Serbians went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament in Europe’s first national election since coronavirus lockdowns took effect three months ago.
The ruling conservatives are expected to win a comfortable majority.
Polling stations were equipped with face masks and hand sanitisers for the use by the country’s electorate of almost 6.6 million, many of whom were expected to skip voting – partly due to fears of becoming infected.
Turnout could also be hit by the boycott campaign of some opposition parties, who say the vote will not be free or fair due to President Aleksandar Vucic’s firm grip over the media.
Voters largely back efforts by Vucic’s ruling coalition to push for Serbian membership of the European Union while maintaining strong ties with Russia and China.
But the future government will face increasing EU and the U.S. pressure to recognise the independence of Serbia’s former province of Kosovo, a move seen as key for regional stability.
According to the latest opinion polls, Vucic’s conservative Serbian Peoples’ Party (SNS) is set to win about 50 per cent of the vote, boosted by widespread approval over the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Vucic’s coalition partner, the Socialist Party, is expected to come second with about 10 per cent.
The opposition centre-right Serbian Patriotic Alliance (SPAS), led by Aleksandar Sapic, the mayor of Novi Beograd, Belgrade’s most populous municipality, is tipped to come third.
Mladjan Knezevic, a pensioner from Novi Beograd, said he voted for the status quo: “I am for the things to stay as they were’’.
Vucic himself is not up for re-election but the opposition parties boycotting the vote accuse him of using his position as president to promote his party.
Serbia, which has a population of 7.2 million, has reported 12,803 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 260 deaths.
It was among the first European countries to start opening its borders on May 22 and all lockdown curbs have since been lifted.
Analysts and pollsters say health concerns will keep some voters at home, especially among higher-risk groups.
About 1.2 million people on the electoral list have lived abroad for years and are unlikely to vote.
At a polling station in a school in Belgrade’s Zemun municipality, voters and election officials in face masks said they were working briskly to minimise exposure to the virus.
“Yes, I am concerned about the coronavirus but had to vote … I want to see SPAS in the parliament,’’ Milica, 26, a social worker, said through a blue surgical mask.