Zagreb (AFP) - Croatia's political parties faced tough negotiations Monday to cobble together a government after the conservative opposition narrowly won an election, heightening uncertainty in a country battling the migration crisis and a sluggish economy.
The lack of an outright majority means it could take weeks of horse-trading to form a government, delaying much-needed reform as the European Union's newest member slowly emerges from six years of recession.
The new rulers will also have to grapple with a daily influx of thousands of migrants -- nearly 350,000 have passed through the country of 4.2 million people since mid-September, when neighbouring Hungary closed its border with Serbia.
The opposition Patriotic Coalition, led by the HDZ party, took 59 seats in the 151-seat parliament -- just three more than the centre-left bloc, led by the Social Democrats (SDP), which has ruled for the past four years.
New party Most ("Bridge" in Croatian) emerged as a powerful force in national politics, coming third with 19 seats.
Most leader Bozo Petrov told reporters Monday that the party was yet to decide which of the two main coalitions to support.
- 'Cannot go it alone' -
"We were not deciding about it, today we were deciding about a list of reforms that would be on the negotiating table. We don’t want to create a constitutional crisis but... support those who decide to accept changes," Petrov said.
According to the constitution, the president must consult parliamentary parties and nominate a prime minister-designate who has the support of the majority of MPs.
With 70 percent of votes counted by the early hours of Monday, HDZ leader and ex-spy chief Tomislav Karamarko had toasted victory with his cheering supporters, saying the election result "brought us responsibility to lead our country, which is in a difficult situation".
But the latest tally makes the outcome more complicated, with analysts saying the SDP, despite winning fewer seats, might have a better chance of uniting with smaller parties to try and form a government.
Defiant Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic of the SDP called on Most to form a coalition with his centre-left bloc as the results came in, telling his supporters: "We cannot go it alone and we need partners."
- 'Serious crisis' -
A delay in forming a government could push Croatia into a "serious crisis", warned political analyst Davor Gjenero.
"The migrant crisis will get worse, economic problems will surface again, while at the same time Croatia lacks a strong public administration to assure the state functions while the executive power is not working," he said.
Milanovic, elected in 2011, campaigned this time with the slogan "Croatia is Growing" after a slight return to economic expansion this year, but he has disappointed voters by failing to reform the public sector and boost the business climate.
Croatia joined the EU in 2013, and remains one of the bloc's poorest-performing economies.
Public debt stands at nearly 90 percent of gross domestic product and unemployment was at 16.2 percent in September -- 43.1 percent among youths.
Although the premier appeared to be buoyed by his handling of the migrant crisis ahead of the vote, the economy remained the biggest issue on people's minds and both main political camps lacked solid reformist pledges, analysts said.
The unexpected success of the Most party showed that voters "do not want this kind of two-party system... they do not want political elites that have started to become a separate world cut off from the people," Gjenero said.
The HDZ was ousted four years ago amid a series of unprecedented scandals involving its former leader and ex-prime minister Ivo Sanader.
The party's latest campaign was rich in patriotic rhetoric glorifying its founder, the autocratic Franjo Tudjman, who led the former Yugoslav republic throughout its 1990s war of independence until his death in 1999.
In another sign that war reminiscences can still find fertile ground, among those elected Sunday was Branimir Glavas, a politician found guilty for war crimes committed against Serbs in the eastern town of Osijek during the 1991-1995 war.
The 59-year old was jailed in 2010 for eight years, but was released earlier this year after the Constitutional court annulled his verdict on procedural grounds and ordered a retrial.