Croatia goes to the polls facing migrant wave, economic woes

Zagreb (AFP) - Croatians voted in a general election Sunday with conservatives aspiring to return to power as the EU 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.

"We will prevail... and form the next government by gathering a majority," an upbeat Milanovic told reporters after voting in downtown Zagreb.

Analysts warned that support for the main opposition Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) tends to be underplayed in surveys, but that the centre-left bloc might have more potential to form a coalition government if votes are split.

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 poorest-performing economies.

But the bloc, campaigning with the slogan 'Croatia is Growing', has won back some support thanks to a slight return to economic growth and the government's introduction of some populist measures.

Career diplomat turned premier Milanovic, 49, also appears to have been boosted by 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 HDZ, which was buoyed by the election of its presidential candidate Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic in January, has accused the government of lacking control since the start of migrant influx.

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

- 'Battle for Croatia! -

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.

"We will be the winners, you will see tonight," assured HDZ leader Tomislav Karamarko after voting in the capital.

The 56-year-old former spy chief 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.

Analysts and many Croatians say neither of the two main blocs have provided comprehensive solutions to economic problems.

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

"The focus should be the economy and employment," said Maja Bacic, a 45-year-old administrator, after voting in downtown Zagreb.

She said she would vote for the SDP although it is "not an ideal choice", adding that the HDZ "only talks about the past and about the 1990s war, which ended 20 years ago".

Lucija Matkovic, a 23-year-old economist, said she would vote for the HDZ because "the current government did nothing".

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.

The polls are to close at 1800 GMT with 3.8 million Croatians eligible to vote.

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