Readers of this blog will be forgiven for not paying close attention to Croatian politics in recent months. The relative size, wealth and influence of the South Eastern European nation means that it rarely, if ever, makes it into the mainstream media. But big news is on the way for Croatia.
Later this week Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, Croatia’s ‘leading lady of politics’, will assume her role as President of the nation after her election victory in 2014. Grabar-Kitarović won with an incredibly slim margin – with no candidate winning a majority in the first vote, a run-off saw the Croatian Democratic Union take power with just 50.7% of the vote.
Her victory in the election was heralded as a progressive step by much of the nation. Her supporters especially were quick to celebrate the first female head-of-state.
The prelude to Gabar-Kitarović’s victory began long ago. After entering politics in the 90s she quickly established her self in the diplomatic world. After working with the Canadian embassy she moved into the foreign office, where she eventually rose to the position of Foreign Minister. Gabar-Kitarović gained small international attention at this point in her career after overseeing Croatia’s ascension into NATO. In a relatively short career she had established herself among the political elite, where she was seen as Croatia’s leading woman – and a trailblazer for women in power.
Commentators on the presidential campaign however predicted that Grabar-Kitarović would face difficulties when it came to breaking the final barrier. Many followers of the party come from religious-conservative backgrounds, and women in Croatian politics have often struggled to achieve the same as their male counterparts. Her image was often attacked – she was often portrayed as the ‘blonde bimbo’ – a sexualised figure with little intelligence or conviction.
But Gabar-Kitarović’s rise to success, despite its historic significance, may not be the victory for women that her followers have been eager to portray it as. Despite overcoming sexism from politics and the public, the direction this new leader now heads in may be less in-line with the image of female empowerment that she has been painted as by few.
Gabar-Kitarović’s Croatian Democratic Party stands on a centre-right platform. But as with many conservative groups her party also contains several far-right elements within its philosophies. Despite being pro-Europe, the CDP support Croatian nationalism and also dabble with a few areas that traditionally are seen in more far-right groups.
They are also a pro-Christian group with ties to the country’s very conservative church. This link between church and state has alarmed some Croatians, as the church still holds much power when it comes to influencing the politics of many Croatians.
Restrictions on abortions, artificial insemination and other female reproductive rights are all areas that the CDP has previously campaigned to support. Now that the party is in power these anti-female policies stand to come into law.
Although her victory is being portrayed by supporters as a step to support equality, the reality is that Gabar-Kitarović’s election is a victory for the religious-right and nationalists of Croatia and nothing else.
Gabar-Kitarović now oversees a group representing the spectrum of right-wing politics. She holds the power, as President, to oversee widespread changes in her country – to choose wether to support the nation’s religious-right and wealthy elite, or to vie for the support of broader secular society.
Her election is just another example of political hypocrisy seen across Europe. Her party is happy to present themselves as pro-equality when it suits them, yet in reality they support the kind of anti-women policies that stall equality for their nation.
Regardless of her gender Gabar-Kitarović is now a part of the political machine. Although she holds more sway than most, her role as first female head-of-state means little when the party that holds power operate in the way that they do. Members of the party will continue to hold far-right views, regardless of their leader, and the religious-right elements of these groups will not be stalled by a female head of state.
As a now-historic figure Gabar-Kitarović holds the potential to support female equality in Croatia and to lobby for policies that grant further rights and support for women. Her political alliances, and the party she represents, tells us that this is however highly unlikely to happen.
Much like Margaret Thatcher, a figure who inspired the formation of the CDP, Gabar-Kitarović’s legacy is more likely to be a dark point for Croatian women. The symbolic meaning of a first female leader will no doubt be overshadowed by the potentially anti-equality changes that now stand to occur.
Tom Ana is a Paris-based campaigner and blogger with an interest in human rights and LGBT issues. He is the editor of Euroclash!. You can follow him on Twitter here!