Croatia votes for a new parliament on Sunday (November 8) for the first time since the nation of 4.2 million joined the European Union two years ago.
The winner faces the tough task of reviving a fragile economy and handling the huge numbers of refugees passing through the country each day.
Pre-election polls show the ruling left-wing coalition (“Croatia is Growing”) led by Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic and the conservative opposition led by the HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) are neck-and-neck.
The tight race means a lot will hinge on post-election talks with smaller parties to secure a majority in the 151-seat parliament.
“The elections will not produce a clear winner and everything will depend on post-election coalitions. The winning party will only get a relative victory,” said political analyst Andjelko Milardovic.
Just recovering from six years of recession, Croatia is one of the EU’s poorest states and 43 percent of its youth is jobless. The overall unemployment rate, at 16 percent, is also well above the bloc’s average of 9 percent.
Some voters are disillusioned. Zagreb resident Ivana Petric said: “I expect the HDZ to win these elections, but I don’t care because nothing will change for the better anyway. I know that for sure, because I’m a young person who lives here and I know that there are no good prospects at all.”
The migrants’ crisis has been another key campaign issue. More than 330,000 asylum-seekers have entered Croatia since September, many of them fleeing conflict in the Middle East and most hoping to reach Western Europe.
The HDZ-led Patriotic Coalition has demanded stricter border controls to manage the flow. But Milanovic’s insistence that Croatia help the refugees has struck a chord with voters who remember the displacement their own country suffered during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.