Croatia’s Trial by Electoral Districts: What’s Wrong with the Government’s Proposal?

Comparative politics and electoral systems
Croatian electoral dragon. Source: montage of the Croatian Government’s 2023 proposal of electoral districts and the famous 1812 cartoon The Gerry-Mander from the Boston Centinel.
August 18, 2023
Written by: 
Višeslav Raos
Associate Professor at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb

The government majority, led by the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), revised the boundaries of electoral districts, declaring their solution an appropriate response to the Constitutional Court’s decision from February 2023. The way they did it raised a lot of clamor in the media, academic community and the opposition, and then this important topic fell into the background. It’s summertime and the living is easy, more or less, or the focus of political clashes has shifted to the issues of the strike in the judiciary and the scandal of selling gas supplies at a low price. In the fall, we will have the final parliamentary debate on the Government’s solution, but also on the opposition proposals that were not discussed at the last regular session of the Parliament before the summer.

Wanting to make as few corrections as possible, the Government sent a bill to the Parliament that largely follows the proposal by Nenad Pokos from the "Ivo Pilar" Institute. On July 14th, the bill was adopted in the first reading. However, the opposition boycotted the vote due to dissatisfaction that the proposal was sent to the Parliament without a wider academic discussion. The bill does not follow county borders, the city of Zagreb is divided in three constituencies, which also include neighboring municipalities, and the most unnatural borders belong to the new 7th constituency, that extends across five different counties in different climatic and wine-growing zones, from Primorje-Gorski Kotar to Sisak-Moslavina. In contrast, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) submitted a proposal to amend the Law on Electoral Districts and the Law on the Election of Representatives to the Croatian Parliament. This model provides for six electoral districts of unequal magnitude (18 to 29 seats) that follow the county borders, more or less following the proposal of the GONG and Goran Čular from the Faculty of Political Science in Zagreb. Dalija Orešković, the political secretary of the Center party, suggested in May that a referendum be called on the Law on Electoral Districts, also referring to the GONG’s model. To better understand why the Government’s solution is problematic, it is necessary to first look at how the electoral boundaries are drawn up in other EU member states.

Of the 27 member states of the European Union, list proportional system is currently used in 18 of them, in addition to Croatia, i.e., in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czechia , Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain. In two cases, in the Netherlands and Slovakia, the entire country is one electoral district (the so-called at-large system). How is delimitation of electoral districts done in the remaining 16 cases?

In Austria, the federal states form regional electoral districts that vary in the number of seats (7 in Burgenland and 37 in Lower Austria), depending on the number of inhabitants at the last census. Each regional electoral district is divided into several smaller, geographically compact basic electoral districts, comprising several cities and districts (communities of municipalities).

In Belgium, the provinces and the capital region of Brussels are also electoral districts, and they vary with regard to the number of inhabitants (updated every ten years), from 4 in the province of Luxembourg to 24 in Antwerp.

Bulgaria has 31 electoral districts (ranging in size from 4 in small districts to 16 in the southern part of the city of Sofia). The districts coincide with the borders of 28 administrative districts, while Plodviv is a separate electoral district paralleling the administrative district of the same name, and the area of the city of Sofia is divided into three electoral districts, the borders of which coincide with the borders of the city districts.

In Cyprus, electoral districts coincide with the boundaries of six districts (eparchies) that cover the entire island and vary from 3 to 20 seats.

In the Czech Republic, 14 regions (provinces) make up electoral districts, with seats ranging from 5 in Karlovy Vary to 26 in Central Bohemia. The city of Prague is a separate province, and accordingly a separate electoral district.

In Denmark, 10 electoral districts correspond to the borders of 10 provinces, and these are divided into 92 nomination districts for individual candidacies on candidate lists. Electoral districts are combined on a higher basis for the allocation of seats in three electoral regions that correspond to the borders of five administrative regions. The size of constituencies varies from 2 (Bornholm) to 20 (Sjælland), with 2 additional seats each going to Greenland and the Faroe Islands as overseas constituencies.

Estonia has 12 electoral districts, each corresponding to one or more of the total of 15 administrative districts. The city of Tallinn is divided into three electoral districts, which were formed by merging three or two neighboring city districts. Other electoral districts correspond to one administrative district, or two in the case of small districts. Seats vary from 5 to 16.

In Finland, the borders of the 13 electoral districts are based on the borders of the provinces dating back to the 17th century, while ten years ago the provinces were divided into smaller entities, 19 regions, by administrative reform. The number of seats for each electoral district is updated six months before the election according to the population, and currently varies from 1 (Åland) to 35 (Uusimaa).

In Greece, all constituencies, except for the cities of Athens and Thessaloniki, which are divided into multiple constituencies based on the boundaries of the city’s municipalities, correspond to the boundaries of prefectures (which were replaced by regional units after 2010). The number of seats per electoral district is determined by dividing the number of inhabitants by the electoral quota (average number of inhabitants per mandate), and thus has a range from 1 (island districts, such as Cephalonia and Zakynthos) to 19 (the southern part of Athens).

Latvia is divided into five electoral districts corresponding to five regions, each electing between 12 and 36 seats, depending on the number of inhabitants.

Luxembourg is divided into four electoral districts, established in 1919, southern, central, eastern and northern, which include from 2 to 5 cantons and have from 7 to 23 seats. The electoral district borders follow the canton borders.

Poland is divided into 41 electoral districts in which between 7 and 20 representatives are elected, depending on the number of inhabitants. Electoral districts follow the borders of voivodeships (16 in total), and larger voivodeships are divided into several electoral districts.

In Romania, the electoral districts overlap with the borders of 41 counties (județ), while Bucharest is divided into six electoral districts, according to the borders of the Bucharest city municipalities. Each district elects at least 4 representatives, and the rest is determined according to the number of inhabitants determined by the national statistical office in the year preceding the election. The smallest districts elect 4 representatives (for example, Tulcea in Dobrudja), and at most the whole of Bucharest, 29 of them.

Eighteen Portuguese districts form constituencies, with a large variation in the number of seats, according to population, from 2 (Portalegre, as well as two foreign districts, for voters in Europe and voters outside Europe) to 48 (Lisbon).

In Slovenia, apart from two representatives of national minorities who are elected according to the Borda count, representatives are elected in eight electoral districts, each of them with 11 seats (each candidate has a home nomination district within the electoral district). Apart from Croatia, Slovenia is the only member of the European Union with equal district magnitude. Furthemore, Slovenia, along with Croatia, is the only member state that has divided the capital into several electoral districts, so that the same district is made up of some city districts and neighboring municipalities. The borders of Slovenian electoral districts do not coincide with the borders of historical Slovenian provinces (Upper Carniola, Lower Carniola, Styria, Carinthia, etc.), nor with the borders of statistical regions, but they are less unnatural than both the existing and proposed borders of ten electoral units in Croatia. Ljubljana is divided in two electoral districts – Center (central and southern part of the city, together with the neighboring municipalities of Cerknica and Vrhnika) and Bežigrad (north and east of the city, together with the neighboring municipalities of Kočevje, Grosuplje, Litija and Domžale).

In Spain, each province constitutes a separate electoral district and has a minimum of two seats, and the remaining ones are determined according to the population, so the smallest, Soria, elects 2 representatives, and Madrid 37. The Spanish enclaves on the North African coast, Ceuta and Melilla, elect one representative each.

In the observed cases, except for Croatia, Belgium and Spain (and Denmark in the first step of converting votes into mandates), the electoral threshold is applied at the national level, and not at district level (Portugal and Luxembourg do not have a legal threshold, which means that a natural threshold that depends on the different size of electoral districts comes into play).

As we can see from this short comparison, in all cases except Croatian and Slovenian, the borders of the electoral districts follow the administrative borders, and the capital cities are separate electoral districts or are divided into several districts, but which are not connected to the surrounding areas. The Croatian and Slovenian solutions insist on equal district magnitude, but in the Slovenian case there is no middle level of government (county in Croatia), and the borders of the electoral districts do not cross the borders of municipalities and city municipalities, the only self-governing units in that country. Also, Slovenia is spatially more compact than Croatia, and its population is more evenly distributed (Ljubljana’s share in the entire country's population is 13.95 percent, and Zagreb’s 19.8 percent), so the borders of electoral districts do not have unusual and unnatural shapes.

Considering preferential voting, regional diversity, and the absence of an upper house of the parliament that would represent the interests of the counties, an at-large system would not be suitable for Croatia. The current Government’s solution means that in the future it will be necessary to redraw the already unnatural borders of electoral districts in order to preserve the principle of equal district magnitude. The solution proposed by GONG respects regional representation, at the same time creating constituencies large enough to guarantee a high degree of proportionality since the threshold is applied at constituency level. If Croatia were to follow the example of the rest of the EU member states and each county would be one electoral district, the effective electoral threshold would vary significantly, since the Lika-Senj County would elect only 3 representatives, and Zagreb 21, which means that in Zagreb it would be five percent, and in Lika 18.75 percent. Taking all of the above into account, it seems that GONG’s proposal is the optimal solution for Croatia’s enduring trial by electoral districts.

The author’s detailed analysis of the effects of the list proportional system in Croatia is available here.

Annals of the Croatian Political Science Association

Croatian Political Science Association
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