Serbians Head to Polls in Europe's First Post-lockdown Election

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, with the ruling conservatives expected to win a comfortable majority.

Polling stations were equipped with face masks and hand sanitisers for use by the country's electorate of almost 6.6 million, many of whom were expected to skip voting - partly because of fears of infection.

At 2pm local time (1200 GMT), turnout was 26.5% compared with 29.7% at the same stage of voting four years ago, figures released by the state election commission showed.

Turnout could also be hit by a boycott by some opposition parties, who say the vote will not be free or fair owing to President Aleksandar Vucic's 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 U.S. pressure to recognise the independence of Serbia's former province of Kosovo, a move seen as key for regional stability.

"I hope for a good result. I expect success," Vucic said after casting his ballot. "I expect a good turnout."

According to the latest opinion polls, Vucic's conservative Serbian Peoples' Party (SNS) is set to win about 50% 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%.

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 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 12,894 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 261 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 that 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 parliament," Milica, a 26-year-old social worker, said through a blue surgical mask.