Croats vote on Sunday in parliamentary elections, their first since joining the European Union in 2013, and the winner faces a tough task nurturing a fragile economic recovery and dealing with large numbers of migrants transiting the country.
Opinion polls suggest the rightist opposition HDZ-led Patriotic Coalition will win by a narrow margin of about five parliamentary seats, an outcome likely to entail lengthy coalition talks with smaller parties.
The conservative Coalition favors a tougher stance than its main rival, the ruling Social Democrats, on the migrant issue, seeking stricter border controls to manage the flow of people crossing Croatia on their way to western Europe.
More than 330,000 migrants have passed through Croatia since mid-September, part of a massive exodus of people fleeing conflicts and poverty in Syria, Iraq and beyond.
The migrants have been crossing the border from Serbia at a daily rate of 5,000 or sometimes even 10,000, but few linger in Croatia, one of the poorest EU states where unemployment stands at 16 percent, well above the bloc’s average of 9 percent.
The nationalist-minded HDZ, which steered Croatia to independence from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia in 1991, has accused the center-left government of Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic of being soft and ineffectual in handling the migrant issue.
But 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 on Sunday.
Milanovic says his party deserves another four-year mandate because the economy, which is heavily reliant on tourism, has started to grow again after six years of recession that wiped out about 13 percent of national output.
His insistence that Croatia take a humane stance on the migrants and facilitate their flight has also struck a chord with voters who remember the violence and displacement their own country suffered during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.