Croatia’s prime minister held early elections, hoping for a COVID bump. He got one.

By Joe Orovic and Patrick Kingsley

Croatia’s ruling party came first in a general election Sunday despite ongoing criticism over the country’s recent handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic’s center-right party, the Croatian Democratic Union, has won more than 65 seats in Parliament. It was not enough for an outright majority, but with more than 90% of votes tallied, his party had at least 10 more seats than it held at the start of the campaign.

Plenkovic called for early elections at the height of the pandemic in May, after his government was praised for its smooth management of the initial stages of the outbreak and his party edged ahead in opinion polls. But in the days before the vote, that decision started to look risky.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases began to spike, and polls showed Plenkovic ceding ground to his main rivals, a center-left alliance led by the Social Democratic Party.

Still, on Sunday, Plenkovic’s party emerged with one of its best showings in more than a decade. “The gamble paid off,” said Karlo Jurak, a political analyst and academic at the University of Zagreb.

The strength of Plenkovic’s performance will make it easier for him to form a coalition with small centrist parties and parties representing ethnic minorities, analysts said. Plenkovic will also be less beholden to a new far-right group, the Homeland Movement, which has now entered parliament for the first time and is led by pop singer Miroslav Skoro.

Though the Homeland Movement was projected to win about 15 seats, making it the third-largest in parliament, it no longer seemed likely that Plenkovic would need its support to form a coalition.

Voters opted for stability amid a profound health and economic crisis, said Dejan Jovic, a political scientist at the University of Zagreb. “It looks like the electorate sees the coming difficulties and want some center-right government to lead the country,” he said.

Throughout Plenkovic’s four years in power, his government was plagued by scandal: Nine ministers left office for reasons related to corruption. But during the campaign, Plenkovic successfully diverted attention from graft by centering his reelection bid on Croatia’s strong coronavirus response, which at one point was among the strictest in the world.

“Croatia and this government defeated COVID-19,” Plenkovic said at a press briefing in May.

But as the campaign wore on and social restrictions eased, his strategy seemed set to backfire. In the two weeks before the election, daily coronavirus cases in Croatia rose above 50, mirroring rates at the height of the crisis in April.

As cases climbed, Plenkovic’s rivals — and some of his allies — suggested that the election be postponed in the interest of public health. Attempting to ward off those concerns, the election authority briefly barred confirmed coronavirus patients from participating. But the country’s Constitutional Court later reversed the ban, allowing patients to vote by proxy.

And just as support for both the center-left and far-right began to rise, Plenkovic was criticized for endorsing an exhibition tennis tournament organized in Zadar, a seaside town, by Novak Djokovic, the world’s No. 1 tennis player.

The tournament was meant to stir interest in Croatia’s holiday vacation locations, boosting the country’s beleaguered tourism industry, a key part of its economy. It ended in embarrassment, for both Djokovic and Plenkovic.

Crowds at the event did not have to wear masks or follow social distancing rules. Several participants contracted the virus, including Djokovic himself, forcing a premature end to the tournament and undermining Plenkovic’s victorious coronavirus narrative.

Plenkovic was accused of hypocrisy after fist-bumping Djokovic and then refusing to enter quarantine, which critics felt contravened the government’s own guidelines for curbing the spread of the disease.

And when Plenkovic was defended by members of the group overseeing Croatia’s virus response, the experts of the group were accused of politicizing public health. The decision created a “double standard,” said Jurak, the political analyst.

But on Sunday, Plenkovic’s base nevertheless appeared to have kept faith in the prime minister and his party, Jurak said. “Plenkovic timed the vote correctly.”

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