Belgrade – Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic’s gamble to move the elections forward by a few months just as the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to be waning has paid a stunning dividend in Sunday’s parliamentary election.
“We leave a difficult, testing term behind and are facing possibly greater challenges ahead,” Plenkovic said after declaring victory to supporters at midnight (2200 GMT).
According to exit poll projections, the HDZ claimed 62 of the 151 seats directly, with more coming from expatriates and the redistribution of votes from parties that failed to win seats.
The raw official count, with 85 per cent of the ballots processed, showed the HDZ at 69 seats.
That would allow Plenkovic to avoid a potentially controversial alliance with the far-right Homeland Movement of the former singer Miroslav Skoro, provisionally with 15 seats.
The opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP), tipped in pre-election surveys to win a slim majority, meanwhile suffered a devastating defeat and is now projected to win around 43 seats.
Two other parties, Mozemo (We Can) and MOST (Bridge) were at nine and eight seats, respectively, with a couple of other small parties still in contention to win some of the remaining seats.
Plenkovic said that he has decided to hold the election early so the new government would have a full mandate to deal with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
He obviously sought to capitalise on a good result against the outbreak.
But he failed to foresee the return of the disease in the meantime.
On Sunday, voters had to bring masks and their own pens to polling stations.
They also had to present their palms so an official at the door could spray them with disinfectant.
Inside, local reports said, some people with larger masks were asked to briefly remove them so they could be identified.
There were also 55 registered COVID-19 patients who voted through an authorised person.
But while the return of COVID-19 did not punish the HDZ, it did have a strong effect on the turnout as 46.24 per cent of voters cast their ballot, down from 52.6 per cent in 2016 snap polls and far lower than more than 60 per cent in 2015.
The pandemic will in any case dominate the agenda of the next government even after the disease recedes, as it continues to severely batter Croatia’s tourism-dependent economy.