Croatia's conservatives are poised for a re-election victory. An exit poll shows the HDZ party on strong footing for talks to build a government that will face the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
The party, which has dominated Croatia for most of its nearly 30-year independence, fell short of an absolute majority but outperformed its main rival by a longshot.
HDZ had presented Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, a former MEP with strong backing from Brussels, as a safe pair of hands to navigate the economic downturn.
According to Ipsos agency, HDZ was slated for 61 seats in the 151-member house, followed by 44 for the centre-left coalition led by the Social Democrats (SDP).
Ahead of the poll 50-year-old Plenkovic dismissed his rivals as ill-prepared, telling voters that now is the time for "serious choices and not for political quackery".
Yet the SDP, led by 40-year-old Davor Bernardic, accused the government of endangering citizens by "rushing" to hold the elections before the economic pain set in.
Their coalition's weak results were the biggest surprise of the night, after pre-election polls had consistently put SDP neck-and-neck with HDZ.
"SDP is the loser of the elections," said political analyst Zarko Puhovski.
Their camp was also hurt by the rise of a new green-leftist group, Mozemo, positioned for fourth alongside the ultra-conservative Most party with around eight seats each, according to Ipsos.
Folk singer Skoro, leader of the new nationalist 'Homeland Movement', was forecast for third place with some 16 seats, according to the poll.
He has drawn criticism from the left for allegedly sexist remarks and an anti-migrant stance. Skoro was also accused of tolerance of Croatia's pro-Nazi past.
While the pandemic dominated the election campaign, older problems like corruption and high emigration were also topics of concern.
"There is not enough focus on Croatians leaving for abroad, unemployment and poor salaries of young people," retired teacher Branka Tekavec told AFP.
Voters were advised to wear masks and bring their own pens to polling stations after the European Union country recorded a new uptick in coronavirus infections in recent weeks.
But the health situation did not appear to dramatically dampen turnout, which at two-and-a-half hours before polls closed was at 34%, some three points below the figure in 2016 elections.
Officials also paid home visits to collect the ballots of 500 people - some 10% of those in self-isolation - who requested to vote, while others infected with the virus could do so through a proxy.