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There are no magic tricks in politics

Ivica Puljak at CERN, taking a selfie with his favourite piece of science equipment - CMS, LHC detector (Credit: Ivica Puljak / personal archive)

Part 3

It is still somewhat cold, an early spring afternoon in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. More than 2000 people have gathered in front of the Croatian National Theatre building, one of the city’s landmarks, in a peaceful protest. You can easily guess that the crowd is made up mainly of scientists just by looking at the overly complicated, cynical protest banners. Oh, and they are singing Gaudeamus Igitur.

In fact, this is one of the largest academic protests in Croatia in the last ten years. The primary motif is an official proposition by the Zagreb Academy of Music to the University of Zagreb to award an honorary doctorate  to current city mayor Milan Bandić. The idea, which the university officially took under consideration, didn’t sit well with the Croatian science community. It was the last in a long line of controversial moves directly involving the university administration. This time, many scientists decided to publicly express their discontent not only by signing the petition, but also by coming out onto the streets. The rationale that mayor Bandić had helped the academy and the university financially and logistically was precisely the point which upset protesters the most – they argued this was public money which was supposed to be assigned to the science sector.  
As with many times before, Ivica Puljak was one of the first prominent scientists who condemned the proposition in public. Accordingly, he got an invitation to speak at the protest organized by PhD candidate Stjepan Perko from the faculty of political sciences.



The Boiling Point

On that cloudy Tuesday Puljak finished his usual six hours of lectures at the University of Split, hopped in the car, drove for two and a half hours to Zagreb and arrived just in time to hold his speech. He didn’t spare his words; he criticized past decisions of university rector Damir Boras and the senate, recalling the case last year when the University of Zagreb awarded an honorary doctorate to the controversial politician Dragan Čović.
“I’m ashamed of these people and their decisions but on the other hand, I’m proud of all of you who came here this evening. This is the first time I can remember that so many of us gathered together to fight for our ideals and for a better university”, concluded Puljak at the end of his speech, supported by loud cheering from the crowd.


Ivica Puljak giving a speech at the scientists protest against awarding an honorary doctorate to the mayor of Zagreb (Credit: Ivica Puljak / personal archive)

He is a good speaker, his skill forged in hundreds of public lectures and more than a few political debates of late. He doesn’t need to consult his notes while delivering his lines. Right here, you can witness the full transition from the scientist to the politician. But although the elections for the European Parliament are right behind the corner, the speech at the protest carries deeper significance for Puljak than just another political activity.   


Puljak and Damir Bakić  at the scientists protest against awarding an honorary doctorate to the mayor of Zagreb  (Credit: Ivica Puljak / personal archive)

The University of Zagreb – the largest Croatian University – has in the last few years become one of the public battlefields involving Croatian science, intense enough to spark a public revolt in the predominately silent academic community. Lawsuits against journalists and even students supporting the idea of sharing part of the program between Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and Catholic Faculty of Theology or minimizing the status of Croatian Studies (one of the more successful institutions at the University) are some of the moves by the rector and the senate that provoked many negative reactions. One could argue that all these events finally resulted in somewhat more political engagement within the Croatian science community. The idea of awarding the current mayor with a honorary doctorate just for, as some of the protesters emphasize, doing his regular job was obviously the boiling point. This time, many other scientists, besides the “usual suspects” like Ivan Đikić or Ivica Puljak, were willing to openly criticize the intention.  

Inspiring Action

“In the context of the usual reservations typical of the Croatian science scene, we can say that this was a great response,” comments mathematician Damir Bakić, another Croatian scientist who decided to enter politics. Bakić is a former member of the university senate, which he left last year after strongly disagreeing with some of the decisions voted on. He was also the only opponent to Damir Boras on last year’s elections for the rector’s job, when Boras was elected for the second time. Bakić continued to be politically engaged, joining the new political platform “Možemo” (“We can”). As opposed to Puljak, he wants to stay away from any election list or function. He thinks that he can contribute as much through the development of strategic plans and proposed measures. Either way, both men believe that things can change only through stronger social and political action.   

“Of course the job of university professor is infinitely nicer than being a politician,” says Bakić. In people’s minds, he explains, politics in Croatia for the last three decades is strongly associated with corruption and clientelism. There is a strong public discourse that things cannot be changed. 
“But only we, ourselves, can overturn this negative atmosphere and citizen’s distrust in political structures. Precisely the people who were not involved in politics before and who have their integrity preserved can prove there could be better ways,” says Bakić.

For both men, the case of the University of Zagreb – the place where they studied and, in Bakić’s case, work – is a more personal issue. They are participating in that protest primarily as concerned scientists, not politicians. But trying to change the current situation at the university could be seen as a good starting point for any scientist to get more involved in shaping public opinion and policies. Being clearly and openly vocal about important issues is certainly an efficient way to inspire others with their example.

„It’s important to express your opinions loudly,” agrees Puljak. He is nevertheless a little sceptical and believes there are still too few scientists who are willing to do that. The protest was a success, but that’s not enough, he says. For example, only five or six of thirty existing faculties officially opposed the proposition.  
„There’s a lot of opportunism in the academic community. The whole system is built largely on favours. It is something that can’t be changed overnight,” he says. 

The Street Campaign

Two weeks later, at the beginning of April, Puljak was back in Zagreb. Presenting their candidates, his party “Pametno” officially started their campaign for the European elections which will be held in Croatia on 26th May. Weeks before that, “Pametno” considered some possible partners among some new political parties, but ended up only in partnership with a small local initiative. Which means that Puljak was officially the leader of the list. If the party wins enough votes for at least one seat in the European Parliament, he will definitely become an MEP. At the presentation in Zagreb he repeated that they see Croatia as part of a stronger, more united Europe. The media focused on his words about the need for a more intelligent use of EU funds in Croatia. At the end of that first campaign day, Puljak was satisfied and optimistic.


Puljak and his colleagues from party Pametno during the official start of the campaign on the streets of Zagreb (Credit: Ivica Puljak / personal archive)

There is no magic trick for a successful campaign, he responds repeatedly to my question about how his party could gain more votes in the rather crowded Croatian political scene. Only hard work to slowly gain more visibility pays off eventually, concludes Puljak.

“Pametno” is already quite present on social media, which is a modern campaign skill that has not exactly been mastered by every Croatian political initiative. So in the next few weeks, they focused on “face to face” communication with citizens. Their first stop was logical: their base town, Split.

At this time of the year, the famous promenade by the sea in the second largest Croatian city is still mainly occupied by local citizens. A month or two later and the long esplanade, filled with bars and restaurants, will be swarming with tourists. But in April, if you are local, the popular “riva” is still the best place to be on the weekends. Literally hundreds of people flock to the sunny promenade for one of the favourite Croatian rituals – drinking coffee and chatting. If you want some close encounters with fellow citizens, this is the right spot.

As the campaign was still in its early days, Puljak and his colleagues opted for a short walk. Puljak has become a highly recognisable figure in his hometown, not only because of his scientific and political work. He tends to end up in the media for quite unusual reasons. Last year he intervened in a street fight, separating the two men involved. A couple of weeks ago he saved a little girl whose hand got caught in the escalator at a mall. He reacted quickly and grabbed the girl before the high point of the steps, probably literally saving her life. During the hour-long walk, around twenty people approached Puljak and his colleagues with questions. Interestingly, many of them asked what will happen with Puljak’s science career if he get elected to the EU parliament.


Ivica Puljak in conversation with the citizens at Split's ‘riva’ (promenade) during the campaign for the European elections (Credit: Ivica Puljak / personal archive)

“I will freeze my science career and do the job which I’m elected for,” Puljak repeats over and over again. Some citizens want to know how he feels about an expansion of the EU. Some ask what he thinks about some particular EU laws. But most of them were interested in his opinions about some quite local subjects. For many voters in Croatia, EU elections are still less important than the ones at the national level. Puljak takes his time to answer every inquiry. For him, there are no “wrong” or unpleasant questions. He has never experienced any awkward situations, and this Saturday walk was no exception.  

The Long Fight

As elections approach, his daily schedule intensifies. But Puljak still tried to juggle it with all of his usual activities. Some day a couple of weeks before the elections he went to Daruvar, a town in the central part of Croatia, and held two lectures for the kindergarten kids, followed by two lectures in elementary school and two more in high school. Then he had an interview for a TV station, after which he went to listen to two more lectures at the science festival. Days like this are for him more the norm, then an exception. In the week after his campaign started, he travelled for four days to his second working place – CERN. This time he was guiding a large group of Croatian and Bosnian physics teachers as part of the educational program which he started with fellow Croatian CERN scientists. The recipe is simple – teachers get a chance to visit CERN, listen to some lectures and then use this experience back in their own schools. This is a type of activity that Puljak is not prepared to sacrifice at this point of his political career.
“I’ve always had a large working capacity. I can still handle everything”, says Puljak with confidence. Back then he even still managed to squeeze in three to four hours of basketball weekly, but in the weeks before elections this became more and more challenging. 


Guiding the physics teachers from Croatia and BiH to CERN on their visit. (Credit: Ivica Puljak / personal archive)

After Easter (and in the time this article was written), the party intensified the campaign and started visiting all of the largest Croatian cities. Their current rating in the public polls at that point was still below 3 percent, which was hardly be enough for that one desired place out of twelve reserved for Croatian representatives in the next EU parliament. The fact that the left political spectrum in Croatia, to which his liberal party “Pametno” gravitates, is now more than ever divided into different small parties, didn't help either. But Puljak was still confident that they can make it. 

“If we succeed at being more present in the media – which is a hard goal for small parties like ours - I’m confident we can have a good result,” says Puljak. If that doesn’t turn out to be the case, he would certainly not give up. “In my opinion, it is worth fighting to build a stable and strong political option which will have enough political strength to change things. It’s a long and hard process which takes time and patience. And we are prepared for that,” says Puljak. 


The elections for the European Parliament didn’t end up well for Pametno party. Their small coalition with party Unija Kvarnera got 1.4 percent of the votes, way below 5.19 percent needed this time for winning one seat.

Puljak was disappointed, but he admitted that by the end of campaign he expected this result. The strong coalition with several new parties that shared the same basic values and pro-EU sentiment like Pametno would have made a difference, he acknowledges. Many of the political commentators made the same conclusion – there was a promising number of new left and liberal smaller political initiatives with serious programs who could have played a significant role in elections if only they got united. That never happened, and they mostly shared the same destiny at elections. As in the majority of EU, two major central left and right parties didn’t dominate and gained around 20 percent of the votes each. Far-right and populist parties, on the other hand, got more votes than expected.      
“We can only hope that this was an important lesson for the future, as the parliamentary elections are approaching in about one and a half years from now”, said Puljak commenting the election results.

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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