Virus Reappears to Stalk Elections in East EU’s Top Tourist Spot

Having ravaged one of Europe’s top tourist destinations, Covid-19 is now clouding its elections as well.

Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic looked a good bet for a second term after weathering the pandemic and ending lockdowns to salvage the crucial summer season. But visitors haven’t flocked back to historic Dubrovnik or the country’s hundreds of Adriatic Sea islands. And Plenkovic is under pressure for refusing to self-isolate following an encounter with tennis star Novak Djokovic, who tested positive for the virus but is now free of it.

What’s more, infections in Croatia and its neighbors are once again on the rise.

Echoing concerns around recent ballots in Serbia and Poland, the opposition is questioning whether voting should go ahead on Sunday. The furore has left the ruling Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ, almost level pegging with the Social Democrat-led Restart coalition.

“Neither can reach a majority, so there’ll be political wrangling after the election,”said Zarko Puhovski, a political-science professor at the University of Zagreb. “HDZ may end up leading the next government as its coalition potential is significantly greater.”

The vote comes at a key juncture for the European Union’s newest state and its 4.2 million people. The new government must finalize this year’s entry into ERM-2 — the waiting room for euro adoption — while lifting an economy that relies on tourism for a fifth of output from its worst slump on record. Gross domestic product is forecast to dive 9.4% in 2020.

The latest poll, by Ipsos, has HDZ at 26.7% and Restart at 24.6%, though the difference is within the margin of error. The results may not fully capture public uproar at Plenkovic’s decision to continue campaigning as normal after chatting with Djokovic at a later-abandoned Balkan exhibition tour at the start of the June 22-24 survey.

HDZ and the Social Democrats, who’ve dominated Croatian politics since communism fell, both back switching to the euro as early as 2023 and share other policy goals including raising pensions and trimming some public-sector costs.

But Plenkovic, who led the country to its first-ever budget surplus before the pandemic demanded huge deficit spending, has suffered amid corruption scandals involving colleagues. In January, his ally Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic lost her re-election bid for president after a video showed her singing Happy Birthday to Zagreb’s mayor, who’s fighting graft accusations.

Under Plenkovic, 50, Croatia has slipped to 63rd in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index — the EU’s fourth-worst rating. Social Democrat leader Davor Bernardic, a 40-year-old physicist who’s never held public office, vows to stamp out graft.

HDZ, formed from the nationalist alliance that won the war for independence from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, hasn’t ruled out a coalition with the right-wing Homeland Movement, which is polling third. Bernardic says he won’t work with Homeland, which is campaigning on a patriotic and anti-abortion platform.

Failure to build a coalition could mean new elections — a potentially costly delay amid fears of a second wave of Covid-19 cases.

For Mate Farac, whose family owns a tavern on Korcula island, time is of the essence.

“We were supposed to open for Easter, but we had to postpone until the end of June,” he said by phone as the usually bustling cobblestone streets of the main town stood largely empty. “We hope it will get better. What else can we do?”