ZAGREB, Nov 22 (Reuters) Andja Mikulic cannot remember the last time she bought some new clothes. Like many of Croatia's 1 million pensioners, she struggles to makes ends meet.
Her monthly pension of 850 kuna (170 dollars) covers household bills and little more, and she could hardly get by without help from her sister and children.
But hope may be on the way for pensioners, who make up almost one quarter of Croatia's population, if a party demanding higher pensions does well in a parliamentary election on Sunday.
''The pension allows me to buy only the cheapest fruit and vegetables, but I can't remember when I last had some new clothes,'' Mikulic, a 64-year-old former shoe factory worker, said as she looked for bargains at the green market in the capital Zagreb.
''We pensioners have our own party fighting for our rights now and that is good. But I hope that if younger people take over (after the election), things could get better. Only the younger can move things forward,'' she said.
Sunday's election in Croatia, which declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and hopes to join the European Union, is expected to be closely fought by the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the opposition Social Democrats (SDP).
But opinion polls suggest the Pensioners' Party (HSU) could win more than 5 per cent of votes and might even finish third, making it a potential junior coalition partner.
The HSU won three seats in the last election in 2003, the first time it had entered parliament, and backed HDZ Prime Minister Ivo Sanader.
The high number of pensioners -- almost equal to the number of people employed -- is partly a result of the 1991-95 independence war against the Yugoslav army and rebel Serbs backed by Belgrade.
It also stems from economic mismanagement which resulted in closures of many companies and early retirement of workers.
In the mid-1990s, the state stopped adjusting pensions to salaries and inflation, accumulating an 11-billion kuna debt to pensioners. HSU leader Vladimir Jordan, 67, said the government had so far paid back half of it.
His deputy, Silvano Hrelja, told Reuters the party hoped to have up to 10 deputies in the 150-seat parliament.
''We expect to have a bigger role in forming the parliamentary majority. We will hold coalition talks with the party that wins the most votes,'' Hrelja said.
PENSIONERS BLOCK REFORMS A recent survey conducted by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) showed that every sixth person in Croatia was older than 65 and lived on a monthly income of around 200 euros.
A third of those surveyed said they rarely visited doctors because they could not pay for medical expenses, and 18 per cent said their pension was not enough to buy food every day.
The HSU says it will press the next government raise pensions substantially. Hrelja said this would be possible if the widespread grey economy were better controlled.
Economic analysts say the pensioners' demands would upset state finances, which the government has been consolidating in the last few years, and make it more difficult to provide for new pensioners in the future.
''HSU is a destructive political organisation, which blocks any kind of reform and social development and even questions the very reform of the pension system,'' political analyst Davor Gjenero said.
But the party deflects criticism and has formed a ''youth section'' which makes up 20 per cent of its 47,000 members.
''Those younger than 45 are joining because they need to think of their future and their future pensions,'' Hrelja said.
Reuters SZ DB0934