Croatia votes as migrants flow in, economy languishes05 november 2015, 15:26
Croatians vote in a general election Sunday as the nation faces an ongoing influx of refugees -- a crisis that rival political camps have tried to exploit, while lacking concrete policy pledges to kickstart the sluggish economy, AFP reports.
After four years of a centre-left coalition government and six years of recession, the right-wing opposition is bidding to return to power in the country's first general elections since joining the European Union in 2013.
Polls show the conservative Patriotic Coalition led by the HDZ party just ahead, but its comfortable lead has been erased in recent months by the ruling Croatia Is Growing alliance led by the Social Democrats (SDP) and Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic.
Some say the arrival since mid-September of more than 300,000 migrants headed for northern Europe has provided a welcome diversion for Milanovic after a disappointing term in which he failed to implement much hoped-for reforms.
"The government was lucky that ahead of the elections a political issue emerged that pushed everything else -- namely resolving economic issues -- into the background," independent political consultant Davor Gjenero told AFP.
The premier appears to have walked a fine line between showing compassion and defending national interests -- first talking tough with neighbour and former foe Serbia, but recently agreeing on a rare deal to transport migrants across their shared border by train.
"Milanovic, who... six months ago looked politically dead, now seems politically alive to a certain extent," Gjenero said.
'Tried to capitalise'
Running a campaign rich in nationalist rhetoric, the opposition, led by former spy chief Tomislav Karamarko, has also weighed in on the crisis -- first calling for tighter border controls, then criticising the government's treatment of migrants.
With many in Croatia sympathising with refugees after being displaced in their own 1990s war, the right-wing bloc appeared to struggle over how best to approach the issue.
"It was really interesting to watch them try to capitalise on the crisis but not truly knowing what resonates with the population," said Josip Glaurdic, an expert on southeastern Europe at the University of Cambridge.
At an SDP election rally in Zagreb on Wednesday, as the crowd waved Croatian flags and scarves in the party colour red, bystanders praised the government's handling of the migrant crisis, but thought it would not be enough to swing votes.
An unemployed 57-year-old who gave her name only as Vesna said the government had shown "humanity" to refugees, but criticised it for lacking "decisiveness and courage" in other areas.
Jelena, a 31-year-old chef holding her two-year-old daughter Mia, said she was mostly concerned for her children's future.
"The key is to increase employment so that young people do not run away from Croatia," she told AFP, referring to the thousands who move abroad in search of work each year.
Stark public debt
Croatia's economic struggles may not strike a first-time visitor to Zagreb's elegant Habsburg streets, abuzz with trendy cafes.
But the problems are stark: Croatia is one of the EU's poorest-performing economies, with public debt at nearly 90 percent of gross domestic product and unemployment at 16.2 percent in September -- 43.1 percent among youths.
Although a return to growth of nearly one percent is expected this year, analysts say the campaigns sorely lack solid reformist pledges.
Instead they have traded bitter barbs, with the left slamming the HDZ for corruption after a series of cases involving former leader Ivo Sanader, and the right retorting with jibes about the SDP's "unpatriotic" past owing to its communist roots in the ex-Yugoslavia.
"We had a clash between 'those who do not love Croatia' and 'those who looted Croatia'," said Berto Salaj, political science professor at Zagreb University.
Smaller groups may end up playing kingmakers and weeks of negotiations could ensue if neither camp wins an outright majority.
When a government is finally formed, "odds are about even" that it will face a serious threat of a debt default within two years, Glaurdic warned.
"Whoever is in is going to have a really tough time."