ZAGREB: Croatians cast ballots on Sunday for municipal officials in a vote seen as a test for the centre-left government and its austerity policies, six weeks ahead of the former Yugoslav republic’s EU entry.

The latest surveys showed that the popularity of Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic’s government, led by his Social Democrats (SDP), has hit the lowest point since it won late 2011 elections.

In April, the rival right-wing coalition, led by the main opposition conservative HDZ, won six out of 12 seats that Croatia will have in the European parliament once it joins the European Union on July 1, compared to five for the SDP-led coalition. Slashing spending and raising taxes, the government has failed to reviveCroatia’s economy that since 2009 has either been in recession or stagnated. The main challenge the SDP faces in Sunday’s vote is to win the powerful post of mayor ofZagreb, the country’s capital, which incumbent populist Milan Bandic has held almost interrupted since 2000.

A failure to win in Zagreb would be another serious blow to Milanovic, analysts warn.

Bandic, widely linked by the media to various corruption scandals in the capital, is a former veteran SDP official.

He was expelled from the party in 2009 when he decided to run independently in Croatia’s presidential race that he later lost.

Bandic will face, among others, SDP candidate Rajko Ostojic, the current health minister, but the latest surveys showed the race would probably go to a run-off in two weeks.

The SDP hopes to win in the second largest city Split and retain power in the northern port Rijeka.

More than 3.7 million voters will elect some 9,500 mayors and other local and regional officials and deputies.

Polling stations opened at 0500 GMT and were to close twelve hours later. First partial results are expected around 1900 GMT.