Parliamentary elections were held in Croatia, on July 5, 2020, in the throes of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Although voters were encouraged to vote, turnout has never been lower. What particularly caught the public’s eye in regards to politicians on the evening of the elections were the violations of epidemiological measures, whilst the very same measures are ever so stringently imposed on the citizens.
At the time of writing this article (July 27), the Republic of Croatia has 806 active cases, i.e. currently infected persons. Of these 806, 138 people are hospitalized, 9 patients are on a respirator. In the past 24 hours, 24 new cases out of 831 people tested were recorded. A total of 3,936 people have recovered so far, while 139 people have died, making a total of 4,881 cases of infection. The Republic of Croatia has sufficient capacity to accommodate the infected persons in heed of hospitalization and to cope with the epidemic, but the impact of the epidemic on the economy has been considerable, the consequences being reduced wages and layoffs. Even now, during the tourist season, a smaller number of tourists is recorded, which is also one of the negative consequences for the economy, since tourism is the livelihood of many people in Croatia.
At the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic, i.e. at the end of March, Oxford University declared it the country with the strictest restrictions and measures to reduce the infection in relation to the number of infected in Europe. The Oxford survey considers 11 categories: the date of the shut-down of educational institutions, the introduction of restrictions for various businesses, the cancellation of public events, the discontinuation of public transport, information campaign for citizens, restrictions on movement within the country, international traffic controls, fiscal and monetary measures, investments in the health system and in vaccine development. At the time, Croatia had 495 confirmed infections and two deaths. After all of the educational institutions (preschools, primary and secondary schools, and colleges) were closed on March 16, there was a complete lockdown with the slogan #stayhome (#ostanidoma).
At the session of the Government of the Republic of Croatia on April 23, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic (HDZ) presented a plan to ease the measures, to return to somewhat of a normal life, including business operations. With the easing of measures, the slogan #stayhome turned into #letsstayresponsible (#ostanimoodgovorni), and it developed in three phases - April 27, May 4 and May 11. Thus, public transport soon returned, the necessary passes for moving to another city were abolished, shops, malls, libraries, museums, health care institutions, hairdressing and beauty salons, and catering facilities were opened, and on May 20 the President of the Republic of Croatia Zoran Milanovic passed the Decision on announcing the elections for representatives in the Croatian Parliament, which were to be held on July 5.
Premature elections and easement of measures
One of the candidates, the leader of the Homeland Movement (Domovinski Pokret), Miroslav Skoro, commented on the premature elections and called on the director of the Croatian Institute of Public Health, Krunoslav Capak, who was in self-isolation, to tell Prime Minister Plenkovic that he too should be in self-isolation because all citizens should be treated equally. He alluded to an event attended by the Prime Minister a few days earlier, on June 20 - the Adria Tour in Zadar, which included Bulgarian tennis player Grigor Dimitrov, who was infected with coronavirus and infected others, including tennis player Novak Djokovic, whom the Prime Minister patted on the shoulder. Following this, the Prime Minister, unlike others who were in contact with him and then isolated, did not want to isolate himself. Talk of double standards and unequal adherence to measures by politicians and ordinary citizens had already started.
The following day, on RTL's live debate show Elections 2020, Zlatko Komadina (SDP), Nikola Grmoja (Most), Tomislav Tomashevic (We Can!) and Stjepo Bartulica (Homeland Movement) also condemned the ruling party’s (HDZ) decision on the election date and easement of the measures before the elections, also condemning the Prime Minister for refusing self-isolation after contact with the infected Djokovic, while Davor Bozinovic (HDZ) defended the Prime Minister and the date of the elections, referring to relevant professional’s opinions.
On the same day, June 25, due to a sharp rise in the number of infected, the obligation to wear protective masks in public transport was introduced throughout the country. Over the next two days, June 26 and 27, there was an exceptional increase in the number of infected, amounting to 180 new cases registered over 48 hours. However, as pre-election public opinion polls have resulted in absolutely contradictory poll results, citizens were encouraged to vote. Thus, Vesna Fabijancic-Krizanic, Vice President of the State Election Commission, assured voters that, thanks to protection measures, they will be more protected at polling stations than in public transport or shopping centers, and urged them to exercise their right to vote.
Conducting elections in the throes of a pandemic
The aforementioned measures included wearing masks, airing out the premises several times a day, hand disinfecting and maintaining a distance of 1.5 meters. Wearing gloves was also recommended, as well as using your own ballpoint pen to vote. In case the voter did not have his own ballpoint pen, he could use the one at the polling station, and the members of the board were obliged to make sure that the pens were wiped with disinfectant from time to time.
Also, 55 voters infected with the coronavirus asked to be allowed to vote, so the Constitutional Court came forward and said that the State Election Commission is obliged to ensure the exercise of their right to vote. It was thus decided that the infected voters would be able to vote by proxy, with the help of a person of trust, who will fill in the ballot according to their authorization and instructions, and the members of the polling station committee will perform all actions outside the front door of the apartment or house of the infected voter. Despite this, many infected voters, as well as those who were in self-isolation for being in contact with someone infected, failed to exercise their right to vote because polling station committee members refused to go to their homes for fear of infection.
In total, only 46.90% of voters voted, which is the lowest turnout in the parliamentary elections ever recorded in Croatia. Apart from the fact that this is the first election held during the summer, the reason for such a low turnout also lies in the epidemiological situation, especially given the rise in the number of infected persons just before the election.
Violation of epidemiological measures on election night
On the flip side, carried away by the celebration at the headquarters, politicians violated the measures prescribed for the citizens. One of the most popular Croatian daily newspapers, Večernji list, reported that the headquarters of the party Most celebrated the election results on the terrace of a restaurant in Zagreb, at the entrance of which protective masks and disinfectants were provided. However, they state that they distancing was not practiced in the headquarters, that hardly anyone wore a protective mask and no one wore gloves, although they shook hands when entering the headquarters and disinfectants were ignored. They pointed out that the atmosphere was very cheerful and people were singing, but even when Nikola Grmoja was giving a statement, the people from Most entered the press area, and partied, sang, jumped around and celebrated.
Spirits were also high in the headquarters of the coalition of Stranka s Imenom i Prezimenom, Pametno i Fokus (Party with a Name and Surname, Intelligently and Focus), as well as in other headquarters. However, the second most popular daily newspaper in Croatia Jutarnji List reported that the atmosphere on the terrace of the Archaeological Museum where the victorious HDZ celebrated was quite relaxed, and they pointed out that HDZ strictly limited the number of media representatives for this reception. They reported that one HDZ member stated: “They asked us all to be responsible, to keep a physical distance and to act in accordance with the emergency measures. We must bear in mind that this is the "new normal". Večernji List wrote that journalists asked HDZ's Gordan Jandrokovic why their atmosphere was so calm, to which he replied that HDZ members are roaring on the inside, however they are trying to send a good message about adherence to epidemiological measures.
Nevertheless, it seems that in the end they did not succeed. Večernji list reports that Prime Minister Plenkovic (HDZ), having realized that it would be a celebratory evening for the HDZ, came to the security guards at the entrance after 9 pm and told them to allow entrance to those who did not have accreditations. They reported that he told them, “Fu * k it, guys, ease up a little. Now that we have won, you can loosen up. " Later, in the crowd, along with other politicians and guests, he raised his hands and sang. Also caught up by the atmosphere was Vili Beros, the Minister of Health, who even got to dancing.
"Things got out of hand"
After election night, in which they hugged, shook hands, kissed, and spoke loudly and sang without any distance, epidemiologists believe that all those involved should wear masks for the next 14 days because the possibility of infection was significantly increased. Namely, if they had worn masks on election night, they would have reduced the risk of infection by as much as 70%. As a reminder, on election day, voters went to the polls with masks, and they were even advised to bring their own ballpoint pens.
The director of the Croatian Institute of Public Health, Krunoslav Capak, said that there were deviations from the recommended epidemiological measures on election night, and that "things got out of hand". "Corona does not discriminate against any age, nor can it tell time. It turned out that corona does not know what time it is, it is extremely important that we stick to the measures", he concluded. To the statement that HDZ let loose on election night, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Davor Bozinovic replied: "Less than 15 minutes", but still added that there was relaxation and that not everything was according to epidemiological rules.
Furthermore, Health Minister Vili Beros admitted that at some point they were standing too close to each other, but he hoped they will not become a coronavirus hotbed. Although he confirmed that the situation around family gatherings such as birthdays, weddings and christenings is being considered due to the increased risk of coronavirus spreading during such celebrations, he pointed out: "I don't think there will be more stringent measures, unless the epidemiological situation escalates. We will put in efforts in preventing new hotbeds, we will introduce selective measures, although there will not be a general lockdown as last time. "
... and now measures are being tightened again!
Yet, the epidemiological situation has escalated, and as early as July 10, 116 new cases of infection were recorded, which was the highest daily number of newly infected since the beginning of the epidemic in Croatia, and as a result - the measures were tightened. The largest number of infected, 35, was in the City of Zagreb, 20 of them from Osijek-Baranja, then 17 from Split-Dalmatia, 14 from Zadar, 8 from Istria, 6 from Sisak-Moslavina, 4 from Dubrovnik-Neretva County, and the others were one from each county. It was not known where the 13 newly infected people from the City of Zagreb became infected, but no media outlet investigated the possibility of a connection with the events on election night.
That same day, instructions and recommendations were issued for gatherings of 100 or more participants stating that the physical distance between all participants should be at least 1.5 meters, and that any close physical contact by shaking hands, hugging, kissing or congratulating is prohibited. The record in the daily number of newly infected people was broken the very next day, when 140 new cases were recorded, so instructions on the obligation to wear face coverings and medical masks were soon issued. In addition to health workers and employees and users of public transport, in accordance with the decisions of the National Civil Protection Headquarters, masks have become mandatory for employees and customers in stores, employees in catering and services, as well as employees and customers of companies, facilities and institutions.
In this way, almost all citizens get the opportunity to prove their responsibility. However, as political science professor Andjelko Milardovic recently said - "double standards lacking ethical grounds mean death to the notion of responsibility", hence citizens are left to think about the whole story and detect who was, and in fact #stayedreponsible.
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Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute of Communication Studies or the donor.