Croatians go to polls in first EU vote

Croatians voted for their first European Parliament deputies on Sunday amid tepid enthusiasm for membership in the EU that the Balkan country is set to join on July 1.

Officials in the former Yugoslav republic have insisted that the vote to select the 12 lawmakers is "historic" and a key milestone on a path marked by years of difficult reforms, but turnout is expected to be low among the 3.7 million registered voters.

"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.

Opinion polls show that slightly more than half of the population want Croatia to become the European Union's 28th member.

However analysts say that enthusiasm for membership of the bloc has faded due to a difficult domestic economy as well as problems within the bloc.

"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 ten thousand euros," he said bitterly.

However, Milanovic, whose center-left coalition government took over from corruption-plagued conservatives in late 2011, said he believed that the turnout would be higher than Europe's average.

In the 2009 vote for the European Parliament, the average turnout in in the bloc was 43 percent.

But ordinary citizens seem to be more concerned by the sluggish tourism-dependent economy which has not grown since 2009.

At a referendum on EU entry, held in January last year, the turnout was 44 percent, with 66 percent of Croatians casting a 'Yes' vote.

Lukewarm interest in Sunday's vote may also result 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.

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

Pre-vote polling suggests the ruling Social Democrats (SDP) party 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, the surveys showed.

Polling stations will close at 1700 GMT while first partial official results are expected some three hours later.

Croatia, which gained independence through a bloody 1991-1995 war, will be only the second of six former Yugoslav republics to join the EU. Slovenia joined in 2004.

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