Croatia Holds Snap Vote

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) -- Croatian citizens were voting Sunday in an early parliamentary election that is unlikely to produce a clear winner and could pave the way for more political uncertainty in the European Union's newest member state.

The second vote in less than a year was called when a previous, right-wing government collapsed in June after less than six months in power, paralyzed by bickering within the ruling coalition.

Political deadlock has delayed reforms that are necessary for Croatia to catch up with the rest of the EU. It has also fueled nationalist rhetoric amid heightened tensions with Serbia — its former Balkan war foe.

Opinion polls suggest that neither the conservative Croatian Democratic Union, known as HDZ, nor the left-leaning Social Democrats and their People's Coalition, will win enough votes to rule alone, though the leftist alliance has been projected taking a slight lead.

This means that that some of the smaller groups could play the role of kingmakers, as was the case with the pro-reform Most group in the previous government. Some analysts have predicted that Croatia's next government could take months to form and end up as weak as the previous one.

Croatia had tilted to the right under the HDZ-led government that took over following the inconclusive vote last November. However, in the past weeks it has sought to remake its image as a centrist party under new leader Andrej Plenkovic.

The more moderate leader, who took over from right-leaning Tomislav Karamarko earlier this summer, said Sunday he expects high turnout among Croatia's nearly 3.8 million voters.

"We are happy," Plenkovic said upon casting his ballot. "It's a beautiful day, so I expect the turnout to be bigger than if it was rainy."

Initial turnout figures showed nearly 19 percent of voters had cast their ballots in the first four and a half hours of voting.

President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic urged more Croats to come out and vote, saying the country's future is in their hands.

"The following months and years are truly decisive for Croatia, and today we have to be serious," Grabar Kitarovic said. "We can't complain later if the outcome of the election is not the way we want it to be."

HDZ and the Social Democrats have been the two dominant parties in Croatia since the country split from former Yugoslavia in 1991. The Social Democrats, led by former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, were in power for four years until last November.

"We have shown that we are competent and that we have more heart," Milanovic said as he cast his vote Sunday. "The rest is up to the people."

Although more advanced than other Balkan countries, Croatia has one of the weakest economies in the EU following years of crisis after the 1991-95 war.

After a six-year recession, Croatia has shown signs of recovery with reported growth of more than 2 percent. However, unemployment hovers around 14 percent — among the highest in the EU — and much of the fiscal growth is attributed to tourism along Croatia's Adriatic coast.

Kristijan Naher, a voter from Zagreb said he hopes Croatians "will be smarter now" and vote conclusively to "avoid the agony" that followed the last election.

Zagreb resident Jelena Micic said she was hopeful things would improve.

"I think we are moving toward a better future for Croatia," Micic said.

(KA)