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Ivica Puljak doing a public lecture about "The future of space and humankind" at The Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Naval Architecture (FESB) in Split. (Credit: Josip Svalina/Puljak's personal archive)

Part 1

Knowledge-based approach in the populist political arena

“There are two kinds of optimists in this world,” says Croatian physicist Ivica Puljak as he launches into his public lecture about the future of space and humankind. “The ones who hope they will get the present, waiting for Santa Claus to arrive; and those who want to build a little house on the tree and invite their friends to help them.” It is an effective ice-breaker and you can hear the audience giggling. They can sense this will be an unusually relaxed lecture about complicated physics phenomena. It is obvious that Puljak knows how to captivate attention, and why wouldn’t he – in the last year alone, he has done more than 160 lectures at public events, high-schools, faculties and even kindergartens. There are not many Croatian scientists that are so passionately active in popularizing their science, especially not ones with such a high profile scientific career – Puljak, among other things, led one of the main international groups responsible for finding the Higgs-Boson.  Today he is a professor at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Naval Architecture (FESB) in Split, a guest scientist at CERN and a guest professor at Ecole Polytechnique in Paris.


Puljak, among other things, led one of the main international groups responsible for finding the Higgs-Boson

He uses the “optimist allegory” a lot, not only as an efficient lecture introduction, but also as a good metaphor for his own beliefs – the same ones which led him to enter politics after 20 years of a successful scientific career. It was this very entertaining physics lectures that had of late boosted his popularity among the Croatian public and even stirred up some bad feelings – a couple of months ago a local politician publicly accused Puljak of “lecturing to the kids that there is no God”. This accusation, absurd as it sounds, paints a perfect picture of the current chaotic, polarized and increasingly conservative public discourse in Croatia, which also strongly shapes the country’s political scene. It is a scene which for years now efficiently turns most intellectuals and scientists away from politics, as it becomes more and more superficial and populist in its nature.

It started with a school


Maybe the complicated Croatian political world wouldn’t have been Puljak’s destiny either, if it wasn’t for a very pragmatic reason – the absence of a school in that part of the city of Split where Puljak’s family lives.

“Ten years ago my wife Marijana and I realised that the long-promised school would never be built if we, as citizens, didn’t do something about it. So we united with some of our neighbours and organized a local citizen initiative,” recalls Puljak. They began on the most basic local level and won the elections for the little so-called “kotar” council with not much more than a hundred votes. Marijana Puljak became a president of the council and started, amongst other things, to tirelessly lobby for the school. Five years later the school still hasn’t been built, but the group has realised that some things indeed can be changed by acting within the system. In 2013, they decided to participate in elections for the city council and the mayoral office. It took them only three months of political campaigning to get 10 percent of the votes and subsequently, four seats in the council. From there on, their ambitions grew and they decided to transform an existing citizen’s initiative into a real political party.


Ivica Puljak, with his wife and partner in politics Marijana, above the City of Split 

However, at this point things also became complicated. Puljak and his political colleagues – mostly the highly educated citizens with on-going careers in other areas – insisted from the beginning on sticking to their principles, with transparency regarding party goals being high on the list. They adopted an almost scientific approach and made a highly structured program which positioned them on the left-liberal spectrum, with emphasis on strengthening science and modernising education, reducing state administration and taxes for the private business sector, as well as insisting on social welfare measures such as free education and public health. They named their party “Pametno” (“Smart”) which raised more than a few eyebrows at the time.

The price of political “stubbornness”


When the first coalition propositions started to arrive – for example from the leading left party SDP at the Split city council – they weren’t really keen on making many compromises and decided that they would rather take a slower approach than sacrifice parts of their program. In the beginning, the price of this “stubbornness” seemed quite high, particularly during the 2015 parliamentary elections – they turned down an offer to join a large coalition of independent local initiatives known as MOST, proclaimed a “fresh new political power”, which later went on to became one of the biggest election winners, crucial in forming the new government.

“If our negotiations with MOST had ended successfully back in 2014, we might have never become an independent party. But we realized soon enough that they were much more interested in gaining the votes, than in the program itself,” says Puljak. His party won barely a few percent and remained far away from the parliament. It turns out that the newly formed government, cobbled together with awkward compromises and robust negotiations around seats, didn’t last long. The next parliamentary elections happened in 2016. Pametno still stayed below the electoral threshold, but this time they came reasonably close to winning their first parliamentary seat. A year later consistency and patience paid off somewhat when they won 7 out of a total of 35 seats in the Split city council.

Not everybody sees this painful approach, where progression is measured every few years by at most a few percent, as a particularly promising in the context of the passing time. Over the last 27 years, the Croatian political scene has been constantly dominated by the two large parties – right-wing HDZ and left-wing SDP. Currently the most successful third option, known by the name Živi zid is, in a way, the exact opposite of Pametno’s agenda, relying much more on a loud presence in the public, than on the feasibility of the political program. Nevertheless, Puljak remains optimistic that a steady, non-populistic approach will eventually get them far enough.


Scientists in denial


“Modern society should be developed through long-term strategies and policies created in collaboration with experts, rather than through practices that see those with the reins of political power trade particular interests with different parties. Such acting is extremely unprofessional, but that’s how things are too often done in Croatia. And we want to change that”, says Puljak.In this situation it is precisely the experts, scientists in particular, he emphasizes, who have the responsibility to act and try to change society for the better.

“We as scientists are usually thinking that expertise takes priority, while politics is of less importance. I often hear my colleagues say: we will give our expert advice and let politicians implement it. But that is not likely to happen, especially not in a developing society like Croatia. It is childish to be an expert expecting things to change and at the same time choosing to stay away from politics,” reasons Puljak. One of his greatest disappointments, he concludes, is specifically the opportunistic passivity in Croatian academic circles. 

The science community in Croatia is, indeed, mostly silent. In this country, which has one of the smallest state budgets for the research and innovation in the EU – barely 0.85 percent of GDP – scientists are the last ones who will complain loudly. Almost every scandal in academic circles, even the plagiarism accusation levelled at the then-serving minister of science and education himself, passed without much public outrage from the science community, provoking usually only lonely protests from individual crusaders. The combination of silence and a resistance to changing the academic system, where excellence is often not the main criteria for career advancement, is recognised by many as an important reason why Croatian science is still less competitive on the world scene.

“Croatian scientists rarely react to injustice because of fear and opportunism. The usual attitude is that there is no need for ‚making a fuss‘ and it is better to look after your work and career,” says Tanja Rudež, award-winning Croatian science journalist at Jutarnji newspaper. The fear is real, explains Rudež, recalling the case of four Croatian philosophers who reported ex-Minister of science and education Pavo Barišić for plagiarism to the science ethical committee in parliament, and later suffered, they said, harassment at work, including a repeal of the study program on which they were engaged. Rudež agrees that stronger public involvement should be a sort of obligation for scientists, especially in the era of pseudo-science movements, but she still has some mixed experience with scientists turning politicians. She herself was publicly called out for her opinions and writing by one ex-minister of science, Dragan Primorac, and unsuccessfully sued by another, Pavo Barišić. Nevertheless, she sees Puljak’s political ambitions as promising ones.

“I like the motivation and ideas behind his political engagement. I also think their chances grew because of the current crisis in leading left-wing opposition party”, says Rudež.


Ivica Puljak doing a public lecture about "the future of space and humankind" at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Naval Architecture (FESB) in Split. (Credit: Josip Svalina/Puljak's personal archive)

Puljak’s political goals are also supported by his closest science colleagues.  “The engagement of scientists in politics is always welcome because scientists make conclusions based on careful fact analysis. Besides, they bring a specific political content to public discourse, without much populistic rhetoric,” says Nikola Godinović, physicist at FESB. He supports the idea of a more functional, socially engaged society which invests in science and education and thinks Puljak can successfully link both worlds – science and politics.As for Puljak, he admits that his intensified political activity makes it increasingly difficult to maintain a high intensity of scientific work. But scientists, says Puljak, are used to work overtime. Back in the period of the “hunt” for the Higgs-Boson, it was usual for him to work 30 hours without rest. It also helps, he says, to have a wife as a partner in politics and a harmonious family in general. Ivica’s and Marijana’s oldest daughter and son are already students, while their youngest daughter is at the end of elementary school, all with excellent grades.

Preparing for the EU elections


The one thing that will certainly suffer from more ambitious political activity, predicts Puljak with some regrets, are his science lectures for the wider audience.“I was surprised to see how much are people interested in the science and knowledge. I hope I will get to share these ideas through politics, which is an even better way to do so,” says Puljak.


Puljak lecturing high-school kids about physics in a more relaxed way. In the last year alone, he has done more than 160 lectures at public events, high-schools, faculties and even kindergartens. (Credit: Eva Magdić/Puljak's personal archive)

The pace of his political activity is likely to escalate quickly in the next few months. In May, Pametno is planning to run for the EU parliament elections, and then the party will likely participate in the next Croatian presidential elections at the end of the year.  Their biggest goal is the 2020 Croatian parliamentary elections.  In the meantime, they continue to be an unusual presence on the Croatian political scene. At the beginning of September, Pametno suddenly announced they will not enter the already planned and promising coalition with GLAS and IDS, two parties on the left spectrum. The cited reasons were “different views” regarding the current financial crisis of two of the biggest Croatian shipyards, “Uljanik” and “3. maj”, and a potentially controversial involvement of one of the IDS members. Again, the party’s move produced some mixed reactions in Croatian media.

“In the Croatian political landscape which is characterised by right and left collectivism, Pametno differs from the others precisely because it rejects collectivism. They have unusually high standards in refusing opportunistic coalitions,” says Jurica Pavičić, Split-based Croatian writer and political journalist.
“Although I’m personally not liberal, I’m glad that the Pametno party exists, because they are the only political party in Croatia which is ideologically consistently liberal and represents those values that are unpopular with the leftists – for example in economy, and with the rightists – when they advocate against religious education in the schools,” says Pavičić. If Croatia is by any chance to become a more mature society, says Pavičić, Pametno could become something like the Spanish Ciudadanos – a small, elite liberal party that plays an important role in the political equation.

The next year will certainly tell if this anti-populist, knowledge-based approach will stand any chance in Croatian politics. If we are to judge by the first Puljak’s political goal ever – the school which eventually got built – perhaps the answer will be “yes”.


The current anatomy of the Croatian political scene  
During the last 27 years, which mark the period of Croatian Independence, the Croatian political scene has been dominated by two major political parties – the conservative, centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) which has formed a total of seven governments so far, and the center-left Social Democratic Party of Croatia (SDP) which has been in power twice.
The current government is a result of the coalition between HDZ and Croatian People's Party-Liberal Democrats. The government has support from another five small parties, a couple of independent parliament members and the representatives of national minorities, which proves barely enough for a weak majority in the parliament. There are altogether 20 parties in the current 9th parliament assembly. According to the last polls, HDZ is still the most popular party, followed by a somewhat weakened SDP. The third place is occupied by Živi zid (populist, anti-establishment, Eurosceptic party), while MOST (center to center-right party) is the fourth.   
“Today it seems that Croatia is heading toward a prolonged period of conservative governments, because the largest opposition party, SDP, is in deep crisis,” says Jasmin Klarić, political journalist at Telegram news portal. However, that means that political field for other centrist and center-left parties is wide open, he says, and it seems that parties like Pametno have a great opportunity to reach out to the disappointed voters, unhappy with the current government and main opposition parties.

Vedrana Simičević

The journalist


Vedrana Simičević is a long-time Croatian journalist and editor at the Croatian daily newspaper Novi list. She is a psychologist by education. As a journalist Vedrana has specialised in science, social issues and social phenomena like migration, nationalism, xenophobia and democracies. Other topics of interest include culture, different field stories and outdoor sports. In 2018 she won the national award for the best journalistic work about environment protection. Recently she started contributing to international outlets, including Science and New Scientist.

Ivica Puljak

The scientist


Ivica Puljak, professor of physics at Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Naval Architecture in Split, is one of the best known Croatian physicists, with an impressive international career mostly connected with the CERN and the search for the Higgs-Boson at CMS. He is one of the most cited Croatian scientists; he was a guest scientists at CERN and a guest professor at Ecole Polytechnique in Paris; he is also a member of the international MAGIC collaboration.

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