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Croatians cast ballots in first EU vote as turnout low

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Croatians elected European MPs for the first time Sunday but, with full EU membership three months away, low turnout suggested that euro-enthusiasm was already fading in the Balkan country.

Officials in the former Yugoslav republic insisted that the vote to select the 12 lawmakers was "historic" and a key milestone on a path marked by years of difficult reforms.

"These are the first European elections in Croatia's history," Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told reporters after casting his ballot in the capital Zagreb on a sunny spring day.

But by 1400 GMT, three hours before polling stations closed, the turnout was only 14.63 percent, the electoral commission said.

It was less than half the figure registered at the same time during the referendum held in January 2012 to decide on Croatia's EU membership.

At the time the overall turnout was 44 percent, with 66 percent of Croatians casting a 'Yes' vote. The state is set to become the bloc's 28th member on July 1.

Analysts had predicted little interest among the 3.7 million registered voters, who appear more concerned about the sluggish tourism-dependent economy which has not grown since 2009.

Opinion polls show that only a little more than half of Croatians still want their country to join the EU.

Analysts say enthusiasm for membership of the bloc has been dampened by domestic economic woes as well as by the developing debt crisis that has rattled the grouping to its core.

"I'm absolutely against Croatia's EU entry as I see it as a new sort of a very sophisticated colonisation without a war," Darko Stefanec told AFP.

The 45-year-old clerk took part in the vote but left a blank ballot paper as a protest sign.

"It's a bit odd that in a country with almost 400,000 unemployed, one gives a vote to someone who is responsible for that unemployment and will now receive a salary of up to some 10,000 euros," he said bitterly.

Lukewarm interest in Sunday's vote may also have resulted from the apparent failure of politicians to campaign hard on EU-related issues amid rare media debates.

"I back EU entry... but our incapable politicians are not worth my effort of going to a polling station," Dubravka Simac told AFP.

"They didn't even try to explain to people what exactly they will do there (in the parliament)?" the 30-year-old saleswoman from Zagreb added, in comments echoed by many in the country.

Interest may also be low because the deputies' mandate will be for only one year, until Europe-wide elections in 2014 to choose a new European Parliament for the following five years.

Pre-vote polling suggests Milanovic's ruling Social Democrats (SDP) and its two junior coalition partners will take six of the 12 seats. The others would probably go to the opposition conservative HDZ party and the Labour Party, surveys showed.

Davor Brkic voted for SDP candidates since "they are the best solution".

"They inherited a difficult (economic) situation and changes require time," the 58-year-old civil engineer said. The centre-left government took over from the corruption-plagued HDZ in late 2011.

But, Nevenka Banic, a 61-year-old pensioner, backed the HDZ, estimating that "protection of Croatia's national interests would be their priority."

The HDZ movement has held power most of the time since independence was achieved through a bloody 1991-1995 war.

The first partial official results were expected around 2000 GMT.

Croatia will be only the second of six former Yugoslav republics to join the EU, nine years after Slovenia.

The European Parliament's 754 members represent the EU's 500 million citizens.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130414/croatians-cast-ballots-first-eu-vote-turnout-low