Croatia parliamentary race close as virus spikes

Voters in Croatia are casting ballots in a close parliamentary race marked by a spike in coronavirus cases and which could push the European Union country to the right

ZAGREB, Croatia -- Amid a spike of new coronavirus cases, voters in Croatia cast ballots on Sunday in what is expected be a close parliamentary race that could push the latest European Union member state further to the right.

The ballot is expected to produce no clear winner as neither the ruling conservatives nor their main liberal opponents appeared set to win a majority in the 151-member parliament.

This means that a newcomer right-wing party led by a popular folk singer could play a key role in the future government. Miroslav Skoro's Homeland Movement has polled third despite public outrage over some of his staunchly hard-line and nationalist views.

Skoro's party is believed to have chipped away votes from the ruling Croatian Democratic Union, a conservative party that has dominated the political scene in Croatia since the independence in 1991.

The HDZ is bidding for reelection while faced with a renewed surge in virus cases that followed reopening of the country's borders and easing of lockdown rules. Croatia is struggling to salvage its main source of revenue — tourism along the Adriatic Sea coast.

Croatian Prime Minister, who is HDZ leader, Andrej Plenkovic, said upon voting on Sunday that anti-virus recommendations are being respected and urged people to come out to vote.

“Democracy means that citizens get to have their say, and today is such a moment when we all get to meet the will of the people," Plenkovic said. “I’m looking forward to the choice made by our citizens and also to continue working for the benefit of Croatia.”

A country of 4.2 million people, Croatia has kept the outbreak largely under control, reporting around 113 deaths and some 3,100 confirmed infections. But Plenkovic was criticized over an outbreak at a tennis tournament organized by top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the coastal town of Zadar.

Plenkovic's main opponents are Restart coalition led by the center-left Social Democratic Party, the main liberal group. They say the government is plagued by corruption and voters should choose a new beginning if they want the country to move forward.

“Today your future is being decided, the fate of your families will be decided, and the future of our country,” SDP leader Davor Bernardic said. “Every vote counts. Do not throw away your vote, and don’t let somebody else decide for you. We offered a clear alternative, a clear direction, and a clear vision of the future.”

Right-wing Skoro also called for a change, saying that “today voters decide and politicians wait in anticipation."

“I hope that voters will come out in large numbers and I hope that they will make a right decision and that after this election we will have necessary changes that we all expect," he said.

Restart could also ally with a new green-left alliance further on the left, if they gain enough seats. The group led by Mozemo, or We Can, party is strong mostly in the capital Zagreb but not so much in other parts of Croatia.

Some 3.8 million people are eligible to vote but analysts say virus fears could keep many at home. Voters have been advised to take own temperature and stay away if they have a fever. Those who vote should bring their own pen and wear a mask.