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Bos/Hrv/Srp 31 May 17

My Mayor Kerum, Croatian Donald Trump

Damir Pilic

How did we get to the point that a Croatian tycoon-turned-politician (essentially a combination of Berlusconi and Trump) has a realistic chance of becoming the mayor of Croatian coastal city Split for the second time?

Željko Kerum with prosciutto on his forehead. Photo: Reader of Croatian daily 24 sata

You don’t know who Zeljko Kerum is? Oh God, you must be happy people indeed. Because I know who he is: from 2009 to 2013 he was the mayor of the Croatian coastal city of Split, and in a few days he could be mayor again.

In the first round of Croatia’s local elections on May 21, he received the highest number of votes (30.4 per cent), and on June 4 he will go head-to-head with the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) candidate, Andro Krstulovic Opara, who received 26, 1 per cent of votes in the first round.

The 57-year-old Kerum is one of the country’s most peculiar politicians. A controversial entrepreneur, he entered the war in the 1990s as a bulldozer driver and somehow emerged the owner of a trading empire. His value, at the height of his glory, was estimated at 200 million euros.  He publicly brags about his love for Dom Perignon champagne while swallowing his vowels. While he presents himself as an anti-establishment candidate and a “man of the people”, he lives in a luxury villa in the elite Mira district of Split, drives a Ferrari F430 worth 250,000 euros, and owns a yacht worth 10 million euros. And people vote for him.

In short: Kerum is a combination of Italian media magnate and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and US President Donald Trump. Yet somehow he manages to be ruder, more vulgar and harsher than both.

Kerum began his business ascent in 1990, when he opened his first convenience shop in the basement of a family house in the neighbourhood of Brda, only to open additional five stores in the next three years.

Police criminally reported him for sugar smuggling in 1993 after he was found to have been buying sugar without any receipts at the price of 0.8 German marks per kilogramme (40 euro cents), selling it for one mark (50 euro cents). After the indictment was filed in 1996, Kerum pleaded guilty in court at the time, but he was saved by the change in the law in 1998, according to which the act was decriminalised.

Meanwhile, he expanded his business empire, opening two large shopping malls in Split and later buying the prestigious Marjan Hotel in the city centre. He also ran a supermarket chain. Then he decides to enter politics: during the local elections in 2009 he emerged as an independent candidate and won. A political star was born.

A few months later, while Kerum was hosting Sunday at Two, the most watched show on public broadcaster Croatian Radio-Television, he caused a scandal that echoed around neighbouring countries as well. He stated that “Serbs need to know where their place is” because “they can’t bring any good” and that he “would never have a Serb as a son in law.” This is how my mayor showed that even primitive chauvinism is not something he runs from.

One thing that is very telling, is that citizens are less inclined to search for him at the City Hall, and much more in nearby bars and restaurants.

In 2010, an opposition representative in the City Assembly asked when he was thinking of repairing the overcrowded city roads, full of holes. “You can only imagine how it is for me to drive a Ferrari over these holes, far worse than you because my Ferrari is just a finger from the road,” Kerum replied.

Snow falls in Split falls once every ten years and usually rests for several hours, but in February 2012 it stayed for seven days, and the city streets came to be covered in ice. Yet there was no reaction from the city services. After some two hundred people broke their hands and feet in the first two days alone, Kerum finally came out in public with a spectacularly dismissive statement: "Oh my God [sarcastically], the snow has fallen, and so what? I'm glad … I hope to God it falls the next year as well.”

By the end of the week, the number of citizens who had broken bones rose to 700, and to this very day, Split still pays out money as legal compensation for the harm caused to citizens.

It was not easy for a person living in Split during Kerum's years. Whichever part of the country I was in, if people heard that I was from Split, they would start to mock, saying “and where’s that Kerum of yours?” Soon I began to say that I wasn’t really from Split but rather from the surrounding area.

At the 2013 election, he again ran for mayor but dropped out in the first round, aided by a single photo. Several days before the election, he walked around the city and sang with the accompaniment of the accordionists – who followed him throughout the campaign – and suddenly it became hot: To cool down, he placed a slice of prosciutto [traditional Dalmatian dry ham] on his sweaty forehead, and this photograph found its way to the media. Many Split inhabitants commented that this photograph is scandalous and degrading, and Kerum lost the elections, and the new mayor became Ivo Baldasar from the centre-left Social Democratic Party, SDP.

How is it possible that such a man could again run in 2017 and win the first round with realistic chances of becoming a mayor on June 4?

It is partly because of Baldasar's disastrous term in office, and partly because many citizens who don’t follow politics – especially the young – see Kerum as a rock star who defies traditional politics. This was also demonstrated during this campaign when he mostly baked lambs around town districts and shared candy with kids. And he entered the second round.

If he wins on June 4, I will have to let you in on a little secret: I'm not from Split but once again from the surrounding area.

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