Croatia election heavily inflenced by refugee crisis
Opinion polls indicate victory for alliance favouring tougher migration controls
A group of Afghan refugees warm themselves near a fire at at the railway station of Sid, where Serbian authorities send them to Croatia. Sid, Serbia, Photograph: Manu Brabo/AP
A girl holds on to a fence at a transit camp housing migrants and refugees in Slavonski Brod. Thousands of newly arrived migrants and asylum seekers are on the move through Croatia and towards the border with Slovenia, from where they plan to continue their journey to western European countries. Photograph: Getty Images
Croats vote on Sunday in their first parliamentary election since joining the European Union in 2013, as the country continues to deal with the large numbers of migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and north Africa.
Opinion polls pointed to a narrow victory for a conservative alliance favouring tougher controls on migration.
The opposition HDZ-led Patriotic Coalition is expected to win by a margin of about five parliamentary seats, an outcome likely to entail lengthy coalition talks with smaller parties.
The more than 6,500 polling stations close at 6pm (Irish time) and the first, preliminary, official results will be released at (pm (Irish time).
The conservative coalition favours a tougher stance than the ruling Social Democrats on the migrant issue, seeking stricter border controls to manage the flow of people.
More than 330,000 migrants have passed through Croatia since mid-September, crossing the border from Serbia at a daily rate of 5,000 or sometimes 10,000. Few linger in Croatia, one of the poorest EU states where unemployment is at 16 percent, well above the bloc’s 9 percent average.
The HDZ, which steered Croatia to independence from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia in 1991, has accused the centre-left government of prime minister Zoran Milanovic of being soft and ineffectual in handling the migrant issue.
Political analysts say the HDZ, which plays on issues of national identity and family values in the mainly Catholic nation of 4.4 million people, may struggle to attract sufficient support from smaller parties to build a stable government.
This could allow the Social Democrats to hold on to power even if they win fewer votes.
“At the moment it is quite difficult to say which side will be favoured by the smaller parties,” political analyst Viseslav Raos said.
Polls show the Most party, Croat for “bridge”, may emerge as the third strongest group in parliament. Founded three years ago, the party says it will press for reforms of a bloated public sector and for a better business climate.
“I am very optimistic, I believe we will win,” HDZ leader, Tomislav Karamarko said after voting in Zagreb.
Mr Milanovic says his party deserves another four-year mandate because the economy, heavily reliant on tourism, has started to grow after six years of recession that wiped out about 13 per cent of national output. The HDZ says it can achieve faster growth than the current one percent.