Croatia opposition leader stepping down after election loss

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) " Zoran Milanovic, leader of Croatia's opposition Social Democrats and a former prime minister, said Monday he will step down after a poor result of his coalition in weekend's snap national election.

Milanovic, who led the government for four years from 2011, said he will not take part in the party's upcoming internal elections. He became the left-leaning party's leader in 2007 after the death of previous leader Ivica Racan.

"I don't plan to run for the president of SDP," Milanovic told reporters.

The ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ, scored a victory in the early parliamentary vote on Sunday and now faces a tough task of forming a coalition government after disillusioned voters again failed to produce a clear winner.

Complete results reported Monday by Croatia's state electoral commission showed that HDZ won 61 seats in the 151-member parliament, while Milanovic's left-leaning Peoples' Coalition won 54.

The third-placed Most, or Bridge, party is a likely kingmaker in the future coalition government with 13 seats. The biggest surprise was Zivi Zid, or Human Shield populist group, which has emerged from anti-government protests.

It won eight seats but has ruled out joining a coalition government.

The vote results represented a huge blow for Milanovic whose Social Democrats " the main party in the Peoples' Coalition " had been considered clear favorites. There were signs of discontent within party ranks with Milanovic's pre-election tactics.

Milanovic, 49, campaigned on ultra-nationalist rhetoric, trying to lure conservative voters to his side. But, his populist tone has only scared away minorities and pro-left voters in Croatia and has brought the country's relations with neighboring Serbia to the lowest point since they fought the war in the 1990s.

Milanovic urged the party to hold the internal vote as soon as possible.

"We have witnessed low turnout, that's not the citizens' fault, it's ours," he said, blaming the election loss on the poor turnout on Sunday.

The snap vote was called after the previous conservative-led coalition government collapsed in June, triggering the biggest political turmoil in the nation of 4.2 million people since it joined the European Union in 2013. With no party winning a majority in the weekend vote, the deadlock that has stalled much-needed social and economic reforms in is likely to continue.

Political analyst Zarko Puhovski said there was no doubt that HDZ will form the new government with Most " just as the two right-wing parties did after the previous election in November.

"That government will be formed, but it is not clear for how long it will last," Puhovski said.

In a sign of voter disillusionment, turnout was 53 percent, down nearly 10 percentage points from the previous vote. Also, many voters apparently turned away from HDZ and Social Democrats who intermittently ruled the country since it split from former Yugoslavia in 1991, triggering a civil war that killed some 10,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

Andrej Plenkovic, a European parliamentarian who has assumed HDZ leadership only months before the vote and shifted it toward the center, said Monday that talks with potential coalition partners will start in the coming days.

"It is now up to us to bring stability into the Croatian state and institutions," Plenkovic said.

Like many other central European states, Croatia had tilted to the right under the previous HDZ-led government.

"This is not a new trend, the right-wingers winning," said Ljerka Kavoci, a Zagreb resident. "It is a trend that is hanging over Croatia since the war. It was calm for some years, but now it's out there again."


AP Writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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