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Croatia's Ruling Party Loses Elections in Key Regions

First official results of local elections in Croatia show the governing conservative party has lost in key areas. The results of Sunday's ballot are seen as a sign of dissatisfaction with demands on Croatia by the United Nations and the European Union.

Croatia's Electoral Commission said the opposition Social Democratic Party retained control of the capital Zagreb, which it has ruled for five years. Zagreb is home to a quarter of the country's 4.5 million people.

The ruling Croatian Democratic Union, known as HDZ, also was defeated in Croatia's second largest city, Split.

The party's fortunes have declined from the days of late president Franjo Tudjman, who founded the HDZ and led Croatia to independence from Yugoslavia during the Balkan wars of the 1990's.

The victories of the Social Democrats and their allies came as a major boost for the recently ousted prime minister Ivica Racan. He said his Social Democratic Party is now a force to be reckoned with ahead of upcoming general elections.

Mr. Racan says his party did well in areas from Split to Slavonia in eastern Croatia. However, he acknowledged that the picture remains less clear in several other regions.

And since the Social Democrats were allied with the People's Party and other groups in many parts of the country, Prime Minister Ivo Sanader had reason to say that, of all Croatia's parties, the HDZ should be considered the "winner" of the ballot.

Election observers have linked the poor showing of the HDZ in several areas to the government's decision to increase cooperation with the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal, which is a key EU condition for Croatia's membership in the organization.

Prime Minister Sanader has said he intends to intensify the search for one of the tribunals main Croatian suspects, General Ante Gotovina, who is accused by the tribunal of atrocities against ethnic Serbs during the Balkan wars.

The EU recently postponed membership talks with Croatia because of its failure to extradite the general. But many Croats consider General Gotovina as a hero. There is also growing discontent about the government's economic policies in a country where almost one in five people of working age is unemployed.

About four million Croats were eligible to vote in the local elections. However most of them chose to stay home. Only 32 percent of those eligible voted.