Hrebak was re-elected in the first round as Mayor of the Croatian city of Bjelovar; his digitalization of the public administration and increased transparency was a clear contribution to his victory. In this interview Hrebak shares the secret of his success, and talks about the lessons learned of his transparency efforts.
Citizens were not voting according to ideology, but rather for profound change or status quo of the society – what is your take on it, especially as you were convincingly re-elected in Bjelovar for another term as Mayor during the first round?
The citizens of Bjelovar confirmed that we are going in the right direction. It can be seen from what we have been doing for the last four years. I expected a victory, but the high 67% in the first round was above all expectations. It was very emotional for me, realizing that people really appreciate our work. These elections showed that we are valued by people from across different parties: that is a big deal. Elections are festivals of democracy, but also a civic duty. Everyone has the right to vote for whomever they want, according to their own beliefs. These elections have shown what citizens want and think, and that is change. It is a time for some new, young people who have broader views of the world and politics in general. That is just fine. Times are changing, worldviews are not the same as 10 or more years ago, technology has advanced, many things are different and therefore it would be illogical if citizens did not notice it and did not want to keep up with the times. We can say that this is also a generational shift that must happen someday.
Several candidates left their political establishments prior to the elections and ran either as independent or as part of newly created platforms, such as Mozemo in Zagreb or Centar in Split, a strategy that proved successful for most of them. Also according to this, your position stands out, you are the President of HSLS, a long standing liberal party in Croatia – what is your secret for success?
In politics, you can see all kind of things, and this is not only the case in Croatia, but in the whole world. Certain colleagues have probably concluded that the previous parties are a burden to them and that it will be easier for citizens to support them if they acted alone, behind their name and surname, and not behind a party. All this is legitimate, especially if they contribute to the improvement of their region and Croatia in general. But on the other hand, we can also talk about the fact that such a move is also a question of credibility. But there are citizens to judge about it. I am a liberal by choice and I do not deviate from my views. By nature, I am persistent, and I believe that everything is possible if you want it. This can be seen in the example of Bjelovar, where, I will boldly say, we have done a lot in four years, something that no one has even thought to touch in the last 30 years or more, and we will continue in that direction. I have been in politics for a long time and from the first day was in HSLS. I really believe in change, in a dignified life of citizens in the 21st century, and the fact that I became the president of my party at the national level and won a second term as mayor in Bjelovar, only confirms my credibility and efforts to meet the set goals. In my opinion, this is the only recipe for success, there are no big secrets, but only work and great effort, which the citizens eventually recognize. I am ready for talks, cooperation, I communicate a lot with people, and I think that this is one big link in the chain that every politician should emphasize if he wants to work well, for the benefit of those who gave him their trust in the elections.
Many analysist draw a line of comparison between the decline of trust in traditional parties throughout Europe and the rise (in particular on local level) for the Green parties. How do you see this transformation of the political landscape get reflected on national level in the future?
People are obviously disappointed and crave for something new, something fresh. The situation is similar everywhere in Europe, known faces for years and little change. Numerous activists and “green” parties found their way there, offering something different, and people, it seems, in a strong desire for change, simply chose those who are louder and just different from the others. This also happened in Zagreb in the election for Mayor. What will happen and how much it will be reflected at the national level, remains to be seen. These elections have given tailwind to “the different ones” who now are able to do something. The question is how much will they use the favourable wind and whether it will justify the citizens’ trust who will, after four years, certainly reward them in the new elections if they deserve it.
To which degree had the digitalization of the public administration and increased transparency contributed to your victory in these elections? What would be the lessons learned?
I think that the transparency project as well as the digitalization of public administration has greatly contributed to the sympathy of citizens. Especially transparency, which revealed everything that had been vague until then, perhaps even hidden. Bjelovar was the first City to embark on such a project and, believe me, it was not easy at all. There were a lot of those who were against it. I listened to all kinds of criticism, but I thought that I had nothing to hide and that the City of Bjelovar could only profit from such a move. Looking at it all today, I seem to have been right. Today, all citizens who want to, can easily find out what every kuna from the City budget was spent on, from coffee to multimillion projects. I am proud of that because I really think you need to know how money is spent and on what. Many congratulated us on our courage, but almost three years after introducing transparency in Bjelovar, only five local governments in Croatia have accepted this model. However, the turn for the rest will surely come. As Member of Parliament, I have personally advocated in the Parliament the transparency project.
The Centar candidate, Mr Puljak is leading in the first round for the second biggest city in Croatia, Split. In case he manages to ensure the trust of its citizens in the second round and becomes mayor, are there any plans for cooperation between the liberal mayors across Croatia?
I have already said, I am always open to cooperation. It is difficult to place ideas alone on the political scene, and if you succeed, it certainly does not have such an effect. I believe that everyone with good ideas and the will to work can contribute to the progress of Croatia and for better life for Croatian citizens. We can always sit at the table and talk. I am not exclusive, and I do not see a problem in a constructive conversation where we would improve some existing ideas, develop new ones in the future. We just need to have the will. I have it.
What would your message be for the members of the ALDE party?
The only message for them is to sometimes listen to us and look at what we do in smaller local self-governments. Sometimes the little ones may know more than the big ones. We are here for cooperation and advice. In today’s world, this is the only way to achieve one’s goals.