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Croatia’s President Announces Surprise Bid Against Premier

(Bloomberg) -- Croatian President Zoran Milanovic shook up the campaign for next month’s parliamentary election in the Balkan nation, saying he’ll lead the opposition Social Democrats to challenge Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic.

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The surprise bid throws open the April 17 contest, since Milanovic — a former prime minister who was elected head of state in 2020 — remains one of the country’s most popular figures. He’s a bitter rival of Plenkovic, whose conservatives have led the polls as he sought a third term in office.

Speaking in Zagreb hours after he himself set the date for the election, Milanovic signaled that he’d had enough of the prime minister. His Social Democrats have consistently accused Plenkovic’s Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ, of corruption.

“Opportunity has knocked on my door, an opportunity for all of us,” Milanovic told reporters on Friday. “A final drop in the cup spilled over — and overfilled a septic tank full of impurities that suffocate our country.”

The move raises potential constitutional issues. Milanovic said he would step down as president, a largely ceremonial office that constitutionally stands above politics, only after an election victory in April, according to an announcement on his Facebook page.

Zarko Puhovski, a political science professor at the University of Zagreb, said Milanovic’s move doesn’t violate the constitution, even if it’s inconsistent with respect for the division of powers, the rule of law and political stability.

‘Equalized’

But given his personal popularity, Milanovic’s candidacy presents a direct threat to Plenkovic’s ambition to extend his tenure as the Adriatic nation’s longest-serving prime minister. The premier planned to run on a record of adopting the European single currency and steering Croatia into the European Union’s visa-free travel area.

“Politically speaking, it now looks that both sides are now equalized in the start for election,” Puhovski said.

The enmity between the president and prime minister runs deep. Milanovic last month criticized Plenkovic’s pick for a new state prosecutor, calling the premier a “protector of crime and corruption” — and a “self-pleasing manipulator.” The government this week deemed Milanovic a “notorious liar” and a “destroyer” of Croatia’s interests.

Plenkovic’s HDZ currently holds a lead in the polls, drawing about 27% support — almost 10 percentage points ahead of the main opposition Social Democrats, according to a March 10 Promocija Plus survey. The right-wing Homeland Movement and another center-right party, Bridge, polled in the single digits.

Plenkovic’s party has sought to shake off accusations of corruption among party officials — seven ministers left the cabinet during the premier’s first term. As the Social Democrats have focused on the issue, the HDZ has sought to capitalize on pension and wage hikes, led by increases in the public sector. The latest wage round for public employees will see a fresh pay rise in April.

Plenkovic, a 53-year-old former diplomat and lawyer by training, has led the country since 2016. The HDZ governs in a coalition with several smaller parties and minority lawmakers, giving it a razor-thin majority in the 151-seat parliament.

--With assistance from Misha Savic.

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