ZAGREB (Reuters) - Croatia's conservative opposition won the country's first election since it joined the European Union in 2013, preliminary results showed on Sunday, but its narrow victory meant lengthy coalition talks were likely to follow in the next days or weeks.
The new government will have to nurture a tentative economic recovery after six years of recession and deal with thousands of migrants from the Middle East streaming through the tiny Adriatic state on their way to western and northern Europe.
"We estimate we will have around 10 seats more than the SDP. We will talk to all those who want changes in Croatia," said HDZ senior official and former foreign minister Gordan Jandrokovic.
The conservative alliance led by the opposition HDZ party favors a tougher stance than its main rival, the ruling Social Democrats, on the migrant issue, seeking stricter border controls to manage the flow of people crossing the small Adriatic state of 4.4 million.
Some 338,000 migrants have passed through Croatia since mid-September, crossing the border from Serbia at a daily rate of 5,000 or sometimes 10,000. Few linger in Croatia, one of the poorest EU states where unemployment is at 16 percent, well above the bloc's 9 percent average.
Driven largely by economic concerns, the election follows a landmark victory by opposition conservatives in Poland last month. The Polish Law and Justice party pledges to oppose mandatory quotas for relocation of migrants within the EU and echoes the HDZ's nationalist undertones.
The HDZ, which steered Croatia to independence from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia in 1991, has accused the outgoing centre-left government of Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic of being soft and ineffectual in handling the migrant issue.
"I feel sorry for those people (migrants), but the migrant issue will not determine my vote," Marija, 71, said. "I will vote for economic prosperity, a better life for the young and for the old."
Preliminary results showed the Most party, Croat for "bridge", emerging as the third strongest group in parliament. Founded three years ago, the party says it will press for reforms of a bloated public sector and for a better business climate.
Bozo Petrov, Most leader, said his party would support a future government only if it went ahead with reforms of the judiciary and public administration, and would seek to improve the business environment.
"For each of those reforms we would set deadlines and if deadlines were not met, we would demand a parliamentary no-confidence vote. We know that, as things stand now, we control the majority in the parliament," he told national broadcaster HRT.
"A new election is much cheaper than an incapable government," he said.
Milanovic says his party deserves another four-year mandate because the economy, heavily reliant on tourism, has started to grow after six years of recession that wiped out about 13 percent of national output. The HDZ says it can achieve faster growth than the current 1 percent.
Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Jonathan Oatis