Croatians began voting Sunday 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.
Polling stations opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and close twelve hours later. First official results were expected late Sunday.
Some 3.8 million Croatians are eligible to vote in the polls, which come less than a year after an election last November produced no absolute winner.
A barely-functioning coalition government, led by the conservative HDZ party, took power following that vote, 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 international concern and brought already frosty ties with Serbia to their lowest level since Croatia\’s 1990s independence war.
In recent months the two neighbours have exchanged bitter accusations over their wartime past, with Belgrade accusing Zagreb of a "rebirth of Nazism".
Less than a week before the vote, Serbia sentenced a Croatian to three years in jail for spying.
Polls and analysts give 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, 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 Plenkovic\’s moderate agenda, HDZ could also count on the backing of minorities, notably Serbs, as well as Croatians living abroad, its traditional supporters.
Rival Milanovic, 49, has been stressing his experience as premier and has pledged a "government of progress and tolerance."
But he has sharpened his populist rhetoric after disappointing voters with scant reforms while in power and has repeatedly slammed Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic over his ultranationalist wartime stance.
Morana, a 27-year-old teacher from Zagreb, said she was voting for SDP.
"With HDZ in power we have witnessed Croatia flirting with values that are inconceivable for a modern European country," Morana, who did not give her last name, ahead of the vote.
Marko Tomic, a 39-year-old administrator, said he backs HDZ due to its "conservative stance, and with Plenkovic it has got the needed modern, European perspective."
Almost a year of political deadlock has blocked reforms badly needed in Croatia, which emerged from a six-year recession in 2015.
The economy, relying largely on tourism along the country\’s Adriatic coast, remains one of the European Union\’s weakest despite some recent positive indicators attributed to membership of the bloc.
The central bank has forecast growth of 2.3 percent this year.
Unemployment stands at more than 13 percent, public debt has reached 85 percent of GDP, while the investment climate remains poor.