ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Croats go to the polls this weekend in a snap election that, despite the country's many problems, has been more about past divisions than future challenges facing the European Union's newest member state.
The early parliamentary vote on Sunday is expected to do little to end the worst political crisis in Croatia since it entered the EU in 2013, fueling fears that instability could hamper the country's efforts to catch up with the rest of the bloc.
The balloting — the second in less than a year in Croatia — comes amid a surge in right-wing sentiments and nationalist rhetoric that have fueled divisions dating back to World War II and more recently the 1990s' Balkan wars.
"Some topics have come into focus that we believed were long ago put aside," said Jadranka Kosor, a former prime minister and conservative leader. "Instead of moving forward as a (EU) member, our political and public life have taken a turn for the worse."
Croatia's previous center-right government collapsed last spring after only six months in power, paralyzed by internal bickering and conflict of interest allegations leveled against its main politician.
That government was formed after an inconclusive election last November, which gave no clear winner and turned a little-known pro-reform group into a post-election kingmaker.
Opinion polls have predicted that the upcoming vote will end the same way, with neither the leftist Social Democrats nor the right-wing Croatian Democratic Union able to rule on their own.
This means that the formation of Croatia's next government will likely once again depend on smaller groups, such as Most, that helped make up the right-wing government that collapsed.
"The result of this election could easily be an introduction into another election soon," said Kosor. "I believe we have entered a period of unstable governments."
Prolonged uncertainty could further undermine development in the nation of 4.2 million people.
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 fueled by the split from the former Yugoslavia.
After a six-year recession, Croatia has shown signs of recovery with reported growth of more than two 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.
Gordana Deranja, from Croatia's Employers' Association, says with the economy showing signs of improvement the state must do its part by reducing the country's debt, lowering taxes and eliminating red tape that constrains business.
"A serious job is waiting for a serious government that is ready to tackle problems which should have been dealt with long ago," Deranja said.
While both the Social Democrats and HDZ have declared the economy their priority, Deranja said the promises have been empty while "the word reforms has disappeared from the campaign."
Part of the pre-election focus instead has been on topics that remain a source of division among Croats, such as the country's WWII pro-Nazi past, the post war Communist Yugoslav period and relations with former Balkan war foe Serbia.
Right-wing supporters in Croatia admire the WWII pro-Nazi regime for establishing an independent Croatia and believe that the post-war, multi-ethnic Yugoslavia was an anti-Croat union dominated by the Serbs, while left-leaning Croats take pride in the country's anti-fascist struggle during WWII.
The divisions are mirrored in politics with HDZ considered nationalists and the Social Democrats viewed as successors of Croatia's communists.
Prominent Croatian novelist Slavenka Drakulic said focus on ideological divisions rather than concrete problems has led to widespread disappointment, distrust and apathy among Croatia's 3.7 million voters, who feel they have no one to turn to.
Sixty-one year old Alek Stepicic from Zagreb agreed.
"The best advice in this situation would be just to take care of oneself and mind one's own business," he said.
Conservative leader Andrej Plenkovic, a European parliament member who took the leadership of HDZ at the start of the campaign, insisted he has worked to push the party away from the past and toward the future.
"We are in the business of uniting, rather than dividing," Plenkovic, who was a Croatian member of the European Parliament, told the AP. "It is a huge change."
The Social Democrats' leader Zoran Milanovic, also said during the campaign that he was "tired" of dealing with the past. But, Milanovic too has played the nationalist card, meeting with the Croatian war veterans and clashing openly with Serbia.
For Boris Miletic, a small-party mayor of the northern, liberal-minded coastal town of Pula, the big parties really only "deal with themselves" to avoid facing Croatia's many problems.
"When you don't have answers for everyday life and the needs of your citizens, it is always easy to turn to the past," Miletic said.
Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.