Croatia heads for tight polls amid ongoing pandemic

Croatians will go to polls on Sunday to elects new parliament amid rising coronavirus cases, which is putting further pressure on ruling conservatives facing stiff opposition by their traditional centre-left rivals and a new nationalist party, which at the end could become kingmaker, news wires reported. Polls put the two biggest political parties neck-to-neck.

When the elections were called in late May, the centre-right HDZ was hoping to profit from its relative success in containing the virus, recording some 100 deaths and 2,800 infections in the country of 4.2 million. Yet while daily cases hit zero a month ago, the past two weeks have seen a gradual rise, bringing Covid-19 back to the centre of political debate. Now a stage for a very close race between PM Andrej Plenkovic's HDZ and a coalition led by the opposition Social Democrats (SDP) seems open.

And that could leave a newly-formed right-wing populist party led by folk singer Miroslav Skoro, polling in third with around 11%, in position to shape the next government. Neither HDZ, nor SDP are keen on allying with Skoro, who is accused of sexist remarks and nostalgia for Croatia's pro-Nazi past. HDZ has also been dismissive of his movement, but analysts say they may be lured into a tie-up in order to secure the needed 76 seats in the 151-member house.

In power since 2016, Plenkovic's HDZ has been campaigning under the slogan 'Safe Croatia', presenting the PM as a trustworthy pair of hands to navigate the coming economic downturn. Yet Social Democrat leader Davor Bernardic, who heads the opposition's 'Restart' coalition, has accused HDZ of "rushing into an election to profit from the coronavirus crisis".

The vote comes as the Adriatic country is hurtling towards its worst economic crisis in decades, with the pandemic choking the crucial tourism sector even as the country's own Covid-19 outbreak has largely been kept in check. The economy is expected to shrink some 9.4% due to the pandemic, the biggest contraction since its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

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