The ruling centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has had a slight advantage in most opinion polls over its main rival, the Social Democrats (SDP), but neither party is seen being able to form a cabinet on its own.
Croatia's conservative HDZ party was poised for a victory in Sunday elections, an exit poll showed, putting the ruling party in a strong position for coalition talks to form a government.
HDZ was slated for 61 seats in the 151-member parliament, followed by 44 from their main rivals in a centre-left coalition led by the Social Democrats, according to an exit poll from Ipsos agency
Polling stations opened at 0500 GMT and closed at 1700 GMT when the exit polls will be released.
Poll before Sunday’s election in Croatia 🇭🇷 shows main parties neck to neck when it comes to seats in next Parliament. Sunday will decide, but it will boil down to building a coalition. pic.twitter.com/omDiO01iHu— Carl Bildt (@carlbildt) July 3, 2020
"At these challenging times both for public health and the economy Croatia deserves to be led by experienced and responsible people," Prime Minister and HDZ leader Andrej Plenkovic told supporters this week, hinting at his two top opponents' lack of vision and experience.
They are SDP leader Davor Bernardic and popular singer Miroslav Skoro, whose nationalist and eurosceptic Domovinski Pokret (Homeland Movement) has fared third in the opinion polls with just above 10 percent support, compared with close to 30 percent for the two top parties.
The new government will have an uphill task to maintain public health while trying to restore the economy, expected to shrink some 10 percent this year with tourism revenues forecast to slump 70 percent.
Some analysts believe that the two biggest parties may be forced to join forces, as the alternative of trying to form a stable government with junior partners, such as Skoro's Homeland or the conservative Most (Bridge) party, may prove difficult.
Both Plenkovic and Bernardic have firmly rejected the idea of a "grand coalition".
Croatia has reported a relatively small number of coronavirus infections – 3,000 Covid-19 cases and around 100 deaths recorded so far – but infections have accelerated in the past two weeks, with new daily cases currently peaking at around 80.
Voters have been strongly advised to wear masks and respect other hygiene measures at the polling stations.