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The New Green-Red Zagreb

In May's local elections, Croatia's green-left platform won the capital's assembly and its mayoralty. The new government has big plans for a clean, democratic city – but the challenges of building it under assault from the right remain.

In the local elections held in Croatia on 16 and 30 May 2021, a left-green political platform Zagreb je Naš/Možemo! (‘Zagreb is Ours’/’Yes, We Can!’) won 23 out of 47 seats in the City Assembly, and its candidate for mayor, Tomislav Tomašević, won a convincing victory, defeating his right-wing opponent with 65% of the votes.

The platform was formed in early 2017 by a group of activists from social movements and NGOs working on issues of public space, the commons, environmental concerns, independent culture, human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ initiatives, workers’ rights, and more. Frequently presenting themselves with ‘one foot in activism, the other in electoral politics’, the motivation for fielding candidates in the 2017 Zagreb local elections was to advance a genuine alternative to the corrupt nationalist-populist politics that had defined local government in Croatia’s capital for two decades. That politics was symbolised by Mayor Milan Bandić, who presided over a clientelistic network involved in rent-seeking and resource-extraction through real estate and city holding companies until his sudden death on 28 February 2021.

In the local elections of May 2017, Zagreb je Naš (ZjN) entered into coalition with a number of existing green and left parties, and despite having few resources and little time, gained four seats in the 51-seat City Assembly with almost 8% of the vote, as well as winning seats in smaller units of local government. In 2019, leading members of ZjN joined with other NGO activists to form Možemo! and, with coalition partners, contested the European Parliamentary elections held in May 2019, polling under 2% of the national vote but with a strong showing in some urban centres. By the time of the Croatian Parliamentary elections held on 5 July 2020, the Možemo!-led coalition won 7% of the vote, returning seven members of parliament to become the fifth largest grouping.

Many of the platform’s leaders came of age as activists in social movements in Croatia in the last fifteen years – in struggles against crony capitalism, commodification, and the enclosure of the commons and privatisation of public space, and with a structuralist understanding of resource misuse in the European periphery. In Zagreb, they led a protest against a shopping centre, luxury flats, and a car park in a pedestrian area in the centre of the city, as well as a nationwide campaign against the proposal to privatise motorways. A wave of student protests and occupations against fees for higher education across the region, including in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Zagreb, were also a formative experience for many.

In terms of reference points and inspirations, it was the new municipal movements in a number of Spanish cities, notably the citizens’ platform Barcelona en Comú and similar platforms in Valencia and Madrid, that were most significant, together with transnational ‘Right to the City’ initiatives. The biannual summer Zelena Akademija (Green Academy) held on the Croatian island of Vis since 2008—originally organised by the German Green foundation Heinrich Böll Stiftung, and now by its local successor in Croatia, the Institute for Political Ecology (IPE)—has been of immense importance in terms of both the personalities and politics behind the platform.

Mayor Tomislav Tomašević was employed in IPE, and one of the deputy mayors, Danijela Dolenec, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Zagreb, served as Chair of the IPE Academic Council for many years. Along with issues of degrowth and green transformation, themes such as municipal socialism and the experiences of Rebel Cities have featured strongly in recent years, and the event has been of immense significance in fostering exchanges across the region of South East Europe and beyond.

Today, the platform is concerned with process as inseparable from, and equally as important as, the content of its political programme, modelling ideas of direct democracy and horizontal communication within its ranks both with its partners and, crucially, with citizens. Its programme for the local elections was drawn up by some 33 working groups, both thematic and area-based, involving around 200 people, and the needs and priorities of citizens have been gathered systematically through consultations at local level and an online questionnaire completed by some 10,000 people.

The platform has presented its programme as a unique opportunity to build a different Zagreb through planning in partnership with citizens, transparent accounting and budgeting, employment and contracting based on competence not connections, competitive, green and socially just recruitment and procurement practices, and an end to the selling off of city assets.

Crucially, the vision is of a revitalised, eco-friendly city with an emphasis on energy efficiency, including solar panels, safe waste disposal, improved water management, and recycling, as well as a more integrated and low-carbon transport system. Other priorities are balanced, polycentric development across the city, affordable public housing, more public spaces, and improved, and more equitable health, pre-school, and social services. There is also a focus on improved accessibility for people with disabilities, and improved services for older people, people with mental health challenges, and survivors of family violence.

Each neighbourhood is meant to be transformed through new cultural and community centres, plus the offer of sport and recreational opportunities for all. The nature of local governance will change profoundly, too, devolving decision-making power away from its concentration in the hands of the mayor and creating a stronger role for smaller units of local government with active consultation with citizens and service users.

Tomašević’s immediate priorities are to commission an independent audit of the city’s finances (which appear to be in an even worse state than first thought), ask for the resignation of all section heads and open competitions for employment in a reformed city administration, and develop an urban plan.

The platform’s programme strikes a balance between what might be called ‘normalisation’ of the governance of the city and its ‘transformation’; between a radical politicisation of structures, a belief in the power of technocracy and expertise, and a faith in direct democracy and citizens’ good sense; and, ultimately, between a genuinely progressive green-left agenda and a more liberal one. One concern is the relative absence of the involvement of those with a radical left perspective on economics and finance. Early calls for savings from within the governing structures suggest limited room for manoeuvre, at least initially, and illustrate the difference between winning an election and actually taking power. Through grassroots organising and hard work after the recent earthquakes and floods in Zagreb and other parts of Croatia, however, the movement offers a template for winning elections through positive messaging and focus on local concerns, particularly in the context of a wave of smears from the right.

The focus on ‘new municipalism’ seeks to build momentum by responding to citizens’ needs in a direct and relatively rapid fashion. Learning from what has worked elsewhere will be crucial to building a long-term, emancipatory, left-green project that could have massive implications across South East Europe and beyond – but the difficulties of creating an oasis of progressive politics within a reactionary context remain.