ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Initial results of Croatia's early elections have shown that the conservatives were leading the vote, but won't be able to rule on their own, paving the way for another coalition government in the European Union's newest member state.
With more than half of the ballots counted, Croatia's state election authorities said early on Monday that the conservative Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ, have won 62 seats in the 151-seat parliament, while rival left-leaning People's Coalition won 53. Third-placed are kingmakers Most, or Bridge, with 12 seats.
Although incomplete, the results are not expected to change dramatically until the full count later on Monday.
If confirmed, the results will present a major success for the HDZ party, which also led the previous right-wing government that collapsed in June after less than six months in power, triggering the worst political turmoil in the country since it joined the EU in 2013.
"After such a victory, we are the party that will have a chance to form a stable, future Croatian government in the next four years," HDZ leader Andrej Plenkovic said. "We have shown that we have regained the trust of our voters."
Plenkovic said the party will start negotiations with potential coalition partners already on Monday.
The election outcome comes as a major blow for Croatia's left-leaning Social Democrats — the main party in the People's Coalition — who were leading the polls ahead of the elections, but apparently have failed to capitalize on the political crisis created by their opponents in order to win the election.
The Social Democrats leader, former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, expressed regret over the results early on Monday. Milanovic expressed hope that the next Croatian government will be formed soon, saying that the instability of the past several months must not be repeated.
"Unfortunately, this was not a happy day for Croatia," said Milanovic, apparently referring to the HDZ success. "But Croatia needs a stable government now, whoever may be part of it."
The previous Croatian government was formed after an inconclusive election last November following weeks of negotiations between the HDZ and Most. It fell because of bickering within the ruling coalition.
The months-long 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 wartime foe in the 1990s, raising fears of renewed tensions in the Balkans.
HDZ and the Social Democrats, which is the largest party in the Peoples' Coalition, have been the two dominant parties in Croatia since the country split from former Yugoslavia in 1991. The Social Democrats were in power for four years until last November.
Croatia had tilted to the right under the HDZ-led government that took over following the inconclusive vote last November. However, in the past few weeks it has sought to remake its image as a centrist party under new leader Plenkovic.
Analysts said that Milanovic's negative campaign and nationalist outbursts pushed away some voters from the Social Democrats.
"HDZ had just 20 percent in June, but SDP led a completely wrong campaign," analyst Ivan Siber said.
Hours before the polls closed, the turnout among Croatia's 3.8 million voters was nearly 10 percent less than in November.
President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic urged 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."
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.
Zagreb resident Jelena Micic said she was hopeful things would improve.
"I think we are moving toward a better future for Croatia," Micic said.