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The residents of Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, voted for change in May, turning away from a regime that had held power since 2000, whose mayor had been deeply entangled in corruption and clientelism. Možemo!, which translates as ‘We Can!’, won 23 out of 47 seats in the City Assembly. The coalition consists of small Left-Green parties, the municipalist initiative Zagreb je NAŠ! (‘Zagreb is Ours!’) and social movements including environmentalists, LGBTQ+ rights activists and trade unions. Together they have promised “to change the way the city is governed, to return the city to its citizens in politics”.
The new mayor, Tomislav Tomašević, won the first round on 16 May with 45% of the vote before defeating his far-Right populist opponent Miroslav Škoro on Sunday 30 May. Tomašević – who won more than 65% of the second-round vote – became popular during his years of activism, especially against Zagreb’s urban crises, which escalated during Milan Bandić’s time as mayor.
On 18 June, the day after forming a coalition with the now-minor Socijaldemokratske Partije (Social Democratic Party), Možemo! published its 28-point programme for the city. This includes giving Zagreb citizens the digital means to call out corruption; making Zagreb’s finances transparent; offering support for public and active transport; and increasing in welfare spending and for public housing. (The full programme can be read here.)
Reacting to the successful city council elections and first round of the mayoral race, Tomašević said Zagreb no longer belongs to any interest group: “The citizens said that ‘We Can!’. We can do greener, more just, more transparent, better!”
This year’s election means Zagrebians are backing the transformation towards an eco-friendly capital for Croatia, with further plans in the programme for energy efficiency, renewables and increasing green spaces, also amongst the 28 points. The new administration will also stop the sell-off of the city’s assets and Tomašević has earmarked an independent audit of the city’s finances and root and branch change of the city’s administration as a top priority of this new era.
This represents a sea-change contrasting with the old politics. Milan Bandić, who died of a heart attack in late February 2021, was the mayor of Zagreb for most of this century – besides a gap from 2002-05, when his party relieved him of mayoral duties after a political scandal in which he evaded police after drink driving. He was once again temporarily demoted from the mayorship in 2014, having been arrested on charges relating to corruption and abuse of his office connected to a public-owned waste-management company. Despite a corruption case that was ongoing until his death, and multiple further allegations, as well as Zagreb’s housing costs rising while money was being misspent on expensive prestige projects, Bandić won six mayoral contests, the latest being in 2017.
In 2017, Zagreb je NAŠ! (ZjN!) was founded, winning 8% of the vote and four seats in the city council in that year’s elections. Many of its members have years of involvement in urban struggles for the right to the city. These include occupations of public space, such as in 2010 against the construction of a shopping centre and luxury flats and the gentrification of Central Zagreb, where peaceful protests were terminated by police force.
Two months before the 2017 May elections, 400 people from the ZjN! marched through the capital’s streets with a banner proclaiming the ‘City is ours’. The movement gathered outside the city’s assembly where they read out a 25-point manifesto, a plan devised collaboratively.
In 2019, ZjN! formed Možemo! a political platform with a local and national outlook that would run in European elections that year. Before the 2021 city election, the programme was further developed horizontally by local assemblies and online questionnaires, which saw some 10,000 people contribute. A central idea advanced by the platform is that of a polycentric city, which rejects the kind of planning that only prioritises downtown areas.
Winning the city on its second attempt
Academic and ZjN! activist Karlo Kralj chronicled the rise for the online municipalist magazine, Minim. This story is interwoven with the demise of the type of politics that has dominated Croatia’s capital for the past two decades, a decline made clear in the 2021 election results for Pavičić Vukičević, the legacy candidate of the former mayor, running for the same party, who received less than 12% of the vote, coming third in the first round.
Kralj points out how 2020 was a seminal year. Zagreb faced a number of crises, including a severe earthquake, then a flood, both of which were mismanaged by the previous administration. The COVID pandemic only threw into relief the city’s decrepit and dysfunctional infrastructure, itself a consequence of years of neglect and corruption. Možemo! was able to become the main opposition as the Social Democratic Party was riddled with infighting and ideological incoherence. It gained further traction with their success in the Croatian national elections of July 2020. Importantly too, Kralj explains, Možemo! built city-wide support through a programme done for and by every neighbourhood.
The new deputy mayor of Zagreb, Danijela Dolenec, was interviewed by Danas newspaper, September 2020, about how Croatian and Balkan politics had shifted to the Right: “The strengthening of radical right-wing elements does not only stem from the strategies used by Croatia’s ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), in terms of tolerating or normalizing nationalism, chauvinism, etc.… but is the result of many years in which there is no articulation of Leftist ideas in any public space.”
Možemo! filled the void with its municipalist pathway
Možemo! may appear a traditional political party, but it is constituted in a different manner. It allows as many people as possible to participate in decision-making processes, making proposals and expressing their opinions through local groups and assemblies.
Local assemblies also proved themselves vital in the response to the 2020 earthquake. Compared to traditional parties, people can do this without the barrier of needing to become a member of a party. Writing for Jacobin Italia, the political scientist Chiara Milan, who specialises in social movements in the Balkans, highlights this point. She compares it to Barcelona En Comú, the team that has been governing the Catalan capital since 2015. Here too, we have a convergence of social movements with a former activist now turned mayor.
Importantly… Možemo! built city-wide support through a programme done for and by every neighbourhood
She writes, “[In Zagreb] The decision to try the institutional route stemmed from the awareness that the battle in the streets could no longer be the only solution, but that it was necessary to enter the institutions to transform them from within, while maintaining close contact with the movements that continued to animate the streets and squares.”
Zagreb je NAŠ! has both accrued influence and gained support from municipalist platforms across Europe where people have taken back the city – not least Barcelona En Comú. Mirroring many other places in Europe, especially Hungary and Poland, Croatia has also seen a resurgence in far-Right and populist politics. Not only did Tomašević face and overwhelmingly defeat a far-Right opponent in the second round of the mayoral election, but Croatia is witnessing escalating attacks against women’s rights. This is happening while many politicians are turning a blind eye to the increase in violence currently persecuting the LGBTQ+ community.
Zagreb’s former mayor, Bandić, sent strong signals in support of this violence, including removing Pride flags and replacing them with Christian anti-abortion ‘Walk for Life’ flags, which symbolise both an attack on abortion rights and feminism more broadly. By contrast, the new city government has pledged to combat gender-based and sexuality-based violence. Zagreb is now part of a trend in which feminist and municipalist platforms are winning cities for the people in common, which has happened in Grenoble, Amsterdam and Naples.
In both Naples and Zagreb, the newly elected municipalist successes must now deal with the waste mismanagement of previous administrations. In 2017, Zagreb je NAŠ! was originally launched on Jakusevec landfill, where Tomašević announced: “The battle for Zagreb begins on this hill.” Now closing Jakusevec is another priority for Croatia’s new city government’s programme.
Support from abroad
These decentralised cities of Europe are supporting each other. Before Zagreb’s election, the municipalist mayor of Grenoble extended support for Možemo!, announcing that, as a future mayor, Tomašević would join the movement of Green cities in Europe and that he looked forward to working with him. The pro-democratic mayor of Budapest and municipalist mayor of Barcelona also offered their encouragement.
At home, the result has also been viewed as a major rejection of Croatia’s governing party, the HDZ, in the capital. The party won only six seats – dropping from 14 and thus creating a political gulf between the HDZ’s persistent rule in the counties and its progressive capital. The success of municipalism in Zagreb show citizens across the Balkan region that bottom-up democratic Left platforms can succeed. Movements such as Ne Davimo Beograd in Serbia are ones to watch in this burgeoning Left-Green space.
Continuing on from recent municipalist successes elsewhere in Europe, Možemo demonstrates that citizens platforms can challenge the unique crises that, collectively, we must imagine ourselves beyond.