Croatia goes to the polls in snap parliamentary elections on Sunday - just 10 months after the last vote produced a parliament unable to forge a sustainable governing coalition – with little hope that the outcome will be any different this time.
Pollsters predict that neither of the two main parties which have governed Croatia since it emerged from the former Yugoslavia 25 years ago - the conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) – will score a decisive win.
"It is certain that the election result will be tight and it is totally certain that neither of the big blocs will have enough to form a government alone," political analyst Davor Gjenero told dpa.
In terms of parliamentary seats expected to be won, a survey published on September 3 gave the bloc led by SDP a 61-56 lead over the HDZ. In November, HDZ won 59-56. Ruling without a coalition partner would require 76 seats in the 151-seat body.
That means it will apparently again fall to Most - a loose alliance of regional parties that won 17 seats in the last vote and is forecast to win 13 this time - to pick a coalition partner and decide which grouping will nominate the prime minister.
"HDZ and SDP will battle for the alliance with Most," Gjenero said. "Without them, neither side will be able to take control of the parliament."
After the last elections, Most negotiated with both the HDZ and SDP, before opting for HDZ. However, the alliance lasted only five months before it collapsed without passing any meaningful legislation, forcing early elections.
The fight with HDZ erupted as its former chief, Tomislav Karamarko, refused to resign from outgoing Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic's cabinet despite corruption allegations swirling around him.
The HDZ has since replaced Karamarko with Andrej Plenkovic, which may have improved the party's coalition potential with his moderate approach and tenure as a member of the European Parliament.
"Most is moderately conservative and politically closer to HDZ. Now with Plenkovic instead of Karamarko, the HDZ may be closer to winning in the end than the Social Democrats," Gjenero estimated.
That prospect may have been strengthened by SDP chief and former prime minister Zoran Milanovic's blunders during the campaign, with which he alienated leftist supporters and cast doubts about his own diplomatic prowess.
Recent months have seen Milanovic slip into far-right rhetoric and make pejorative remarks about Bosnia and Serbia, reheating old regional tensions.
For instance, during a meeting with disgruntled veterans of Croatia's war of independence, he described Belgrade as a "small town" and Bosnia as "big shit."
There is also a possibility that neither of the two big parties will find common grounds with Most, which has proved capable of driving a hard bargain.
That would more likely lead to another election in the spring, though a grand coalition of HDZ and SDP had been discussed. Plenkovic and Milanovic have, however, excluded that possibility.
Croatia could then again to the polls in the spring - in that case, the pressure of the public on two big parties, to go into the grand coalition and finally end instability, would grow.
"A grand coalition ... would become possible only if we go to elections again," Gjenero, the analyst, said. He added that, for such a scenario, the SDP would have to replace Milanovic with a less belligerent leader.
Around 3.8 million voters are registered to cast ballots from 7 am to 7 pm (0500-1700 GMT) on Sunday. Exit polls are expected shortly after voting ends and first results within a few hours.
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