Incumbent President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic will 'soon' announce her run for another five-year term in the December election, she told a fringe right-wing tabloid Hrvatski Tjednik in an interview published on Thursday.
"Of course, I will run for a new term, I will announce my bid soon. But before that, I wish to work as president for as long as possible," Grabar-Kitarovic told Hrvatski Tjednik, a fringe far-right tabloid usually ignored by mainstream media.
Although Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic had earlier announced that the ruling centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) would support Grabar-Kitarovic in the December election, she herself continued to avoid formally announcing her bid even as the field is set to become crowded after about a dozen other candidates had already announced their own campaigns.
"What would it look like if I turned my back on Croatia now and accepted some of the jobs which are being offered to me, which pay much better, around Europe and around the world - and to abandon my Croat people and my own children who see their future here," Grabar-Kitarovic asked rhetorically.
Former foreign minister who rose through the ranks of HDZ in the 1990s, Grabar-Kitarovic had served in two cabinets of the party's former leader Ivo Sanader from 2003 to 2008. She later held the post of Assistant Secretary General of NATO for Public Diplomacy from 2011 to 2014.
Her announcement that she would announce her candidacy comes after an earlier announcement last week when she seemed to have confirmed her 2019 plans in her appearance at the official celebration of the 24th anniversary of Operation Storm in the town of Knin. "I am here as president, and we will be seeing each other for the next five years here with me as president," Grabar-Kitarovic told the crowd.
Among other confirmed candidates so far, the top contenders are thought to be the former leader of the centre-left Social Democrats and former Prime Minister, Zoran Milanovic, and the singer-turned-politician Miroslav Skoro.
Courting right-wing vote
Skoro is tipped to be the right-wing voters' favourite and is likely to erode some support for Grabar-Kitarovic, who herself relies on right-wing and conservative voters backed by HDZ.
However, her reluctance to officially confirm her plans is atributed to Grabar-Kitarovic weighing her options in a changing political landscape where HDZ led by Plenkovic has moved to the political centre and has lost support of a variety of marginal hardline right-wing groups.
Unlike Plenkovic, Grabar-Kitarovic had previously enjoyed excellent relations with right-wing groups and figures, but her decision to sack her longtime domestic policy advisor Mate Radeljic in December last year led to them turning on her and throwing their weight behind Skoro instead.
By choosing to announce the annoucement of her candidacy in an obscure right-wing tabloid, Grabar-Kitarovic is now thought to be playing to a far-right audience in order to win back some of the support she had already lost to Skoro - himself a former member of HDZ and had a stint as an MP in 2008.
"Her interview to Hrvatski Tjednik sounds more like she is offering an excuse (to her voters) rather than explaining her plans for the next five years... According to my information, her voter base largely can't get over the fact that she had at times also flirted with left-wingers, centrists, and pretty much anyone... So now she is trying to position herself back squarely on the right wing side of the spectrum, which at the end of the day, had brought her to power in the first place," communications expert, Petar Tanta, told N1 television on Friday.
Countering Skoro's concerts
Tanta added that the interview also showed that HDZ realised that Skoro is using his concerts as political messaging in his challenge to Grabar-Kitarovic.
On Thursday, Novi List daily reported that Skoro's previously scheduled concerts at several small towns run by HDZ mayors have been abruptly cancelled, implying that the ruling party sees him as a threat and is trying to limit his campaigning activities.
In response, Skoro's management said that they take great care not to involve any political messaging in their concerts and reject the implication that Skoro is using his tour as an early election campaign. But analysts disagree.
"Five years ago, at this time of year, (four months before the election) HDZ was already doing a lot in terms of building support for Grabar-Kitarovic through its local chapters, galvanising voters, and so on - but this year no such thing is happening. On the other hand, Skoro is doing his concerts, and this shows that her camp has realised that Skoro's concerts are in fact a form of early campaign, because his songs and his entire repertoire serve as a political message on their own," Tanta said.
Skoro, known for music marked by patriotic lyrics and heavy influence of traditional folk sounds, is currently on tour around the country. The concert series is billed as the 30th anniversary celebration of his biggest hit "Ne Dirajte Mi Ravnicu," a nostalgic ballad he wrote in 1989 in Pittsburgh in which he talks about longing to return to the plains of his native eastern Croatia.
First aired on local radio in 1991 against the backdrop of wartime destruction which had left thousands displaced, the song instantly became a symbol of hope and pride, and made Skoro a household name.