By Ivana Sekularac
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia will hold Europe's first national election on Sunday since the continent went into coronavirus lockdown three months ago, with protective masks made available to voters at polling stations to guard against the spread of COVID-19.
President Aleksandar Vucic's conservative ruling Serbian Progressive Party is tipped to win more than 50% of votes, opinion polls show, buoyed by voters' perception that the government has handled the pandemic effectively and by state handouts to soften its economic impact.
Serbia, with a population of 7.2 million, has so far reported 12,616 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 258 deaths.
"If I had 1,000 votes I would give them all to Vucic. He made us proud of being Serbs. He handled the coronavirus epidemic much better than leaders in other countries," said Pero Ciganovic, a 78-year-old pensioner.
Pensioners each received 130 euros and all other adult citizens 100 euros each to help counter the effects of the lockdown. The government has also announced a 5.1 billion euro recovery package for businesses.
"According to our poll during the lockdown trust in state institutions grew," Bojan Klacar, executive director of Belgrade-based pollster CESID, told Reuters. "In times of crisis people gather around their leaders."
Vucic's coalition partner, the Socialist Party, is expected to come second in the election with about 10%, while an opposition centre-right party led by Aleksandar Sapic, mayor of a Belgrade municipality, is tipped to come third.
Serbia was among the first European countries to start opening its borders on May 22. It was also among the first to allow fans back to soccer matches without masks, although political parties have refrained from organising pre-election rallies due to the pandemic.
Some parties in Serbia's fragmented opposition have advocated a boycott of the election, saying it will not be free and fair due to Vucic's firm grip over the media.
They also accuse Vucic, who is not himself up for re-election, of using his position as president to promote his party.
Voters largely back the ruling coalition's efforts to push for Serbian membership of the European Union while maintaining strong ties with Russia and China.
But the new government will face increasing EU and U.S. pressure to recognise the independence of Serbia's former province of Kosovo, seen as key for regional stability.
For now, wary of losing nationalist support, neither Vucic nor other politicians appear willing to cut a deal with Pristina.
($1 = 104.8200 Serbian dinars)
(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Gareth Jones)