( AP ) - Croatia's ruling conservatives and opposition center-left Social Democrats were virtually tied in parliamentary elections on Sunday, leaving the makeup of the future government unclear, exit polls and preliminary results showed.
The two key rivals both appeared short of ensuring the 77 deputies required, and the winner would depend on postelection dealmaking.
Preliminary results released by the state-run Electoral Commission after about 40 percent of votes were counted showed Prime Minister Ivo Sanader's ruling Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ, slightly leading, projected to get 60 deputies. The Social Democrats, or SDP, would get 57, according to initial results.
President Stipe Mesic said he would give a mandate to form a government to the coalition or party "that would present convincing evidence that it has a majority in parliament," adding "it could be the current Prime Minister Sanader as well."
Sanader is expected to get support from Croats living abroad, which could eventually become crucial. The number of seats reserved for expatriates depends on turnout, but it is expected to be five - all going to HDZ.
Croatia's pro-Western course is not at stake in this election. The country is negotiating EU membership and could become the bloc's 28th member in 2010. Next year, NATO is expected to invite Croatia to join the alliance and on Jan. 1, Croatia will become a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council - all moves backed by both leading parties.
Both also want to maintain good relations with the United States. On foreign policy, "there is no difference" between the two key rivals, said Davor Gjenero, a political analyst.
The Social Democrats are promising an economic boom. Led by 41-year-old Zoran Milanovic and would-be premier Ljubo Jurcic, the party is offering Croatians fresh faces and untainted politics.
The party insists it would smash corruption, claiming Sanader's party will never follow through on promises on corruption because graft is "its way of ruling."
Sanader's party ruled for a decade as a nationalist party - until the Social Democrats seized power in 2000 to turn Croatia to the West. In 2003, the HDZ returned to government, with Sanader purging the party of nationalists and boosting the market economy to continue Croatia's pro-Western makeover.
Whoever leads the new government will have the tough task of delivering on pre-election promises to overhaul the economy to reduce the 14-percent unemployment and raise the average monthly wage of $980. It will also have to tackle corruption - a problem the EU says it must resolve before joining the bloc.