Conservatives win Croatia vote, but outlook unclear
The vote came as the EU’s newest member has seen a lurch to the right and a surge of social intolerance over the past five months under a fragile coalition government led by conservative HDZ party.
HDZ won 61 seats in Sunday’s ballot while their centre-left opposition rivals, the Social Democrats (SDP), took 54, according to complete results.
“I’m certain that we are the party that will have the privilege of forming the next stable government in Croatia,” HDZ’s new moderate leader Andrej Plenkovic — now likely to be prime minister — told supporters early Monday.
However, analysts warn that tough talks to form a government could be ahead because the HDZ has not secured an absolute majority in the 151-seat parliament.
HDZ’s former junior government partner, the Most Party (“Bridge” in Croatian), took third place with 13 seats making it likely to play kingmaker — as it did in November polls.
But the party, which presents itself as reformist, has said it will only join a coalition on the condition of reforms to local administration and cuts to both lawmakers’ benefits and financing for political parties.
“HDZ has a good chance of forming a government if Most behaves rationally,” political analyst Zarko Puhovski told AFP.
The concern is that Most could set tough conditions that are difficult for the other coalition partners to accept.
Meanwhile, average Croatians are worried a new government will not end the political deadlock that has plagued the country for nearly a year.
“Most will seek impossible things and they (coalition partners) won’t be able to agree,” said Josip Bergovec, a man in his 60s from Zagreb.
– More moderate rhetoric –
The election was the second in less than a year after the previous barely functioning coalition government collapsed in June over a conflict of interest scandal after just five months in power.
Some 3.8 million Croatians were eligible to cast a ballot in Sunday’s vote, which came at a time of economic gloom and strained ties between neighbours in the volatile Balkans.
The previous HDZ-led coalition’s rule was marked by a growing climate of intolerance, including attacks on independent media and minorities, notably ethnic Serbs.
Authorities appeared to have turned a blind eye to a far-right surge that sparked global concern and brought already frosty ties with former enemy Serbia to their lowest level since Croatia’s 1990s independence war.
Plenkovic, the 46-year-old former member of the European Parliament, has repeatedly vowed to move the party away from populism and extremism to position it in the centre-right.
Meanwhile, his SDP rival, former prime minister Zoran Milanovic, 49, said Monday he would not run as a candidate for the party’s leader in elections due in the coming months.
– Voter apathy –
Croatians may have lost enthusiasm for voting a second time in less than a year — turnout was 52 percent, nearly 10 points down from the November polls.
“Croatia is tired,” commented the Vecernji list, daily warning that debates over the past “left a deep scar on the nation additionally hurt by the economic crisis.”
The populist party Zivi Zid (“Human Shield” in Croatian), which has pledged to fight political corruption and banks, won eight seats on Sunday compared with one in November’s vote.
The political deadlock in Croatia has prevented reforms that the former Yugoslav republic badly needs as it emerges from a six-year recession.
Its economy, relying heavily on tourism along Croatia’s Adriatic coast, remains one of the EU’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.
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