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Challenging transition from scientist to politician

Ivica Puljak in conversation with citizens in Split, during the last-year campaign for the local elections

(Credit: Ivica Puljak / personal archive )

Part 2

"We think we have a fair chance for winning at least one seat in the European parliament", says Ivica Puljak optimistically, contemplating upcoming European elections in May 2019. Two months ago, he and his colleagues from political party Pametno aborted negotiations to join a small left coalition and decided - in a way that has become something of a trademark - to go it alone in the elections. Puljak will be the leading party member on the election list. If his optimistic predictions turn out to be right, it is highly likely that the Croatian physicist will become the new European MP.
For him, that also means he will move completely from a 20-year successful scientific career to politics for an indefinite period of time.
“If people have elected you as their representative, it is not morally right to have a job on the side. The only thing I would keep is the popularization part – all the scientific lectures for the public which are, in my opinion, useful for the community,” says Puljak. For him and his political colleagues, May’s elections are important not only because of their political agenda to strengthen Croatia’s place among united Europe, but also as sort of a test for the 2019 presidential and 2020 parliamentary elections. If he gets to the European parliament, Puljak plans to focus on his area of expertise, advocating for bigger EU investment in science and encouraging better use of EU funds in Croatia. Pametno’s campaign for the EU elections, which they plane to base on the concept of a stronger united Europe, will start soon after the new year.  



“Stubborn” voting patterns

But the road to the European parliament will be rocky. At the last European elections Croatians chose 11 representatives by a preferential voting system. Voter turnout was low and most of the seats were split between the two largest coalitions, left and right. The one remaining seat went to autonomous political party ORAH which got 9,42 percent of the votes. In the last November polls, Pametno was still below 3 percent of support.


Members of the party Pametno during the visit to European Parliament, organized by ALDE, Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe - European political association to which they are part of.

(Credit: Ivica Puljak / personal archive)

Generally speaking, in the last five years, active Croatian voters seem to be favouring right wing, populist options, while consistently low voter turnout probably testifies to a prevailing sense of general political disappointment among citizens. According to Vuk Vuković, Croatia-based PHD candidate at the University of Oxford, who among other things studies voting behaviour, there are some consistent patterns of voting in Croatia which are quite resistant to any non-populistic political campaign. Vuković and colleagues analysed different economic and demographic databases and the results of five post-war elections in Croatia. They concluded that Croatian voters like to award increased spending before elections, especially for big construction projects. Vuković call this phenomenom “budget populism”. 


"Our results show that in the places where corruption was more present, leading politicians got better chances to be re-elected”, says researcher Vuk Vuković.

(Credit: Vuk Vuković / personal archive)

“Corruption plays a big role in this issue. We found that in places where corruption was more evident, leading politicians had a better chance of being re-elected,” says Vuković. The “calculation” is fairly simple: they usually need just 20 percent of all registered voters for a victory and they know they will get it from people who are depending on them through different kinds of corruption and personal interest. The other important aspect is so-called emotional voting. In the case of Croatia, war memories from the nineties still play a significant role. In areas more affected by the consequences of war, says Vuković, results show that the leading right wing, nationalist party HDZ is the inevitable winner.
“Lately there is also an issue of worryingly increased economic emigration. Tens of thousands of citizens left Croatia in the last couple of years, and they are probably voters who could be more favourable to political options like Pametno,” concludes Vuković.

So if you are a scientist motivated to enter politics, trying to promote scientifically supported strategies, how can you communicate your mainly hard-science-based, long-term solutions to a society where voters are predominantly driven by these factors?

Door to door approach

Puljak admits this will be a tough battle to win.
“We are witnessing today the weakening of science’s influence on society. One of the reasons is the rise of the social networks, which allow faster spreading of different opinions in public. Seemingly easy populist solutions often look more attractive, which makes it more difficult to implement unpopular ideas based on science,” says Puljak. In these circumstances, he knows that he needs to communicate ideas, especially those which include science, in a simpler way.
“As a scientist who is entering the politic arena, you need to learn not to be scientifically precise all the time. You need to learn how to tell more in as few words as possible and you need to get used to the fact that your arguments sometimes won’t even be considered,” says Puljak. You will be judged and unreasonable attacked in a way that is unthinkable in the science community. And you will probably never get fully used to this behaviour. Which is all right, concludes Puljak – that means you held on to your common sense.

The hardest part is to spread the ideas to the public. Small parties like Pametno have limited budget and, as Puljak claims, limited access to the media. So he often tries what is scientifically proven to be the best way of communicating the message to the voters – a door to door strategy. 


Ivica Puljak in conversation with citizens in Split: "Politicians shouldn’t feel uncomfortable to go out and talk with the people”, says Puljak.

(Credit: Ivica Puljak / personal archive)

“Nobody likes this approach, especially not intellectuals. The intellectuals usually like to comment on things from the comfort of their living rooms. But politicians shouldn’t feel uncomfortable to go out and talk with the people,” says Puljak. He himself has knocked on hundreds of doors in his hometown Split in the last few years. Ideally he would try to talk with people about the goals of his party. Some of them invited him for the coffee. Some immediately said they were not interested. But he never had any unpleasant encounter. And he always enjoyed the experience.
A bigger challenge from a scientist’s point of view, says he, could be talking to politicians.
“In Croatia it is very hard to have an argumentative conversation with the politicians. Most of them will put you in a certain box and refuse to talk to you at all. On the Croatian political scene you cannot have a reasonable conversation about, for example, genetic modification issues, because the majority of  politicians are not familiar with the most basic biology or medical concepts,” says Puljak.


Resistance within science community

Indeed, science is not a topic much discussed either in the Croatian parliament or in public. And when it is, scientists are often the last to be asked for their opinion. Back in 2016, for example, the national educational reform – the first one after almost two decades – which had been meticulously written up over more than two years by more than 200 teachers and university professors – in the end “fell down” under pressure from conservative circles. Their main concern was those parts of the reform that related to improving and implementing sexual and civic education. 
Improving the science and high education laws and regulations in Croatia also proved to be notoriously hard, mainly because the main resistance to any serious changes has almost always come from academic circles. In 2013, an attempt made by the then-serving National Council for Science to tighten infamously low advancement criteria for academic positions in Croatia ended in the Constitutional court, in a case submitted by dozens of faculties and other institutions. The court then abolished these new regulations, stating, among other things, that the new criteria were endangering the “freedom of the scientific work”.
So scientists who eventually got the political power and tried to introduce ambitious change, have often found themselves stuck between political negotiations and strong opposition from the part of the science community opposed to any changes at all. It could be really frustrating, says Saša Zelenika, professor in the Faculty of Engineering in Rijeka and former state secretary in the Ministry of science and education. 

"There is no fair play in politic"

“I was surprised to see that the influence of informal lobbying groups could be even bigger than the dispute between political parties. For any serious changes to our science and educational system, we obviously firstly need a more mature society,” concludes Zelenika. Mathematician Hrvoje Kraljević, professor of the Faculty of Science in Zagreb and former Minister of science and education (2000. - 2002.) shares similar experiences from his political episode.
“There is no real ethics and fair play in politics. And it’s almost impossible to see the whole group of people working together for the common good, instead of pursuing particular interests. But you can find a similar situation within the scientific community too,” says Kraljević, referring to the fact that some of the most controversial moves and opinions in the Croatian science in the last few years have come from institutions like the University of Zagreb or Croatian Academy of sciences and art (HAZU). The University of Zagreb, for example, to the astonishment of many Croatian scientists, recently gave an honorary doctorate to the controversial politician from Bosnia and Hercegovina, Dragan Čović; and HAZU last year opposed Croatian ratification of the European convention on preventing and combating violence against women.

Development of critical thinking

Ivica Puljak admits that he is painfully aware of all these problems, but stays optimistic that the situation can be improved with a stubborn long-term approach. Changes and improvements based on scientific evidence often appear complicated to the public and the politicians. And that is precisely why more scientists – he emphasises again – have to be more active in politics and more active and braver in communicating ideas.


The popularization of science in the form of public lectures is also a way to encourage critical thinking, says Puljak.

(Credit: Ivica Puljak / personal archive)

“If there are only few of us, it is hard to explain to other politicians what are scientific results and why should we implement them in strategies. And, if it’s hard to convince politicians, then it is also hard to convince the public,” says Puljak. On the other hand, his experience with the public lectures shows that people actually like science and that they intuitively know that science is good for them and for the society. So with that in mind, Puljak thinks that development of critical thinking through the educational system - something that is according to some latest research lacking in Croatian schools – must be one of the crucial goals of every modern society. For that reason, improving the development of education and science strategy will be the one of the main targets in Pametno’s future campaigns for the next two election years.

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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