Croatia’s conservatives win, helped by tougher stance on migration

Tomislav Karamarko, president of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) [Reuters]

Croatia’s conservative opposition won the country’s first election since it joined the European Union in 2013, partial results from Sunday’s election showed, but its narrow victory meant lengthy coalition talks were likely to follow in the next days or weeks.

The new government will have to nurture a tentative economic recovery after six years of recession and deal with thousands of migrants from the Middle East streaming through the tiny Adriatic state on their way to western and northern Europe.

Preliminary results after counting half of the votes showed Croatia is heading toward a hung parliament, with the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) winning 61 seats in the 151-seat parliament and the ruling centre-left Social Democratic Party and its allies winning 53 seats.

“This victory puts us into position to take responsibility for leading the country. Ahead of us is a struggle to secure a better life in Croatia,” the HDZ leader Tomislav Karamarko said.

The conservative alliance HDZ favours a tougher stance than its main rival on the migrant issue, seeking stricter border controls to manage the flow of people crossing the small Adriatic state of 4.4 million.

Croatia has become a transit hub for migrants, many from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, who want to travel north. Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said this week that 320,000 migrants had passed through the country so far this year, 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%, well above the bloc’s 9% average.

The cost of managing the arrivals was close to 2m kuna (€265,000) a day, he said.

Driven largely by economic concerns, the election follows a landmark victory by opposition conservatives in Poland last month. The Polish Law and Justice party pledges to oppose mandatory quotas for relocation of migrants within the EU and echoes the HDZ’s nationalist undertones.

The HDZ, which steered Croatia to independence from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia in 1991, has accused the outgoing centre-left government of Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic of being soft and ineffectual in handling the migrant issue.

“I feel sorry for those people (migrants), but the migrant issue will not determine my vote,” Marija, 71, said. “I will vote for economic prosperity, a better life for the young and for the old.”

The results showed the Most party, Croatian for “bridge”, emerging as the third strongest group in parliament with 19 seats. Founded three years ago, the party says it will press for reforms of a bloated public sector and for a better business climate.

Bozo Petrov, Most leader, said his party would support a future government only if it went ahead with reforms of the judiciary and public administration, and would seek to improve the business environment.

“For each of those reforms we would set deadlines and if deadlines were not met, we would demand a parliamentary no-confidence vote. We know that, as things stand now, we control the majority in the parliament,” he told national broadcaster HRT.

“A new election is much cheaper than an incapable government,” he said.

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 percent of national output.

After results were announced Milanovic called the parties advocating reforms, especially the Most party, to join him and form a future coalition government.

“We want to go on, we cannot carry on alone and we need partners,” he said.

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