(Bloomberg) -- Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic forged ahead with forming a new government after suffering a setback in the nation’s parliamentary election, as the opposition tied to President Zoran Milanovic mounted an attempt to unseat the ruling party. 

Neither leader has an easy path to cobbling together a majority after Wednesday’s contest, which was upended by Milanovic’s unexpected bid to seek the premiership last month. Plenkovic early Thursday said his center-right Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ, had won “convincingly,” while the Social Democrats, which support Milanovic, vowed to oust the premier. 

Much rides on who succeeds. Croatia under Plenkovic has been a stalwart EU supporter of Ukraine, while Milanovic has denounced NATO’s expansion in response to the Kremlin’s invasion in 2022, a conflict he’s deemed “not our war,” threatening to drive a wedge into European unity.  

A Milanovic-led government could push Croatia closer to a group of EU nations including Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Slovakia, whose government under Robert Fico has halted weapons deliveries to Kyiv. Plenkovic lashed out at the president during the campaign, saying Milanovic would steer Croatia, the EU’s newest member state since joining the bloc in 2013, “into a Russian world.” 

A former prime minister, Milanovic threw open the election campaign with his aims for the premiership. The move prompted Croatia’s top court to declare the run “irreconcilable” with his duties as head of state. Milanovic responded by hurling insults at the judges — he hectored them as “prostitutes” and “illiterate mobsters” — and refusing to resign the presidency until he has a majority. 

With nearly all votes counted, HDZ secured 61 seats in Croatia’s 151-member parliament, according to the State Election Commission. The Social Democrats were behind with 42. 

Plenkovic said the HDZ has the electoral mandate — and that the opposition doesn’t have the numbers.

“There’s not even a theoretical chance that the other side can form a government,” Plenkovic told reporters in Brussels. “That development just wouldn’t be right.” 

Possible Move to the Right

The premier had expected an easier path to a third term in power, buoyed by his record of adopting the European single currency and steering the nation of 3.9 million into the EU’s visa-free travel zone. But his party has struggled to shake off accusations of corruption, a cloud that’s lingered for more than a decade since the indictment of former HDZ leader and premier, Ivo Sanader. 

A path to a majority for Plenkovic could be a coalition with Homeland Movement, a right-wing nationalist grouping, that came third with 14 seats. But that option is fraught with the risk of aliening centrist voters and potential other partners. 

Milanovic may also have a potential coalition with other groups. The centrist Bridge party, which won 11, has feuded with Plenkovic. Left-leaning Mozemo, which secured 10 seats, has said it may support a Social Democratic-led government. 

But any speculation doesn’t include haggling over support that could take weeks. Eight further seats are reserved for ethnic minorities and three for Croatians abroad; both groups have supported the ruling coalition in the past. 

“Voters are not as unhappy with the situation as the opposition has claimed,” Zarko Puhovski, political science professor at the University of Zagreb, said. “They voted for the status quo, while also strengthening parties on the right and on the left a bit — Homeland Movement and Mozemo, respectively.”

Plenkovic, a 53-year-old former diplomat and lawyer by training, has led the Adriatic Sea nation since 2016, the country’s longest-ruling premier since independence in 1991. The HDZ, founded as Croatia’s dominant nationalist party in 1989 as Yugoslavia was on the verge of collapse, has governed in coalitions with several smaller parties and minority lawmakers. 

Milanovic, 57, led Croatia from 2011 to 2016 before being elected president in 2020. He’s gained a following among Croatian voters with increasingly vitriolic attacks against political opponents. He’s called Plenkovic a “protector of crime and corruption” and, to the bafflement of some in the political establishment, a “flaming badger.”

(Updates with Plenkovic comments in seventh, eighth paragraphs.)

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