Only five days after the vote Croatia will sign an EU accession treaty, enabling it to join the current 27-nation bloc on July 1, 2013. The latest surveys show a four-party opposition coalition, led by the Social Democrats (SDP), is poised to win an outright majority in the 151-seat assembly.
"I want change. What we had until now should go," Nedjeljka Pantic, a 73-year-old pensioner, told AFP after voting in downtown Zagreb. "Crime is the most devastating disaster in Croatia," she said, reflecting the feeling of many Croatians following a string of corruption scandals involving the ruling conservative HDZ party.
"I expect the new government to quickly correct the mistakes of their predecessors, especially regarding the economy." But the SDP head and likely new prime minister Zoran Milanovic will face the difficult task of guiding the country's economy out of a crisis amid a fragile European environment.
Croatia, independent since 1991, has been in recession for most of the past three years and unemployment stands at over 17 percent. The central bank says economic growth has only been 0.5 percent this year. The former Yugoslav republic has to undertake structural reforms, notably of its generous welfare system and inefficient public administration.
Laura, a student in her 20s, said the expected defeat of the HDZ spurred her on to vote and back the centre-left coalition. "The country is still extremely conservative. I believe that a majority who thinks differently and has different ideas should finally go out and express themselves today at the elections.
"I wish for a more tolerant society," said Laura, who declined to give her last name. During the campaign, Milanovic, 45, refrained from making any grand election promises, as surveys show Croatians' confidence in politicians is extremely low.
The former diplomat, who has been leading the SDP since 2007, had warned Croatians that "it will be difficult to get through the next year." "We are not sure what awaits us. Sweat definitely-- but I believe without blood and tears-- and a lot of uncertainty," he said.
However, Milanovic vowed to lead the country in a "more honest and efficient way". The remarks were a thinly veiled swipe at the ruling HDZ which has been in power almost continuously since the country's independence.
Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor stepped up an anti-graft fight, a key demand for Croatia's EU bid, only to see it boomerang back to hurt her own party. Her powerful predecessor and HDZ leader Ivo Sanader is currently on trial for corruption while the party is being investigated over alleged use of slush funds.
One HDZ supporter, Jakov Vlasic in his 20s, said he voted for the party, keeping up a family tradition, but stressed: "I would like them to change things, to lead the country in a better way."
More than 4.5 million Croatians are eligible to vote. Some 10 percent of them, traditional HDZ supporters, are living abroad mostly in neighbouring Bosnia, and started to cast ballots on Saturday.
The turnout among the diaspora on the first day of voting was rather low as it was just slightly above two percent.
Polling stations will close at 1800 GMT and first partial official results are expected around 2000 GMT.