Youth, History and a Crisis of Democracy? Perspectives from Croatia

  • Renata Franc
  • Benjamin Perasović
  • Marko Mustapić


Recent research on attitudes to politics and politicians suggests young people are dissatisfied and alienated from the political process. There is widespread agreement in the published literature that young people generally perceive politicians as corrupt, boring, or hard to understand, and as self-interested and removed from ordinary people’s lives. However, there is no consensus about the possible meanings and consequences of such political cynicism for youth political participation, disengagement or attitudes towards democracy. This chapter explores the relationship between political cynicism and pro-democratic attitudes, specifically focusing on attitudes towards democratic and authoritarian political systems among young people in Croatia.

Traditionally, positive attitudes towards the democratic political system—accompanied by political and social trust, as well as satisfaction with democratic performance—have been regarded as essential to the stability and development of democracy (Almond and Verba 1963). In accordance with this traditional approach, documented youth political cynicism can be regarded as a threat to democratic societies. Conversely, the contemporary multi-dimensional conceptualisation of political support and empirical findings about the relationship between satisfaction with democracy and support for democratic systems, or more general adherence to democratic values, implies that low support for regime performance and political cynicism do not necessarily lead to the loss of general support for democratic systems and their legitimacy (Norris 1999, 2011; Dahlberg et al. 2013). Moreover, a certain degree of political dissatisfaction has been presumed to be good for the functioning of a democratic society, having benefits for the quality of democratic processes (Norris 1999; Pharr and Putnam 2000). Thus, in accordance with this approach, politically cynical youth could be regarded as ‘critical citizens’, or ‘dissatisfied democrats’ who, despite their dissatisfaction with democracy, retain democratic values (Norris 1999, 2011). In line with this, the survey findings of Henn et al. (1999) suggest that young people, although cynical towards political parties and professional politicians, are also strong supporters of the democratic process and thus can be described as ‘engaged cynics’ (Henn et al. 1999: 26). However, according to opponents of such interpretations, political cynicism and dissatisfaction with democracy are not an expression of ‘democratic deficit’ (Norris 2011). From such a perspective, they reflect not growing expectations, but a crisis for democratic regimes and the undermining of the goals of democratic politics. According to such views, the emergence and increase in the number of ‘critical citizens’ or ‘dissatisfied democrats’ may undermine the democratic process and erode support for democracy (Doorenspleet 2012).

To understand the meaning and consequences of political dissatisfaction and support for democracy, several scholars have stressed the importance of political context. This refers to specific political and historical legacies, as well as historical experience of democracy (Fuchs and Roller 2006; Norris 2011; Cho 2014). It is commonly assumed, and documented, that political dissatisfaction and critical citizens constitute a resource for democracy in countries of old democracy. In contrast, studies of political support in post-authoritarian or post-communist countries frequently show that a substantial number of citizens who prefer democracy, also support alternative autocratic regimes (Bratton 2002; Haerpfer 2008; Pop-Eleches and Tucker 2014). Concerning the post-communist political context, for example, Ekman and Linde (2005) have shown that dissatisfaction with the present system due to perceived lack of system output in post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe may lead to nostalgia for communist rule. Similarly, in the African post-authoritarian context, Bratton differentiated between ‘committed democrats’ (those who reject available variants of authoritarianism) and ‘proto-democrats’ (those who seem to hold ‘nostalgic feelings for more forceful forms of rule’) (Bratton 2002: 9).

Although this data certainly suggests that political disaffection could be regarded as a threat to democracy, the longstanding issue of (in) consistency of individual political attitudes (Converse 1964) must also be taken into account. For example, inconsistencies are evident also in ‘old’ democracies concerning preferences for direct democracy and ‘stealth democracy’ (Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002), leading authors to suggest that both types of support are, in fact, manifestations of disaffection (Bengtsson and Mattila 2009). Moreover, as Cho (2014) has suggested, inconsistent and ambivalent public political support may be expected among those with little experience of, and limited sophistication in relation to, democratic politics. These so-called ‘democratic novices’ may be uncertain whether democracy or dictatorship offers more satisfying solutions to the problems facing their societies. In these contexts, citizens often concurrently embrace democratic and authoritarian political propensities.

The phenomenon of dissatisfied democrats (both in general and among youth in particular) has received little empirical attention to date. Public dissatisfaction is rarely conceptualised, leaving it often ‘simply understood as a lack of political support’ (Abdelzadeh and Ekman 2012: 178–179), while dichotomised interpretations of political cynicism—as a resource or threat for democracy—are too crude to capture all the nuances of young people’s relation to politics (Abdelzadeh et al. 2015). Only a small number of studies have explored the association between political disaffection, political attitudes and the conceptualization of politics (in general, or of democracy specifically). One example is Bengtsson and Mattila’s (2009) study, the findings of which suggest that politically disaffected citizens want to change the existing situation, but they do not necessarily have well thought-out suggestions for the direction of this change. This can result in their simultaneous support for various autocratic and democratic political regimes. Ganuza and Espín’s (2013) qualitative study revealed that political disaffection is a complex phenomenon, related to beliefs about the meaning of politics, the conditions in which politicians and parties may be trusted and the way people see society as a whole as a political actor. According to these authors, political disaffection is an umbrella for frustrated desires about how institutions and political actors should be. Thus, political disaffection is inextricably linked to the understanding of politics and cannot be fully understood in isolation from it. Ekman and Linde’s (2005) study, moreover, stressed the importance of historical and political legacy in explaining the possible meaning and consequences of political dissatisfaction, as well democratic and anti-democratic orientations.

Introducing the Study

This review of the literature to date suggests political cynicism has multiple meanings and consequences. Youth political cynicism may be a manifestation of democratic deficit, reflecting the disparity between perceived democratic performance and aspiration and expectations—that is, the potential for democracy. At the same time, youth political cynicism towards political institutions, politicians and regime performance can be broadened to the level of diffuse regime support resulting in a preference for alternatives; for example, the preference for autocratic regimes. Where this manifests itself as the simultaneous rejection of a particular democratic political regime, it may represent a threat to democracy. However, it may also be indicative of more complex youth relations to democracy, politics and society in general, or of the effects of a specific historical and political legacy. This raises a number of important questions. As political cynics, are youth just ‘critical citizens’ who are simultaneously dissatisfied with the performance of democracy, even though they hold democratic values? Or is their political cynicism stretched to the level of diffuse support resulting in a repudiation of a political regime, absence of democratic legitimization and preference for alternative, even autocratic regimes? Or does their political cynicism reflect diverse and more complex relations to politics and democracy?

Since, a dichotomised view of political dissatisfaction, as either an asset or a threat to democratic systems, could be seriously limited and flawed, this study uses mixed methods for a fuller understanding of this phenomenon. By taking historical and political legacy into account, it generates more nuanced information about how young people understand politics and explains their political cynicism and support for democracy or autocracy. This is possible because, although support for democracy is measured in the MYPLACE survey with a direct and generic survey measure, and thus MYPLACE shares the limitations of similar surveys on support for democracy (see Schedler and Sarsfield 2007), it is accompanied by qualitative data, in which participants explain their lack of political support or cynicism and describe, as well as explain, their support for democracy or alternative regimes.

In the first part of this chapter, political cynicism and the crisis of democracy among Croatian youth are documented and described based on survey findings and follow-up interviews. In the next part, we explore youth preferences for the political regimes of democracy or autocracy in more detail. We first identify distinct sub-groups of young people based on survey data and then explore in more detail how these groups differ in terms of their characteristics and attitudes as revealed in the survey (political sophistication, specific dimensions of political support and other political attitudes, as well as relationship to history) by controlling socio-demographic characteristics. Finally, differences in how, during semi-structured interviews, respondents describe and explain cynicism, or support for democracy or alternative regimes, are presented. Prior to this analysis, a brief outline of the Croatian political and historical context is necessary in order to contextualise and understand the youth attitudes explored below.


Croatia is the newest member of the EU; its past is marked by a totalitarian legacy, the Homeland War (1991–1995) and a painful process of post-socialist transition. The first democratic elections were held in 1990, ushering in a process of democratisation (as in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe) characterised by the simultaneous negotiation of regime change (both political and economic) and the socio-cultural processes that accompany these transitions. Moreover, democratic transition in Croatia took place in very specific conditions characterised not only by the simultaneous process of gaining independence and building a nation state, but also by being heavily marked by the war and myriad political controversies during the post-war period, as a result of which democratisation was pushed down the agenda (Maldini and Pauković 2015). Maldini (2015: 23) argues that the length of the war and its vast associated losses substantially slowed the democratisation process, while the focus on post-war recovery accompanied by economic deprivation and increased unemployment ‘framed a social atmosphere that did not favour the democratisation process’. Thus, any attempt to understand contemporary Croatian youth must build into its framework attention to the importance of national context.

Finally, it should be noted that, in line with the wider MYPLACE project, youth is defined here as those aged between 16 and 25 years. This means that all of the participants in the MYPLACE survey and interviews were born between 1988 and 1996. It follows that they do not have any direct experience of the earlier totalitarian regime, but their early political socialisation occurred during the Homeland War (1991–1995) and the post-war period.

Method: Survey and Interviews

The study is based on the triangulation of data from a survey of two representative samples of youth (16–25 years, total N = 1217 at two locations) and follow-up semi-structured interviews with volunteers from the survey (N = 61; 25 at the Podsljeme location and 36 at the Peščenica location). According to the MYPLACE approach and methodology, two contrasting locations were selected for survey and follow-up interviews; in Croatia these were two districts in the city of Zagreb. The chosen urban districts (Podsljeme and Peščenica) are not adjacent and are very different in both socio-economic and demographic terms. Podsljeme is a primarily residential area in a peaceful part of the city and prosperous in economic terms. It might be characterised as ‘up-market’, although it is not the most elite part of the city. In comparison, Peščenica could be described as a ‘troubled’ part of the city, being one of the poorer urban districts, industrial (although not exclusively) and more ethnically diverse.1 The survey employed random sampling for both locations based on a list of individuals (16–25 year olds) from administrative sources. Final samples consisted of N = 610 youth in Podsljeme (69.8% contact rate and 45% response rate) and N = 607 in Peščenica (49% contact rate and 36% response rate). Data were collected during the same period (14 September to 20 December 2012) at both locations.2 Interviews were conducted after the survey simultaneously in both sites from the beginning of January 2013 to the end of April 2013. During this period, a total of 61 interviews were conducted and recorded; 25 at the Podsljeme location and 36 at the Peščenica location. The average length of interview was 77 and 78 min, respectively.3

Youth Political Cynicism or a Crisis of Democracy?

MYPLACE survey data showed that young people in the city of Zagreb reported a very low interest in politics in both locations—almost 70% of them were ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ interested in politics. Moreover, youth in both locations showed a low level of overall political discussion with key individuals; only around one in ten ‘always’ or ‘often’ participate in such political discussions and those who do discuss politics do so most frequently with their fathers or best friends. Commonly encountered answers in interviews with regard to interest in politics were ‘Well I don’t know, politics doesn’t really interest me’ or ‘I don’t really follow that…’. However, for some respondents this lack of political interest was directly connected to the state of affairs in the country and a negative attitude towards politicians: ‘Well, I’m not really interested in that […] when I see what they’re doing, how they steal […] I’m not really interested.’

Survey data about specific dimensions of political support are consistent with these indicative quotes. Young people in both locations expressed very negative attitudes towards politics and politicians; around 75% of youth agreed or strongly agreed with the negative statements that ‘Politicians are corrupt’ and ‘The rich have too much influence over politics’, while only around 10% agreed or strongly agreed with the positive statement ‘Politicians are interested in young people like me’. Moreover, young people in both Croatian locations on average4 expressed extremely negative attitudes towards politicians. Indeed, respondents in Croatia were more negative towards politicians than young people in any other MYPLACE location, with the exception of young people in Greece (Franc and Medjugorac 2014). Young people in both locations also distrust various political and societal institutions; more than 65% do not trust political parties, parliament and the head of the government.

Interview data suggest that these cynical attitudes towards politicians and national political institutions cannot be explained solely by the 7-year Croatian recession. This is evident from the fact that, when explaining the source of such negative attitudes, respondents attach greater importance to numerous scandals involving corruption and privatisation than to the economic crisis and high unemployment rate. Although respondents associate the term ‘politics’ primarily with ‘government’ and ‘ruling the state’, other frequent associations included ‘boring’, ‘a lot of arguing’, ‘people in suits with lots of paperwork’, ‘ineffectiveness’ and ‘corrupt thieves’. It seems that many respondents see politics as a field where politicians primarily work to serve their own interests and do not hesitate to take advantage of their position:

When I hear the word politics, the first thing that comes to mind is something very bad. This is sad, but okay. Definitely, something very bad comes to mind: bastards, vermin, thieves [laughter] and so on. Anyhow, nothing nice comes to mind. (Mirta, PEŠ, HR)

Nooo! When I hear the word ‘politics’, I automatically tune out! I start thinking about taxes, about politicians driving expensive cars they don’t deserve. So, politics is like, oh no, no politics, change the subject! (Ninica, POD, HR)

Ummm, I don’t know, I don’t have a good opinion about politics. Politics as a notion, as a system, should be something good, but what’s happening here is disgusting, you know; one party, another party, you don’t know which one is worse, they quarrel, half of our politicians end up in jail, half are on trial […] (Tara, PEŠ, HR)

In Croatia, politicians as a profession are a kind of object of hate, because when you hear the word politician it is automatically associated with, you know, a sort of thief and so on […] There are some honest politicians in Croatia, for sure, but not many and you don’t see them in public […] Some of them are highly educated, but they’re generally all negatively perceived because of the others […] like what happened with Sanader5, when all that came out in public […] (Dodo, POD, HR)

However, these extremely negative attitudes towards politicians and politics expressed by young people in the Croatian locations are not accompanied by particularly high political dissatisfaction at the more general level; that is, the level of satisfaction with democracy as a whole. On average, they are neither dissatisfied nor satisfied with the way democracy works in Croatia. The overall mean for satisfaction with democracy for all 30 MYPLACE locations was 5.01 (Ellison et al. 2014) and the Croatian locations are positioned around the middle of the range.

When it comes to the most diffuse level of political support—that is, support for democracy as an ideal—survey results6 indicate a more complex picture. The majority of youth in both locations expressed positive attitudes towards a multi-party democratic system and a system with an opposition that can freely express its views, while only a minority evaluated these systems as fairly bad or very bad (see Fig. 10.1). These levels of support for democracy are similar to those established in the most recent fourth round of EVS (2008) on a Croatian national sample, in which 70.8% of Croatian citizens evaluated the democratic political system as good or very good (Klingeman 2014), and are higher than the average support established for East European countries (around 60%, see Klingeman 2014). However, despite this support for democracy, a sizable proportion of youth in the MYPLACE survey simultaneously supported non-democratic political regimes; around half positively evaluated a system with a strong leader who is not constrained by parliament in both locations, while around 33% in Podsljeme and 25% in Peščenica supported military rule (Fig. 10.1).
Fig. 10.1

Percentage of youth supporters of different political regimes by location

Source MYPLACE survey, Podsljeme and Peščenica locations, 2012–13

Moreover, further analyses employing a factor analysis7 of these four items for both locations showed that they measure two distinct attitude dimensions: support for democracy and support for autocracy. Moreover, bivariate correlations between these two average results8 showed that youth support for democracy and their support for authoritarian alternatives are mainly unrelated (rPodsljeme = 0.19, p = 0.000; rPeščenica = 0.03, p = 0.428). Thus, to paraphrase Norris, empirical establishment of these two separate dimensions of support for regime principles and their intercorrelation showed that youth in two locations embrace democratic regimes, but this does not necessarily mean that they reject autocratic regimes (Norris 2011: 44). These results are in line with the findings in Tufis (2014), which, based on an analysis of EVS 2008–09 data, showed that the relationship between support for democracy and support for or rejection of authoritarian alternatives varies by type of country. Namely, in Western democracies and Western ex-communist societies, the support for democracy and rejection of autocracy are strongly correlated with each other, while in Eastern ex-communist countries these two dimensions are independent of each other. Thus, our results are in line with these later findings, placing Croatia among Eastern ex-communist societies.

According to Norris (2011: 24, 26), these attitudes (approval of democratic values and approval/rejection of autocratic values) represent diffuse, second-level components of political support. Support for democracy is, on average, significantly higher than support for autocracy9 at both locations (Podsljeme Mdem = 3.98; Maut = 3.15,10t = 15.56, p = 0.000; Peščenica Mdem = 3.94, Maut = M = 3.02, t = 15.90, p = 0.000). It should be noted that youth in Croatian locations (together with youth in Georgia and, to a lesser extent, in the UK) demonstrated the strongest support for autocracy of all 30 MYPLACE locations. However, they are around average when it comes to support for a democratic political system in all 30 MYPLACE locations (Ellison et al. 2014: 331, 337, 338).

To explore further the meaning of democratic and autocratic support among youth, we used these two scales as trade‐off scales, where they were asked to express their preference for different types of democratic and autocratic regimes. This enables us to determine relative preferences for different forms of rule among youth, constructing a democracy–autocracy preference index by subtracting the autocracy support from the democracy support (Fuchs 2007; Norris 2011). This democracy–autocracy preference index runs from −4 (exclusive support for autocracy) to +4 (exclusive support for democracy), measuring the different intensity with which democracy or autocracies are supported. In the literature, this index is most frequently combined with the survey response about Satisfaction With Democracy (SWD), which differentiates between citizens as ‘dissatisfied democrats’ and ‘satisfied democrats’, or between politically ‘contented’11 or ‘discontented’ democrats, or critical and uncritical citizens. However, since autocratic tendencies were relatively high among our respondents, we divided youth into three groups according to the democracy–autocracy preference index only: democrats comprised youth that prefer democracy over autocracy (scoring +0.50 to +4 on the democracy-autocracy preference index); autocrats comprised youth that prefer autocracy over democracy (scoring −0.50 to −4 on the democracy-autocracy preference index); and a no preference group comprising youth that have no preference regarding democratic and autocratic political regimes (scoring 0). At both locations, the absolute majority of young people belong to the democrats group (57.4% in Podsljeme and 61.4% in Peščenica), between 20 and 33% belong to the no preference group (29.5% in Podsljeme and 21.8% in Peščenica), while the group of autocrats is the smallest (13.1% in Podsljeme and 16.8% in Peščenica). Comparison of these three groups with regard to the analysed measures of support for democracy and autocracy can be seen in Fig. 10.2, where the differences between all three groups were statistically significant on both dimensions.12
Fig. 10.2

Average support for democratic and autocratic political regimes among the three identified groups

Source MYPLACE survey, Podsljeme and Peščenica locations, 2012–13

However, as can be seen in Fig. 10.2, the division of youth based on their democracy–autocracy preference index in the three groups did not enable us to differentiate groups of so-called genuine democrats and autocrats. Following the already noted independence between these two orientations, support for democracy among youth in the group named democrats is not, on average, accompanied by a clear rejection of autocratic alternatives but, rather, a neutral evaluation. More specifically, only 53% of youth in this group consistently reject authoritarian regimes on both items. At the same time, on average, a positive evaluation of autocratic regimes among young people in the group designated autocrats is accompanied by a neutral to slightly positive relationship to democratic regimes. Moreover, only 17.3% of them consistently evaluated democratic regimes as bad, whereas the majority (59%) expressed, on average, a neutral attitude towards democratic regimes. Youth in the third group, characterised as having no preference, on average, have a slightly positive evaluation of democratic as well as autocratic regimes. Thus, this classification is certainly rough and insufficiently nuanced.

Profiling the Democrats, Autocrats and No Preference Groups

In further analyses, we focused on differences between these three established groups related to political sophistication, a number of specific dimensions of political support, and more general political attitudes. Besides these standard groups of variables, in the context of exploring the meaning of political cynicism and democracy support, we also included an additional group of variables that we supposed would be relevant in the Croatian context; namely, young people’s relationship to history. Their relationship to history was explored, since autocratic preferences could be more dangerous if they are accompanied by a lack of historical knowledge in general, as well as knowledge about World War II and Croatia’s totalitarian past. Indeed, the Croatian MYPLACE survey and interview data confirmed low interest in, and little knowledge about, national history, particularly in regard to some parts of Croatia’s totalitarian past. Many of the respondents were unable to differentiate between sides in World War II, while some of the respondents claimed that they did not understand history at all. An exception is the following interview respondent, who expressed a high level of historical interest and knowledge:

I think that all people should know history, because the old Latin proverb ‘historiae est magistra vitae’ is not nonsense, you know, history is the teacher of life. People make mistakes, and you have to learn from mistakes, from the mistakes of other people, mistakes which have happened, especially those that happened in WWII, mass killings and so on, definitely those kinds of things should never happen again in the future. After all, I think that we should all foster the right values […] and that’s only possible if you have a good historical background, I mean, if you’re well educated in history […]. (Rajko, POD, HR)

We hypothesised, therefore, that democrats, autocrats and those showing no preference might differ not only in relation to political sophistication, political support and political attitudes, but also concerning their relationship to history.

In order to test the differences between youth who are democrats, no preference or autocrats, with regard to the four groups of dependent variables specified above we employed four separate one-way MANCOVA with the described typology as an independent variable and socio-demographic variables (gender, age, social class and education) as covariates.13 A summary table with all multivariate effects for the four conducted MANCOVA is presented in Appendix 2. The conducted MANCOVA revealed the significant multivariate effect of typology over and above socio-demographic variables concerning all four groups of analysed dependent variables. Although the multivariate effects were statistically significant in all cases with p = 0.000, the range of these established multivariate effects was, in fact, relatively small (ranging from 0.016 with regard to relationship to history to 0.029 with regard to political attitudes, Appendix 2). Further analysis revealed that, among the four political sophistication measures (personal interest in politics, time spent on mass media to get information on politics, frequency of discussing politics with parents, and political knowledge), a significant difference was revealed only with regard to political knowledge, where democrats showed greater knowledge than autocrats or no preference groups (controlling for covariates M = 2.40; 2.18 and 2.03 on a scale from 0 to 3, respectively, F = 4.838, p = 0.008, eta2 = 0.021, Appendix 3). Among the three analysed variables related to history (interest in recent history, perceived importance of commemorations and family transmissions) significant differences were identified with regard to personal interest in national history and family historical transmission, where democrats showed greater personal interest in national history than autocrats or no preference groups (controlling covariates M = 2.24; M = 2.05 and M = 2.09, respectively, on a scale from 1 to 3, F = 8.560, p = 0.000, eta2 = 0.018), while democrats and autocrats more frequently talk with parents and grandparents about history than youth with no preference (controlling covariates M = 1.87; M = 1.85 and M = 1.67, respectively, on a scale 1 to 3; F = 10.71, p = 0.000, eta2 = 0.022). With regard to the four analysed variables related to more specific political support variables—attitude towards politicians, trust in national political institutions, satisfaction with democracy and satisfaction with respect for human rights (see Appendix 3)—significant differences were observed in all of them. Post hoc tests revealed the relatively consistent direction of established differences, whereas autocrats in comparison to democrats and no preference are characterised by significantly lower political support in three of the four analysed dimensions. More specifically, autocrats in comparison to democrats and those in the no preference group are characterised on average by lower trust in national political institutions, (Mauto = 2.62, Mdemo = 3.06, Mwp = 3.5 on a scale of 0–10), by more negative attitudes towards politicians (Mauto = 1.98, Mdemo = 2.15, Mwp = 2.25 on a scale of 1–5), are less satisfied with how democracy works in Croatia (Mauto = 3.81, Mdemo = 4.87, Mwp = 5.29 on a scale of 0–10), and are less satisfied with respect for human rights (Mauto = 2.37, Mdemo = 2.67, Mwp = 2.74 on a scale of 1–4). In comparison, with regard to attitudes towards politicians, autocrats and democrats are, on average, more cynical than youth in the no preference group (Mauto = 1.98, Mdemo = 2.15, Mwp = 2.25 on a scale of 1–5). Out of five analysed political attitudes (political efficacy of legitimate action and political legitimacy of illegitimate action, approval of violence, freedom of speech and left–right political alignment) significant differences between three groups were established with regard to political efficacy of legitimate actions and approval of violence only (Appendix 3), where autocrats on average perceive legitimate actions as less effective than democrats and the no preference group (Mauto = 3.99, Mdemo = 4.55, Mwp = 4.0 on a scale of 0–10) and have (together with youth in the no preference group) significantly less negative attitudes towards violence than democrats (Mauto = 2.95, Mdemo = 2.44, Mwp = 2.73).

These results revealed important differences between democrats and autocrats concerning political sophistication and relationship to history, as well as their more specific dimensions of political support and more general political attitudes. More specifically, in comparison to autocrats (and those in the no preference group), democrats are, in general, more politically knowledgeable (although the three groups do not differ concerning other political sophistication variables). They also have a higher interest in history and, correspondingly, more frequently talk about history with their parents and grandparents. Regarding the specific dimensions of political support, autocrats in comparison with democrats (as well as those in the no preference group) expressed, on average, less trust in national political institutions and are less satisfied with the way democracy works in Croatia, as well as with the level of respect for human rights. Since they have more negative attitudes towards politicians, they are more cynical. In terms of other political attitudes, autocrats, on average, considered legitimate actions as a less efficient way of influencing politics than democrats, and hold, on average, (alongside those in the no preference group) a less negative attitude towards violence. At the same time, it should be noted that these univariate differences between autocrats and democrats, although statistically significant, are, in fact, very small (with an effect reading of up to 0.039 in case of attitudes towards violence, see Appendix 3). Interestingly, there is no difference between the groups according to their self-placement on the left–right scale, as well as concerning perceived effectiveness of illegal actions and political tolerance, or freedom of speech.

What do these results suggest in terms of our main questions concerning the meaning and possible consequences of the political cynicism of youth? It could be said that political cynicism per se cannot be regarded as a threat to democracy. However, if it is accompanied by lower political sophistication, its threat is heightened. Moreover, these results tell us that autocrats and democrats, besides their political knowledge and relationship to history, only differ in the extremity of their political attitudes, not in terms of the content of those attitudes. Specifically, young people from both groups are critical about how democracy works and the degree to which human rights are respected. They are characterised by a lack of trust in national political institutions, as well as a lack of perceived efficacy of legitimate political actions; however, all of these attitudes are more extreme among autocrats compared with democrats. At the same time, young people from both groups do not approve of violence for political purposes (they have a negative attitude towards violence), but autocrats’ attitudes are less negative than those of democrats (at the same time, this is the greatest difference between democrats and autocrats in terms of effect size). Cumulatively, these results do not suggest that youth who support autocracy more than democracy have qualitatively different attitudes from youth who support autocracy more than democracy. Specifically, it was not confirmed that youth who preferred autocracy have, for example, a positive attitude towards violence, or that youth who prefer democracy over autocracy perceive legitimate political action as effective. Moreover, for some of the analysed attitudes (perceived effectiveness of illegitimate actions, political tolerance, or freedom of speech) significant differences were not confirmed, even regarding extremity of attitudes. Taken together, these quantitative results, suggest that the expressed preference for autocracy is most probably an expression of dissatisfaction with the present state of democracy and with contemporary Croatian society, rather than an expression of a genuine autocratic orientation. These results are in line with findings among young people in MYPLACE locations in the UK and eastern Germany (see Grimm and Pilkington 2015). Grimm and Pilkington (2015) show that youth affinity with authoritarian political systems increases with declining satisfaction with democracy among youth in locations in the UK and eastern Germany, but with increasing satisfaction with democracy in locations in Russia, demonstrating the importance of context for understanding the meaning of youth’s political dissatisfaction and support for democracy, or autocratic alternatives.

It is illustrative to note that Croatia’s MYPLACE survey findings—according to which more than half of the respondents expressed support for the concept of a single, strong leader or army rule—evoked a strong interest among the media. As Croatia’s totalitarian past may be used as a certain frame for spreading fear of ‘young autocrats’, many Croatian print and online media did exactly that, by presenting the Croatian MYPLACE survey data as a cause for panic and as evidence of democracy in jeopardy. Headlines in the media suggested that ‘all’ or ‘most’ of Croatian youth glorifies the Croatian fascist puppet state from World War II, that ‘all’ or ‘most’ Croatian youth approved violence for political purposes and that ‘all’ or ‘most’ of Croatian youth seek a strong leader, or even army rule.14 Thus, contrary to the interpretations of the quantitative analyses set out here, the media presented the survey data using sensationalising headlines and superficial generalisations.

Although the quantitative analyses outlined above clearly showed a different picture from those presented in the media, to obtain a more nuanced and more contextualised understanding of the political dissatisfaction and support for autocracy expressed by young people in Croatian locations, we triangulated the survey data with data from follow-up interviews. Analysing data from interviews with respondents who (according to the established typology based on survey results) belong to the group of autocrats (with a score on the democracy–autocracy preference index in the range of −0.50 to −4) allows the exploration of the specific circumstances and experiences of selected cases, which could explain the preference for autocracy. From the follow-up interview sample, we identified a number of young people who (according to survey results) belong to the autocrats group. Analysis of their interviews revealed that, although all express a preference for autocracy, they varied in their explanations for such preferences. These ranged from a perceived unpreparedness of people for democracy (Barbara), complexities of the democratic process and general limitations of democracy (Bob), general dissatisfaction with the present state of democracy (Tara), to more specific dissatisfaction with the democratic post-socialist system, such as blaming that type of democracy for social inequalities (Jurkan). Indeed, attitudes expressed within this small group of young autocrats are far from uniform; they differ in their understanding of many important social and political issues, such as social stratification, gay rights, Croatian history, or the voting system. In fact, concerning these issues there were more differences than similarities among the discourses presented by young autocrats. However, almost all of these respondents expressed a positive attitude towards the socialist period. Again, there are differences regarding levels and types of positive statements towards the previous system. For example, Barbara’s initial reaction during the interview when the socialist system was mentioned was ‘well see, if this period had not existed, we would not have the flat which my family now owns’. However, she is aware of the negative sides of the socialist past, because she also concedes ‘Yes, there are people who could also say to you “if this period had not existed some members of my family would be still alive”. I know it is not a black and white type of thing.’ However, for Barbara, it seems that a more egalitarian society is the main positive aspect of the previous regime in comparison with the present situation. Although her father has told her stories such as ‘it was impossible to talk freely and to express your own opinion, especially not being able to protest or carry banners’, she has her own attitude:

I don’t think that it was that bad because everyone worked. I never lived in that period, but I think that it was unlikely that highly educated people worked in kiosks like they do nowadays. It seems that we have the benefits of today’s system—private property and freedom of speech—but I think it is overestimated […] yes, people have the right to say what they want, but only a small number of people can say something smart. (Barbara, POD, HR)

For Branko, comparing the current period with the previous regime presents a picture where workers and the majority of people in the socialist period, in fact, had more rights and a real influence over living conditions than are found today:

Under the previous system you couldn’t criticise the government in public, but today nothing has really changed, I think that many things worked even better then, especially regarding workers and workers’ rights, because it was a more social state, a socialist state and I think, no matter how strange it sounds, people then had more rights, at least when it came to social security, jobs and so on […] people could talk less freely then, but it was organised in a better way […] so, I don’t see positive changes since then. (Branko, PEŠ, HR)

Some of the respondents from the group of autocrats did not talk about comparisons between the two systems. For example, Vuki, who is generally critical of people in Croatia, says that nobody wants to work, and that he plans to leave the country and work somewhere ‘where people like to work’. Vuki thinks that the system in Croatia is so bad that only radical change—that is, a complete change—could make some kind of difference. At the same time, he is not interested in politics, including any type of activism. He thinks that homosexuality is an illness and that social, ethnic, racial and other inequalities ‘always existed and will exist forever’. Apart from Vuki, the majority of respondents from the group of autocrats expressed a positive opinion about the previous social system. Survey findings indicated that autocrats and democrats talk with their parents and grandparents more than those from the no preference group. Jurkan is a good example of this finding as he emphasised how he liked his grandparents’ stories of socialist days. His perception of Tito reminds him of a pop star: ‘He was our star, and still is, for me as well, always in white suits, you know, cars and similar things…’

Thus, in addition to expressed support for autocracy, a positive perception of the socialist era is one of the few attitudes shared by a majority within the small group of autocrats. Moreover, detailed analysis of their statements clearly shows that their wish to seek (or to experiment with) autocracy is attributable to dissatisfaction with the present state of democracy and society in general:

A few days ago I was thinking about these things, and I came to the conclusion that we haven’t used democracy enough, we appear to be incompetent in doing that. So, it is not that democracy is useless, but we didn’t know how to use it […] to tell you the truth, if we would like to put this state in order I think that we need some kind of […] I’m not saying a totalitarian regime, but […] it wouldn’t be so bad to see how this would function, how efficient we would be if there was just one person governing, where the opposition, if it exists at all, has another role apart from barking and rebelling, they (the opposition) should also work on something […] uhm, with a significant role of the army in all that. (Barbara, POD, HR)

A perception of the inefficacy of a democratic regime is common among autocrats, but also among democrats. However, within the group of autocrats, some respondents challenged democracy in general, as a principle. For example, Bob simply said, that ‘there are no reasons why the majority should always be right […] the majority can easily be deceived in some way’. Others emphasised the division of power as a cause of inefficacy. It is to be expected that a strong leader would be perceived as a saviour, if the majority perceive society as a struggle for power among many small leaders:

I am not a big supporter of democracy. I think that it would be much better for us […] as a nation, we’re not mature enough for democracy […] but that it would be better for us if we had someone like Putin, perhaps a bit less radical. I wish that a person like him would take over, where all the power is held by one person. Because it is too divided now and you have to negotiate with everybody and that is what has got us where we are now. (Dean, POD, HR)

A similar call for a dictator to solve problems might arise where there is a perception that equal rights do not exist, despite the fact that a democratic society should be based on such principles:

I said that I don’t like this form of politics within democracy. I think we need a dictator […] perhaps we’ve reached a level of democracy that is too high […] at least, that’s what I think […] If someone has money, more money than others, he has more rights than others, or, if he is in a higher position he also has more rights than others, more than an average man, but in essence, we should all be equal before the law and in everything. (Jurkan, POD, HR)

Thus, qualitative analyses confirmed the quantitative findings outlined above. Moreover, qualitative analyses expanded the quantitative findings by demonstrating the importance of historical and political legacy for interpreting the relatively high youth support for autocracy. Moreover, in relation to the role of history, this triangulation of data revealed a strikingly different picture than presented in the first wave of media reports on the findings of the survey, which superficially interpreted youth support for autocracy as a direct legacy of the Croatian fascist puppet state from World War II.


Generally, young people at the two locations in Zagreb responded to survey and interview questions in a fairly similar way to many other young people in the other 13 countries of the MYPLACE project. They show ambivalent, yet still strong, support for a democratic type of system, but this was accompanied by dissatisfaction with politicians and politics in general. In some cases, there was also the expression of support for alternative systems of governance, including autocracy. Our interpretation of this data confirms findings in recent literature that suggest the pertinence of notions, such as ‘democratic novices’ or ‘proto-democrats’ that attempt to describe parallel support for democratic and autocratic regimes in post-socialist and similar types of contexts. The depiction of young people within MYPLACE research is more complex than the division between old and new democracies. For example, at the top of the scale, young people from the UK, together with those from post-authoritarian contexts, showed preferences for autocracy. At the same time, affinity with authoritarian political systems increases with declining satisfaction with democracy in locations in the UK and eastern Germany, but with increasing satisfaction with democracy in locations in Russia (Grimm and Pilkington 2015). Our interpretation of the data also supports the arguments of authors such as Dahlberg et al. (2013) and Ganuza et al. (2013), which seek to move beyond the false dichotomy of ‘resource OR threat’ in relation to young people’s low participation, low trust in institutions and wider dissatisfaction with democracy. In the Croatian context, because of its history and totalitarian past, some aspects of the data could be interpreted as a threat to democracy, especially when considering the combination of lack of knowledge in history, revisionisms, low trust and low participation, and high support for autocracy. However, a more detailed analysis, provided by a triangulation of quantitative and qualitative data, reveals that the dilemma ‘resource OR threat’ is unhelpful. A closer look at the statements expressed by the autocrats directed us towards understanding such statements as expressions of dissatisfaction with the present state of democracy and dissatisfaction with features of contemporary society. It is evident that some respondents blame democracy for social inequalities, desperately seeking alternatives in other types of social/political systems. Thus, even the ‘autocratic’ statements could be seen from the ‘resource’ perspective, as those that demonstrate democratic potential rather than an anti-democratic and destructive force.


  1. 1.

    See Appendix 1. More detailed descriptions of the locations can be found in Franc, R., Perasović, B., Mustapić, M., Mijić, I., Međugorac, V., Šimleša, D., Dergić, V. and Derado, A. (2013) MYPLACE: Country-based reports on interview findings CROATIA. Memory, Youth, Political Legacy and Civic Engagement, WP5: Interpreting Participation (Interviews), Deliverable 5.3,

  2. 2.

    During fieldwork, a total of 64 survey interviewers were engaged and, on average, a single interviewer conducted 19 questionnaires.

  3. 3.

    There were a total of five interviewers, but the majority of interviews were conducted by three interviewers who attended a training programme organised and conducted by a core member of the MYPLACE team at the beginning of the project. Regarding interviewee selection criteria and strategy, in the first instance, selection was based on willingness to be interviewed and the recommendations of the survey interviewer. After gaps were identified in relation to participation, tolerance and socio-demographic factors, interviewee selection was targeted to achieve more heterogeneity, primarily in relation to ethnicity, religious affiliation and participation, but other socio-demographic characteristics (gender, education, employment), as well as markers of tolerance (based on survey responses), were taken into account.

  4. 4.

    See Appendix 1.

  5. 5.

    During fieldwork, Ivo Sanader (the Croatian Prime Minister from 2003 to 2009) was on trial for a number of financial and corruption-related crimes.

  6. 6.

    Young people’s attitudes towards four specific political systems were examined in the MYPLACE questionnaire: a system with a strong leader who is not constrained by parliament; a democratic, multi-party system; a system with military rule; and a system with an opposition that can freely express its views. Youth evaluated these systems on a five-point scale from very bad to very good.

  7. 7.

    Available from the authors.

  8. 8.

    Support for democracy and support for autocracy, see Appendix 1.

  9. 9.

    At the same time, there is no significant difference between youth in Podsljeme and Peščenica in relation to support for democracy and average support for autocracy, (democracy M = 3.98; M = 3.94, respectively, F = 3.776, p = 0.052; autocracy M = 3.15, M = 3.02, respectively, F = 0.75, p = 0.388).

  10. 10.

    Paired t test.

  11. 11.

    According to the definition of most authors, contented democrats support the idea of democracy (e.g. ‘democracy may have its problems, but it is better than any other form of government’) and are content with the performance of democracy in their country; that is, with ‘the way democracy works’ (Geissel 2008).

  12. 12.

    MANCOVA of support for democracy and support for autocracy as dependent variables, with location and the democracy/autocracy typology as factors, and socio-demographic variables as covariates, revealed as significant only the effect of typology (F = 211.192, p = 0.000, eta2 = 0.294), whereas univariate tests revealed that significant differences were confirmed with regard to both dependent variables (Fdemocracy support  = 160.79, p = 0.000, eta2 = 0.240; Fautocracy support = 208.49, p = 0.000, eta2 = 0.291).

  13. 13.

    Firstly, we employed five separate two-way MANCOVA for each of these variable groups as dependent variables, location and described typology, and their interaction as independent variables with the socio-demographic variables (gender, age, social class and education) as covariates. However, in none of these first five analyses were the multivariate effects of interaction between typology and location confirmed as statistically significant, thus suggesting that multivariate relationships between typology and each of the five groups of dependent variables are not significantly different between youth from the two locations. Additionally, a significant multivariate effect of location was revealed only in one of the five conducted MANOVA, those with a specific dimension of political support as a dependent variable, while additional univariate analyses confirmed that youth in Peščenica have a more negative attitude towards politicians and are less satisfied with the functioning of democracy than youth in Podsljeme. Thus, since the significant interaction effect of typology and location was not revealed for any of the four groups of dependent variables, and the established effect of location with regard to specific political support variables is not so relevant in the context of this study, we used the democracy/autocracy typology as the only independent variable in further analyses.

  14. 14.

    One example of this is a headline in the Croatian weekly news magazine Globus which read ‘BORN IN THE 90s. A lost generation. They want a strong leader, do not have contact with Serbs, Muslims and Roma and would not be opposed to army rule’ (‘ROĐENI 90-ih Izgubljena generacija Mladi Hrvati žele vođu čvrste ruke, odobravaju nasilje, ne druže se sa Srbima, Muslimanma i Romima i ne bi imali ništa protiv uvođenja vojne diktature’). See Globus, no. 1278, 5 June 2015.



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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Renata Franc
    • 1
  • Benjamin Perasović
    • 1
  • Marko Mustapić
    • 1
  1. 1.Ivo Pilar Institute of Social SciencesZagrebCroatia

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