AFP - Croatians cast ballots Sunday in regional and local elections that will test the strength of ruling conservatives who are implementing unpopular measures to fight the global economic crisis.
Voting began nationwide at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and was to end 12 hours later, with first results expected later on Sunday.
Some four million voters will for the first time get the opportunity to directly elect mayors, county prefects and municipal heads, alongside 21 county assemblies and more than 550 city and town councils.
A coalition led by Prime Minister Ivo Sanader's conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) is battling fallout from the economic crisis which caused strikes in the run-up to the vote.
After tough talks with trade unions representing 180,000 public sector employees the government agreed on Thursday to increase wages when economic growth returns. The concession ended a strike launched Wednesday which hit 90 percent of Croatia's schools and universities and had threatened to spread.
At 0900 GMT, four hours after voting started, turnout was 13.73 percent, slightly higher than in 2004, the electoral commission said.
Meanwhile, police said that unknown attackers had thrown stones at two buses which had brought Croatian Serbs from Serbia, where they had fled after the 1991-1995 war, to vote in Sunday's elections.
The incident occurred overnight while the empty buses were parked in Benkovac, in the hinterland of Croatia's central Adriatic coast.
According to the United Nations, some 280,000 ethnic Serbs fled Croatia during and after the war, mostly to neighbouring Serbia and Bosnia. So far about 130,000 of them have returned.
There have been no major opinion poll surveys ahead of Sunday's vote, but the latest poll on party preferences put the main opposition Social Democrats (SDP), which is traditionally stronger in major cities including Zagreb, ahead of the HDZ for a seventh month in a row.
According to the poll conducted in early May by Promocija Plus, 28.9 percent of 1,300 people questioned favoured the SDP against 25.3 percent for the HDZ.
The economic crisis was named by 33.2 percent as the single most important issue.
However, analysts say the opposition failed to capitalise on the economic and social difficulties to tempt more voters.
"The opposition is apparently not adequately articulating the dissatisfaction of the people. They do not earn points on the things that are happening in the country," Marijana Grbesa, a political analyst, told AFP.
Croatia went into recession in late 2008. The government expects the economy to contract by 2.0 percent in 2009 but the Croatian National Bank recently predicted that gross domestic product (GDP) would shrink by 4.0 percent this year.
The HDZ, founded by late nationalist leader Franjo Tudjman, returned to power in 2003 after three years in opposition. Sanader has since shaken off the HDZ's hardline nationalist legacy and transformed it into a party that has targeted becoming the European Union's 28th member by 2011.