Croatian rivals neck-and-neck in vote overshadowed by migrant crisis

Leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) Zoran Milanovic (right) speaks to the press as his wife, Sanja Mucic Milanovic looks on after voting during the parliamentary election in Zagreb, Croatia on Sunday.
Leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) Zoran Milanovic (right) speaks to the press as his wife, Sanja Mucic Milanovic looks on after voting during the parliamentary election in Zagreb, Croatia on Sunday.PHOTO: REUTERS

ZAGREB (AFP) - Croatia's rival political blocs were on track to take an equal share of seats in parliament, an exit poll showed Sunday, after a general election overshadowed by the migrant crisis and a sluggish economy.

If the exit poll is correct, intense negotiations are likely to ensue over the formation of the next 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.

The survey by the Ipsos Puls agency gave 56 seats each to the ruling centre-left alliance led by the Social Democrats (SDP) and the conservative opposition led by the HDZ party, the state-run broadcaster HRT reported.

Set to play the role of kingmaker is new political party Most (meaning 'Bridge' in Croatian), which was predicted to come third with 18 seats in the 151-seat parliament.

Croatia's Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic has clawed back support from a year ago, when approval of his government fell to an all-time low after it failed to reform the state sector or boost the business climate.

But the government has since been buoyed by a slight return to growth after six years of recession and its handling of the refugee crisis, which was seen as compassionate yet defending national interests.

Thousands of migrants 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 migrant crisis had revived the government to some extent, but the economy remained the biggest issue on people's minds "The opposition failed to capitalise on people's dissatisfaction", particularly with the economy, political sciences professor Tihomir Cipek told the commercial Nova TV station after the exit poll came out.

He said the success of smaller parties, five of which passed the threshold to enter parliament along with the two main blocs, showed that "citizens apparently want a corrective force".

The HDZ, led by ex-spy chief Tomislav Karamarko, also appears not have capitalised on the migrant crisis in the same way as the right-wing has in countries such as Poland and Switzerland.

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 onetime Yugoslav republic proclaimed independence in 1991, a move that sparked a four-year war with rebel Serbs.

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

The ruling coalition, campaigning with the slogan "Croatia is Growing", has consistently accused the opposition of corruption, and analyst said both sides lacked solid campaign pledges to reform.

"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 per cent of gross domestic product and unemployment at 16.2 per cent in September - 43.1 per cent among youths.