Exit polls herald vote cliff-hanger in Croatia

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ZAGREB, Nov 25 (Reuters) Exit polls in Croatia's tightly contested national election today gave no sizeable advantage to either of the two main parties.

The opposition Social Democrats (SDP) had 34.6 per cent of the votes and the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) 33.2 per cent, according to exit polls based on a sample of 35,000 voters broadcast by state television after voting ended.

If the results are borne out, the SDP would have 62 seats in parliament, and the HDZ 57. However, the HDZ can count on traditional support from Croatians living abroad for few extra seats.

First preliminary results were expected at midnight (0430 IST).

Turnout by 2030 IST was 48 per cent.

The main issues in the election were corruption, economic growth and reforms needed to take the country into the European Union. Both parties have reformist, pro-EU agendas, with the SDP being more insistent on a strong state role in the economy.

Political analyst Marijana Grbesa said voters would ultimately base their choices, not so much on the issues, but on which style of government they preferred.

It would be either ''the current one concentrated around the personality of the prime minister'' or the one offered by the Social Democrats, ''which emphasises the importance of (democratic) procedures rather than personalities,'' she said.

Neither party is likely to be able to form a government on its own and long coalition talks are possible.

Financial markets expect little impact from the election as the country's political and economic agenda is in practice dictated by EU membership talks, which Zagreb opened in 2005.

The country needs to reform its inefficient judiciary and bloated public administration, crack down on corruption and cut subsidies to indebted state firms, particularly shipyards, to prepare for competition within the EU.

Reuters AK VP0050

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