Croatia starts voting in general election as nation faces migrant wave, economic woes

People walking past an election campaign billboard for the "Croatia forward" coalition led by Mr Zoran Milanovic, in downtown Zagreb, on Nov 6, 2015.
People walking past an election campaign billboard for the "Croatia forward" coalition led by Mr Zoran Milanovic, in downtown Zagreb, on Nov 6, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

Zagreb (AFP) - Croatians began voting in a general election on Sunday (Nov 8), with conservatives aspiring to return to power, as the European Union nation faces a wave of migrants and slowly emerges from six years of recession.

Opinion polls predict a tight race between the ruling centre-left alliance, led by Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic's Social Democrats (SDP), and the rival conservative "Patriotic Coalition", in Croatia's first parliamentary election since it joined the European Union in 2013.

Neither camp is expected to win an outright majority in the 151-seat Parliament, making it likely that the government's make-up will be decided in post-election talks with smaller parties.

The polls opened at 7am local time and are set to close 12 hours later, with 3.8 million Croatians eligible to vote.

The ruling coalition, in power since 2011, has been blamed for failing to reform the country's inefficient public sector or improve the business climate in Croatia, one of the EU's weakest economies.

The conservative HDZ, the leading opposition party, was boosted in January by the victory of its candidate Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic in the presidential election.

But the ruling Croatia Is Growing coalition has since closed the gap in the opinion polls, amid weak economic growth and the introduction of populist measures, such as a law converting Swiss franc loans into euros to help struggling borrowers.

Mr Milanovic also seems to have earned support over his policy towards refugees transiting through Croatia to Slovenia, by both showing compassion and pledging to defend national interests.

Nearly 350,000 migrants have passed through Croatia since mid-September on their way to northern Europe, after Hungary closed its border with Serbia.

The opposition has accused the government of lacking control since the start of the influx, but does not appear to have capitalised on the crisis.

The HDZ was ousted in 2011 amid a series of unprecedented scandals involving its former leader and ex-prime minister Ivo Sanader.

The party has dominated Croatian politics since the former Yugoslav republic proclaimed independence in 1991, a move that sparked a four-year war with rebel Serbs.

HDZ leader Tomislav Karamarko has run an electoral campaign heavy in patriotic rhetoric, glorifying his party's late founder and 'Father of the Nation', Franjo Tudjman.

"This is a battle for Croatia!" he declared at a 15,000-strong rally on Thursday, intimating that his SDP rivals, with communist roots in the former Yugoslavia, were anti-independence.

The government has meanwhile consistently accused the opposition of corruption.

"People are above all concerned with the economy... but neither of the two parties was giving real answers to those key issues," independent political consultant Davor Gjenero told AFP.

Although a return to growth of nearly one percent is expected this year, public debt stands at nearly 90 per cent of gross domestic product and unemployment at 16.2 per cent in September - 43.1 per cent among youths.

Some fed-up voters are opting for smaller parties such as newcomer Most (meaning 'Bridge' in Croatian), which could end up playing a key role in post-election negotiations.

"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 this week.