a game changer for the party and the country, provided he uses his strong understanding of politics - both domestic and international - but also makes a significant step away from the politeness of his previous diplomatic ways,” said Miroslav Kovacic, a former state-secretary and diplomat close to HDZ leaders.
“He will have to tackle most serious issues such as anti-business climate, bureaucracy and what (HDZ-aligned) President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic has repeatedly called an overall lack of ambition that affects business but also most other aspects of life in Croatia. We have been falling behind for the past seven years at an alarming rate,” Kovacic added.
Supporters say that a Croatia under Plenkovic would be less like Viktor Orban’s Hungary and more like Angela Merkel’s Germany. And Plenkovic himself is keen to reframe the political discussion.
“The focus should be on the economy, social issues and how best to profit from EU membership,” Plenkovic said, adding that he wants a "proper centre-right party based on Christian democratic values, on universal humanistic values."
A focus on EU membership would certainly play to Plenkovic’s strengths, because as a a member of the European Parliament’s Budgets Committee, he has seen firsthand the wheeling and dealing that accompanies EU spending negotiations, Politco concluded.