"I hope that the ongoing party election campaign would continue in a fair way," senior Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) official, Ivan Anusic, who is running for the post of party's vice-president as part of PM Andrej Plenkovic's team in their upcoming party election, said on Thursday.
The party leadership election, set for March 15, is seen as a key test of the centrist PM Plenkovic's standing within his party and his moderate policies. HDZ, which is by far the largest political in the country, claims a membership of some 210,000, all of whom will be able to cast their vote.
A career diplomat and former MP and MEP, Plenkovic became leader of the party in July 2016, taking over from Tomislav Karamarko who had steered the party towards the right-wing end of the political spectrum during his four years in charge from 2012 to 2016.
Led by Plenkovic in the October 2016 election, the party scored better results and successfully formed a ruling, albeit fragile, coalition with the conservative populist Most party as junior partners. After a split with Most in April 2017, Plenkovic successfully negotiated with the liberal HNS party to replace them in government, which kept HDZ in power.
However, Plenkovic and his centrist policies are often under attack by influential right-wing factions within the party, led by senior party figures such as fellow former diplomats Davor Ivo Stier and Miro Kovac, Vukovar mayor Ivan Penava, Plenkovic's deputy Milijan Brkic, and others.
In March 2018, Stier, Kovac, and Brkic all voted against ratifying the Istanbul Convention in a tense party leadership meeting. The convention, which lists a set of principles on combating violence against women, had became a popular right-wing talking point after some conservative groups claimed it aimed to enshrine "gender ideology" into law. In spite of their opposition, the proposal passed, and the Convention was voted in by Parliament in April that year. Still, cracks in party unity started to show as only 40 out of 55 HDZ party MPs supported the ratification pushed for by Plenkovic.
And in October, mayor of Vukovar, Ivan Penava, sponsored a protest in that eastern Croatian town devastated in a brutal siege during the 1991-95 war. The protest, billed as an attempt to raise awareness about unsolved and unprocessed war crimes, was largely seen as yet another thinly veiled right-wing attack on Plenkovic. Although Penava had met with Plenkovic after announcing the protest, and blamed the media for misinterpreting his motives, he nevertheless rose to prominence as one of party's staunchest hawks.
Earlier this month, Stier, Kovac, and Penava had formed an alliance, led by Kovac and supported by Brkic, in the run-up to the party election in April. They announced candidacies for top party jobs, in the hopes of overthrowing Plenkovic's centrist camp. His critics say that Plenkovic is taking away the party from its "natural" right-wing course, and although they praise Plenkovic for good results in economy and foreign policy, they also claim that the coalition with the liberal HNS has distorted the party's traditionally conservative platform.
On the other hand, Plenkovic's team for the most part consists of current HDZ cabinet ministers and county heads such as Ivan Anusic, who is the head of the Osijek-Baranja County in eastern Croatia, and is one of Plenkovic's closest associates. He was also head of incumbent president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic's failed re-election bid for the December-January presidency election.
Asked by reporters to comment on the upcoming party election as he was seen leaving the government building on Thursday, Anusic said that PM Plenkovic would present the specifics of his party election platform on Saturday.
The candidates have differing views but "they should always maintain party unity," Anusic said.