ZAGREB, July 5 (Reuters) - Some 3.85 million Croats are eligible to go to polls on Sunday to elect a new government at a time when coronavirus infections are on the rise and the economy is facing a sharp downturn.
Polling stations will open at 0500 GMT and close at 1700 GMT when the exit polls will be released. The first preliminary official results are expected some two hours later.
The ruling centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has had a slight advantage in most opinion polls over its main rival, the Social Democrats (SDP), but neither party is seen being able to form a cabinet on its own.
“At these challenging times both for public health and the economy Croatia deserves to be led by experienced and responsible people,” Prime Minister and HDZ leader Andrej Plenkovic told supporters this week, hinting at his two top opponents’ lack of vision and experience.
They are SDP leader Davor Bernardic and popular singer Miroslav Skoro, whose nationalist and eurosceptic Domovinski Pokret (Homeland Movement) has fared third in the opinion polls with just above 10% support, compared with close to 30% for the two top parties.
The new government will have an uphill task to maintain public health while trying to restore the economy, expected to shrink some 10% this year with tourism revenues forecast to slump 70%.
Some analysts believe that the two biggest parties may be forced to join forces, as the alternative of trying to form a stable government with junior partners, such as Skoro’s Homeland or the conservative Most (Bridge) party, may prove difficult.
Both Plenkovic and Bernardic have firmly rejected the idea of a ‘grand coalition’.
Croatia has reported a relatively small number of coronavirus infections — 3,000 COVID-19 cases and around 100 deaths recorded so far — but infections have accelerated in the past two weeks, with new daily cases currently peaking at around 80.
Voters have been strongly advised to wear masks and respect other hygiene measures at the polling stations.
Reporting by Igor Ilic; editing by Clelia Oziel