Croatia’s ruling conservatives set for election win, exit polls say

Vote takes place as tourism-reliant Adriatic state hit by new rise in coronavirus cases

Andrej Plenkovic, Croatia’s prime minister, casts his ballot in Zagreb. Photograph: AP

Andrej Plenkovic, Croatia’s prime minister, casts his ballot in Zagreb. Photograph: AP

 

Croatia’s ruling conservatives have won its parliamentary election, according to the first exit polls from voting that took place as a new rise in coronavirus cases rattles the country’s crucial tourism industry and prospects for the economy.

The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) secured 61 of the 151 seats in parliament, ahead of the Restart alliance led by the Social Democrats (SDP) with 44 seats, and the nationalist Homeland Movement with 16 seats, the exit polls said.

Prime minister Andrej Plenkovic and the HDZ hoped to benefit from Croatia’s initial success in controlling the spread of the virus, which allowed it to start welcoming foreign holidaymakers last month – bringing vital income to a country that relies on tourism for about one-fifth of gross domestic product.

New cases have risen markedly again over the last fortnight, however, and Mr Plenkovic was criticised for refusing to self-isolate after meeting tennis star Novak Djokovic during a recent tournament on the Croatian coast, after which the Serbian world number one and several other players tested positive for the virus.

After voting in the capital, Zagreb, Mr Plenkovic defended the government’s decision to call the ballot now.

“All recommendations of all experts were that [the virus] can be more dangerous in autumn than it is now, that is why the elections are today,” he said.

Mr Plenkovic (50) also argued that the country should not take a risk on his less experienced opponents – SDP leader Davor Bernardic and Homeland founder Miroslav Skoro – while facing major health and economic threats.

Croatia doesn’t have time for experiments like Bernardic or Skoro,” he said, insisting this was a moment for “serious choices and not for political quackery”.

Mr Bernardic (40) told voters that Croatia needed new ideas and a clean break from the corruption scandals that have dogged the HDZ.

“Today your future is being decided, the fate of your families will be decided, and the future of our country,” he 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.”

The HDZ and SDP have dominated Croatia’s politics since it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, and they have ruled out the possibility of going into a “grand coalition” together.

Mr Bernardic warns that the HDZ could join forces with Mr Skoro, a folk singer whose populist and nationalist rhetoric carried him to strong third place in Croatia’s presidential election last December.

He appeals to those traditional HDZ voters who lean to the far right, fear conservative values are under threat in mostly Catholic Croatia, and have little time for the moderate Mr Plenkovic, who they regard as a bland technocrat.

“Today the citizens are deciding, and the politicians are afraid,” Mr Skoro (57) said on Sunday.

“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.”