Croatians went to the polls Sunday for a government to navigate the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, in a tight race pitting ruling conservatives against leftist rivals and a new nationalist party on the rise.
The pandemic has put Croatia's tourism-dependent economy on course for a contraction of nearly 10 percent -- its steepest decline in decades -- even as the country's own health situation has remained stable.The ruling conservative HDZ party, which has led the Adriatic country for most of its independence, has been touting its relative success in containing the country's virus outbreak thus far, with an official tally of roughly 110 deaths and 3,000 infections.
But a fresh rise of cases in recent weeks, with dozens recorded daily, has renewed fears over the health situation and given the opposition fresh ammunition.
"Whoever wins will face major economic problems to deal with in autumn. It won't be easy," said Igor Ivic, a 49-year-old economist among the first crowd of voters to cast ballots in Zagreb.
Polls put Croatia's two main camps -- Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic's HDZ and the left-leaning 'Restart' coalition led by the Social Democrats (SDP) -- in a close contest.
With neither expected to carve out an absolute majority in the 151-member house, tricky coalition talks are expected to follow the vote.
That leaves the new populist 'Homeland Movement' of folk singer-turned-politician Miroslav Skoro, polling in third, a potential kingmaker.
Officials also paid home visits to the collect the ballots of 500 people -- some 10 percent of those in self-isolation -- who requested to vote, while others infected with the virus can do so through a proxy.
SDP leader and prime minister candidate Davor Bernardic has accused the government of "consciously pushing Croatia into a risk" by deciding to go ahead with the election in the middle of the pandemic.
He and other rivals also highlight HDZ's history of graft, which has been brought back to the fore with a recent scandal involving a top official.
"We have offered...a clear alternative, clear changes for Croatia's new start," 40-year-old Bernardic said after casting his vote in the capital.
Plenkovic, meanwhile, is hoping the uncertainty of the health crisis will inspire voters to stick with HDZ, in power since 2016.
Now is the time for "serious choices and not for political quackery," said the former MEP with strong backing from Brussels, who has dismissed his rivals as ill-prepared.
"Croatia doesn't have time for experiments like Bernardic or Skoro," he said.
Petar Dragic, a taxi driver from Zagreb, told AFP agreed with the 50-year-old prime minister.
"I'm pragmatic, don't care who is left or right. Only Plenkovic is capable of pulling funds from Brussels and this is what we need now," he said.
Yet some Croatians are hungry for new faces in a country struggling with massive emigration driven by low salaries and corruption at home.
"There is not enough focus on Croatians leaving for abroad, unemployment and poor salaries of young people," said retired teacher Branka Tekavec.
Right-wing Skoro is also trying to capitalise on fatigue with the country's two-party dominance, arguing that only his new party "guarantees a change, while SDP and HDZ guarantee the continuity of bad governance".
The popular musician made his big debut when he finished third in Croatia's December presidential election, inspiring him to form a new movement.
Analysts say HDZ could ultimately accept a tie-up with the singer, despite anger over his moves to break off a segment of their traditional voting base.
SDP, on the other hand, is unlikely to consider such an alliance given 57-year-old Skoro's nostalgia for Croatia's pro-Nazi past and accusations of sexism.
Some 3.8 million people are eligible to vote with first official results due late Sunday.