Close Contest Predicted in Croatian Parliamentry Vote

ZAGREB, Croatia -- Croatians were voting in closely contested parliamentary elections Sunday, choosing between the ruling conservatives and the leftist opposition for a government to steer the ex-Yugoslav country into the European Union.

Polls showed Prime Minister Ivo Sanader's Croatian Democratic Union level with -- or even trailing -- the opposition center-left Social Democrats, with many blaming Sanader for failing to improve living standards and to clamp down on corruption.

Neither party, however, is expected to win outright, and the formation of the new government may only become clear following postelection deal making.

Croatia's pro-Western course is not at stake in this election. The country is negotiating EU membership and could become the bloc's 28th member in 2010; next year, NATO is expected to invite Croatia to join the alliance; and on Jan. 1, Croatia will become a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council on Jan. 1 -- all moves both parties back.

Both also want to maintain good relations with the United States, and on foreign policy, "there is no difference" between the two key rivals, said Davor Gjenero, a political analyst.

But Croatians "want to be richer now," so voting for the Social Democrats may be more of a protest vote, he said.

Sanader's party, known as the HDZ -- then run by nationalists -- had ruled for a decade until the Social Democrats seized power in 2000 to turn Croatia to the West. In 2003, the HDZ returned to government, with Sanader purging the party of nationalists and boosting the market economy to continue Croatia's pro-Western makeover.