A center-left opposition coalition defeated the incumbent conservatives in Croatia's parliamentary vote on Sunday, revealing voters' anger at corruption and high unemployment in the country that is next in line to join the European Union.
With about 70 percent of the vote counted, official results show the opposition "Kukuriku" coalition _ Croatian for the "cock-a-doodle-doo" rooster cry _ will take 78 seats in Croatia's 151-seat parliament. The conservative Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ, will take 48 seats.
Even before the election, the corruption-tainted conservatives were expected to lose over declining living standards and high unemployment in the country slated to become the next EU member in 2013.
The winner will be called on to make tough decisions on budget cuts to handle the country's economic downturn.
"Even in opposition, we will continue to serve Croatia," conservative leader and outgoing Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor said. "They did not put us to our knees."
The country is the latest in a long list this year to dump incumbents over soaring debt and unemployment.
"The trend in Europe is that the voters are against those who are in power," said political analyst Slaven Letica. "The same happened in Croatia."
Croatian President Ivo Josipovic congratulated the winners, saying "it's obvious that Croatia is turning to the left."
The results mean that the next Croatian prime minister will be Zoran Milanovic, the 45-year-old leader of the Social Democratic Party, the former communists who turned into pro-Western democrats seeking economic and social reforms.
"We got together to do something good for Croatia," Milanovic said.
"The voters recognized this, and we won't disappoint them," he said. "We are entering the European Union, and that's a great chance for us."
His coming to power could hasten reconciliation with Serbia, Croatia's staunch wartime foe, and help stabilize the still-volatile Balkans. The conservatives heavily played on lingering hatred between the two ex-Yugoslav ethnic groups to stay in power.
The conservatives have ruled Croatia since its 1990s war for independence from the former Yugoslavia, except for the 2001-2003 period, when the center-left coalition took over.
But they have been embroiled in corruption scandals, including alleged involvement in illegal fundraising for previous elections, that have diminished their popularity. Its former leader, ex-Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, is on trial for allegedly pocketing millions in bribes before he abruptly resigned in 2009.
Conservative official Vesna Skare Ozbolt said that the defeat is the result of Sanader's corruption charges.
"Kosor did not lose these elections, Sanader did," Ozbolt said.
Croatia is to sign an accession treaty with the EU next Friday. The country of 4.3 million is on track to join the EU in July 2013 as the bloc's 28th member.
Associated Pres writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report.