In early results, Croatia’s conservatives take lead

Croatia’s conservative opposition was leading the vote count late Sunday after a general election dominated by concerns over the migrant crisis and a sluggish economy.

Preliminary results showed the “Patriotic Coalition” led by the HDZ party taking 60 seats in the 151-seat parliament, and the ruling Social Democrat-led alliance taking 54 seats, based on votes from nearly 40 percent of Croatia’s 6,500 polling stations.

Such a result would mean the HDZ is likely to return to power with the backing of smaller parties, given the lack of an outright majority.

The partial count also showed an unexpected success for new political party Most (meaning “Bridge” in Croatian), on track to win 19 seats and become a crucial force in post-election negotiations.

The HDZ, now led by ex-spy chief Tomislav Karamarko, was ousted from power four years ago amid a series of unprecedented scandals involving its former leader and ex-prime minister Ivo Sanader.

The centre-left SDP-led government at the helm since then has disappointed voters by failing to reform the public sector and boost the business climate, although Croatia saw a slight return to economic growth this year after six years of recession.

Exit polls had predicted an equal vote share for the two main blocs in the race to form a government, which will be under pressure to push through much-needed reforms and oversee the transit of tens of thousands of migrants through the small EU country.

Ahead of the vote, Croatia’s Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic of the SDP appeared to have been buoyed by the government’s handling of the migrant crisis, which was seen as compassionate yet defending national interests.

Thousands of migrants and refugees have been arriving in Croatia each day in the run-up to the vote, with nearly 350,000 passing through Croatia on their way to northern Europe since mid-September, when Hungary closed its border with Serbia.

Analysts said the crisis had revived the government to some extent, but the economy remained the biggest issue on people’s minds, and both main political camps lacked solid campaign pledges to reform.

– ‘Corrective force’ –

The success of Most and other smaller parties showed that “citizens apparently want a corrective force”, political sciences professor Tihomir Cipek told the commercial Nova TV station after exit polls came out.

Although the HDZ has accused the government of lacking control since the start of the migrant influx, the party has focused its campaign on patriotic rhetoric glorifying the party’s founder Franjo Tudjman.

The autocratic Tudjman led Croatia throughout its 1990s independence war until his death in 1999.

His party had dominated Croatian politics since the one-time Yugoslav republic proclaimed independence in 1991, a move that sparked a four-year war with rebel Serbs.

The ruling coalition meanwhile, campaigning with the slogan “Croatia is Growing”, has consistently accused the opposition of corruption.

“Both the HDZ and SDP have failed. The key is to reform bureaucracy and open jobs,” said political sciences student Fabijan, 21, at a Most party rally earlier this week.

Sunday marks the country’s first parliamentary election since joining the European Union in 2013, and it remains one of the bloc’s poorest-performing economies.

Public debt stands at nearly 90 percent of gross domestic product and unemployment at 16.2 percent in September — 43.1 percent among youths.

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