Serbians head to polls in Europe's first post-lockdown election

BELGRADE (Reuters) – Serbians go to polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament in Europe’s first national election since coronavirus lockdowns took effect some three months ago, with the ruling conservatives seen winning a comfortable majority.

Polling stations will be equipped with face masks and hand sanitisers for the use of the country’s 5.5 million voters, many of whom are 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.

According to the latest opinion polls, Vucic’s conservative Serbian Peoples’ Party (SNS) is set to garner about 50% of the vote, boosted by widespread public approval over the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Vucic’s coalition partner, the Socialist Party, is expected to come second with about 10%, while an opposition centre-right party led by Aleksandar Sapic, the mayor of a Belgrade municipality, is tipped to come third.

Vucic himself is not up for re-election, but the opposition parties that are boycotting the poll accuse him of using his position as president to promote his party.

Serbia, which has a population of 7.2 million, has so far 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.

Still, persistent health concerns will keep some voters at home, especially among higher-risk groups.

“A number of voters above 65 will not vote because they are afraid they could get infected,” Bojan Klacar, executive director of the CESID pollster told Reuters.

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 U.S. pressure to recognise the independence of Serbia’s former province of Kosovo, a move seen as key for regional stability.

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