( Reuters ) - Croatia's opposition Social Democrats took a narrow lead on Sunday in a close national election, according to exit polls, after a campaign fought over corruption, the economy and future European Union membership.
The Social Democratic Party (SDP) had 34.5 percent of the votes and the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) 32.8 percent, according to exit polls broadcast by state television after voting ended.
The difference between the two parties was too small to ensure a comfortable majority.
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.
If the results were borne out, the SDP would have 61 seats in parliament and would have to forge an alliance with small liberal parties.
The HDZ would have 57 seats but it can count on traditional support from Croats living abroad, mostly in Bosnia, for a few extra seats in parliament.
The number of seats in the single-chamber assembly varies between 150 and 160, depending on turnout among minorities and expatriates.
"The (exit poll) results are in line with our expectations and we are pleased. We are not afraid that the diaspora votes could swing the outcome," said the SDP's candidate for prime minister, former Economy Minister Ljubo Jurcic.
First preliminary results were expected at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Turnout by 2:00 p.m. EDT was 48 percent.
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.
Political analyst Marijana Grbesa said voters ultimately based their choices not so much on the issues, but on which style of government they preferred.
The HDZ has ruled Croatia for most of the 16 years since independence. However, it was the SDP that launched real reforms in 2000, shedding the image of war and nationalism of the previous decade and setting Croatia on course for membership of the EU and NATO.
Outgoing Prime Minister Ivo Sanader's reformed HDZ returned to power in 2003 and continued down the same path.
Although it enjoys the support of older, rural voters, his government has been tainted by corruption scandals and critics say economic growth has not led to higher living standards.
The SDP's leader, 41-year-old Zoran Milanovic, cannot match the international clout of Sanader, a multilingual veteran diplomat known for his sharp suits and suave manners.
Milanovic, a lawyer by education and recreational boxer, has appealed to urban voters with his straight-talking tactics and has made the fight against corruption his rallying cry.
However, he confused supporters and the media by leading the campaign while conceding the prime minister's post in advance to Jurcic, who is seen as reliable but colorless.
Some political analysts said the lack of a clear leader could have cost the SDP some votes.