Zagreb, Croatia, Jul 5 – Croatia went to the polls Sunday to elect a government to navigate the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout, in a tight race pitting ruling conservatives against leftist rivals and a new nationalist party on the rise.
The pandemic and its economic effects have weighed heavily on the campaign and the minds of voters, with the Adriatic country’s tourism-dependent economy on course for its steepest decline in decades.
“Whoever wins will face major economic problems to deal with in autumn. It won’t be easy,” said Igor Ivic, a 49-year-old economist among the first crowd to cast ballots in Zagreb.
The ruling conservative HDZ party, which has led Croatia for most of its nearly 30 year independence, is trying to capitalise on its relatively successful containment of the country’s own virus outbreak thus far, with an official tally of roughly 110 deaths and 3,000 infections.
But an uptick of cases in recent weeks, with dozens recorded daily, has renewed fears over the health situation and given the opposition fresh ammunition.
The main opposition party, the left-leaning Social Democrats (SDP), accuses government of endangering citizens by “rushing” to hold the elections early, instead of their initial plans for autumn.
As he cast his own ballot in the capital, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic defended the move, saying the “sooner the better” for safety reasons.
“All recommendations of all experts were that it (virus) can be more dangerous in autumn than it is now, that is why the elections are today,” the 50-year-old told reporters.
In power since 2016 with a slim majority, Plenkovic’s HDZ is polling neck-and-neck with the Social Democrat-led coalition.
With neither camp expected to carve out an absolute majority in the 151-member house, tricky coalition talks are expected to follow the vote.
That could see the new populist ‘Homeland Movement’ of folk singer-turned-politician Miroslav Skoro, polling in third, a potential kingmaker.
– ‘New start’ –
The 57-year-old musician made his big debut when he finished third as an independent in Croatia’s December presidential election, inspiring him to form a new movement.
Analysts say HDZ could ultimately accept a tie-up with the singer, despite anger over his moves to break off a segment of their traditional voting base.
SDP, on the other hand, is unlikely to consider such an alliance given Skoro’s tolerance of nostalgia for Croatia’s pro-Nazi past and accusations of sexism.
But both have used their campaigns to highlight HDZ’s history of graft, which has been brought back to the fore with a recent scandal involving a top official.
“We have offered…a clear alternative, clear changes for Croatia’s new start,” 40-year-old SDP leader Davor Bernardic said after casting his vote.
Plenkovic, meanwhile, is hoping the uncertainty of the health crisis will inspire voters to stick with the familiar.
Now is the time for “serious choices and not for political quackery,” said the former MEP with strong backing from Brussels.
“Croatia doesn’t have time for experiments like Bernardic or Skoro,” added Plenkovic, who has cast his rivals as ill-prepared.
Petar Dragic, a taxi driver from Zagreb, told AFP agreed with the prime minister.
“I’m pragmatic, don’t care who is left or right. Only Plenkovic is capable of pulling funds from Brussels and this is what we need now,” he said.
– Voting in isolation –
Yet others are hungry for change in a country struggling with massive emigration driven by low salaries and corruption at home.
“There is not enough focus on Croatians leaving for abroad, unemployment and poor salaries of young people,” said retired teacher Branka Tekavec.
At polling stations around the country, which close at 1700GMT, voters were advised to wear masks and bring their own pens.
Despite the virus, at 0930GMT turnout was only down one percentage point at 18 percent compared to the last 2016 election.
Officials also paid home visits to the collect the ballots of 500 people — some 10 percent of those in self-isolation — who requested to vote, while others infected with the virus can do so through a proxy.
Some 3.8 million people are eligible to vote with first official results due late Sunday.