ZAGREB Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic fired three cabinet ministers from his junior coalition partner on Thursday in a row that will force him to patch together a new majority or call an early election.
Plenkovic ordered the dismissal of the ministers from the centre-right Most (Bridge) party after they failed to support Finance Minister Zdravko Maric in his handling of a corporate crisis.
A previous coalition between the two parties fell apart last year after just six months, triggering a snap election as recently as September. A second one could hold up government reforms aimed at improving the business climate and boosting growth prospects in one of the European Union's weakest economies.
Plenkovic, from the conservative HDZ party, said he had sacked the Most ministers because they had damaged confidence among members of the cabinet.
"The HDZ will ensure there is a parliamentary majority to continue the work of the government. We will make sure political stability remains," he told a news conference. "You will see soon who will support the HDZ-led parliamentary majority."
However, after meeting his party leadership, he also said the HDZ was ready for fresh snap polls if it proved impossible in the coming days to form a new majority.
The HDZ has 58 seats in the 151-member parliament, so needs another 18 for a majority, but might be able to team up with a scattering of smaller parties.
"Plenkovic has either already secured support in parliament from someone else and will maybe even seek to form a minority government, or otherwise we face snap polls again," said political analyst Davor Gjenero.
The opposition, led by the Social Democrats, had demanded the finance minister step down due to what it called a lack of credibility in his handling of a financial crisis at Croatia's biggest private firm, Agrokor.
The government rejected the opposition's demand at a cabinet session on Thursday, but the Most ministers - in charge of internal affairs, the judiciary and energy and environment policy - dissented.
Most rejected the sackings as unconstitutional and said it may appeal to the country's top court. Its ministers will remain in place until replacements are appointed.
"Plenkovic wants to remove three successful ministers who are getting results and keep a minister who objectively cannot remain in his position," the Most leader and speaker of parliament, Bozo Petrov, told reporters.
Croatia is set to hold municipal elections in late May which, according to some analysts, may also be a reason for fresh tensions between HDZ and Most.
(Reporting by Igor Ilic; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)