ZAGREB • Croatians cast their ballots yesterday in a snap election whose outcome might prolong political uncertainty in the EU's newest member, which had shifted to the right under previous conservative governments.
The election comes as the former Yugoslav republic faces economic struggles and at a time of strained ties between neighbours in the volatile Balkans, notably with former enemy Serbia.
Some 3.8 million Croatians are eligible to cast ballots after last November's election produced no absolute winner.
A barely-functioning coalition government, led by the conservative HDZ party, took power before collapsing in June over a conflict of interest scandal.
The coalition's five-month rule was marked by a shift to the right amid a growing climate of intolerance, including attacks on independent media and minorities, notably ethnic Serbs.
Authorities have appeared to turn a blind eye to the far-right surge, but it has sparked global concern and brought already frosty ties with Serbia to their lowest level since Croatia's 1990s independence war.
Polls and analysts have given a slight lead to a coalition led by the main conservative Social Democrats (SDP) of former prime minister Zoran Milanovic, who was in power for four years until November.
"SDP seems set to win, but without an absolute majority" in the 151-seat Parliament, political analyst Zarko Puhovski told AFP.
The likeliest outcome is a similar scenario to that of the previous vote - prolonged talks on forming a government and potentially another election. HDZ is banking on staying in power with a new and more moderate leader, Mr Andrej Plenkovic, who has pledged to move it away from populism and extremism.
"I'm changing the HDZ... My mission is to position it in the centre-right," said the 46-year-old former member of the European Parliament.
HDZ's former junior government partner - the "Most" party (meaning "Bridge" in Croatian) - is likely to play kingmaker once again.
With Mr Plenkovic's moderate agenda, HDZ can also count on the backing of minorities, notably Serbs, as well as Croatians living abroad, its traditional supporters.
Mr Milanovic, 49, has been stressing his experience as premier and has pledged a "government of progress and tolerance."
The economy, relying largely on tourism along the country's Adriatic coast, remains one of the European Union's weakest.
Unemployment stands at more than 13 per cent, public debt has reached 85 per cent of GDP, while the investment climate remains poor.