Independent institutions in the Croatian political system: an inside look

16. December 2021.

This paper, on the role of independent institutions in the Croatian political system, is a continuation of the research on institutional sources of corruption in Croatia from 2020. Experts dealing with the fight against corruption, who we interviewed for the first paper, pointed out the strengthening of the institutional framework as one of the solutions to the spread of corrupt practice in Croatia. They placed special emphasis on the importance of independent institutions, i.e. supervisory bodies, regulatory agencies and, of course, the judiciary as a third, independent branch that makes up the political system.

While creating this paper it was paramount for us to understand the role of independent institutions in the Croatian political system and to see if there are institutional, normative, but also value capacities within these bodies that could be used to improve the political and social framework in Croatia, particularly in the form of the fight against corruption as one of the key problems Croatian society faces today. 

We wish to, once again, point out the importance of the institutional structure, i.e. institutions, for the health, strength and stability of the political system. In doing so, it is important to understand that structure in political life is sometimes just as important, if not more important, than the actions and behaviors of individuals. Although individuals who work in those institutions are important, although political actors operating within the system are indispensable, the institutional design within which these individuals operate is a key element we can use to (or prevent) reform the political system and strengthen its democratic capacity. Institutions, in this case, are a key actor in building values, interests and attitudes that influence the actions of actors. This is especially relevant for the institutions of a democratic state, whose constitutions guarantee the power to create, apply, impose and interpret laws.

The research was conducted through nine in-depth semi-structured interviews with interviewees who have a deeper knowledge of the system of independent institutions, who operate within that system or who act externally in some type of relationship with independent institutions. With this in mind, we interviewed four representatives of independent institutions and five politicians who act (or have been active until recently) within the Croatian Parliament, and whose work touches on independent institutions, whether legally regulating their field of activity, discussing and voting on the annual reports of these institutions or appointing their leaders. Interviews were conducted by journalists Đurđica Klancir and Slavica Lukić.

This paper sought to find out exactly where the key to the independence of independent institutions lies. Is it enough to constitutionally or legally prescribe this independence and expect it to be respected? Or is it necessary to create a kind of cordon sanitaire between political actors and independent institutions that would prevent any indication of interference by politicians in the work of independent institutions? Or is the key in the individuals who work in an independent institution and who have to fight for its independence? Initially, we stated that the assumption about the importance of structure, as opposed to a simple focus on individuals operating in the structure, is an important element of our understanding of the role of independent institutions in a democratic political order. Both our interlocutors partly supported this initial premise, although they greatly supplemented it with a focus on the individual. Whether they are politicians who control the work of independent institutions, civil servants working in independent institutions or leaders of those institutions, the ideas of morality, independence, courage and neutrality were given as key factors in the success of an independent institution.

Other ideas and insights we learned from the interviews can be roughly divided into two key categories. These are activities and processes that can be undertaken by independent institutions in order to strengthen their position, on the one hand, and the role of politicians in this process of strengthening the position of an independent institution, on the other. Independent institutions should improve communication with citizens, either directly or through the media, including a focus on educating and disseminating information about their own work. They should strengthen inter-institutional cooperation activities, especially on issues of common interest to all institutions involved. This refers to cooperation with other stakeholders - the media, civil society organizations, academia - as well as rapprochement with other independent institutions at the national level. Finally, independent institutions should work to change the internal political culture that would convince the leader, regardless of the way they are appointed, from the very beginning of the need to preserve the independence of the institution, i.e. to put the institution and its success first.

On the other hand, politicians are expected to nominate and elect candidates of unquestionable ethics, i.e. individuals of inviolable morals, regardless of their ideological similarities. The process of candidacy and election should be tailored in such a way as to deter bad candidates from the candidacy from the very beginning, and encourage the best candidates to apply. Another important activity by which political actors can ensure the independence of the institution is the financial sustainability of its activities. Although the needs of public authorities are always significant and financial resources are scarce in nature, political actors should avoid using financial pressures to prevent the optimal functioning of an independent institution. Finally, the most important tool that politicians can use to strengthen the independence of an independent institution requires almost no legal, administrative or other changes. It is a matter of prompt and objective placing of annual reports, that independent institutions submit to the Croatian Parliament, on the agenda. At the same time, it is important that they deliberately and openly debate these reports, without the obligation that the debate be followed by the green light from the Parliament. Regardless of whether political actors agree with the work of the institution or not, changing their activities on this relatively minor element of their interrelationship would significantly improve the position of independent institutions in the Croatian political system.

As a conclusion to this whole paper, we can use the comment given by one of our interviewees, who operates within the system of independent institutions. Ultimately, she points out, the role of independent institutions “should be, in a way, democratizing. That independent institutions show interest in bad decisions and be decisive in sanctioning - I mean primarily the judicial system. On the other hand, to be present and to keep an eye on what is happening and in that way to prevent potential deviations. Namely, prevention should be the most important, most represented activity in independent institutions, but when that prevention is also missed, then at least a sanction should follow when it is justified. However, legislation is always a problem, because only legislation depends on the will of the ruling elite and many independent institutions have their hands tied, and I would say their legs, because the legislator did that consciously. "

The democratization of the system, through prevention and sanctioning, is the winning formula for the success of independent institutions in a political system aimed at protecting liberal democracy. How much the tools to prevent and sanction can be used, however, depends not only on independent institutions, but above all on political actors, especially the representatives of citizens in the representative body. Therefore, the conclusion of this paper is that the political actors are the problem, but also the solution to the endangered role of independent institutions in the Croatian political system.

Gong is a beneficiary of operational support - structural support to European think-do-tanks in general "Democratic and Civic Participation" under the Europe for Citizens program.

Gong is a Knowledge Center in the field of civic activism and building democratic institutions of society within the Development Cooperation with the National Foundation for Civil Society Development.

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