ZAGREB, Croatia – A liberal incumbent and a conservative rival are heading into a surprisingly close showdown in Croatia's presidential runoff — held amid deep discontent over economic woes in the European Union's newest member.
The Sunday vote is seen as a major test for Croatia's center-left government, which is preparing for parliamentary elections this year under a cloud of criticism over its handling of the crisis. A conservative triumph could shift Croatia back into right-wing nationalism, jeopardizing relations with bitter Balkan wartime rival Serbia.
Incumbent Ivo Josipovic, 57, is a soft-spoken law professor, pianist and composer who campaigned on a platform of constitutional change, including legislative veto powers for the largely ceremonial presidency. He supports change in the electoral system and giving more power to the regions. He is backed by the Social Democratic Party, which leads the unpopular center-left government.
"I offer the country better organization and reduction of the administration," Josipovic said.
Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, 46, is a former foreign minister and an ex-assistant to the NATO secretary general. Grabar-Kitarovic is opposed to Josipovic's proposed constitutional changes and accuses him of doing nothing to stop the Croatian economic downslide. She promises a swift economic revival and reversal of Josipovic's alleged soft stance toward neighboring Serbia. The outspoken populist is backed by the conservative Croatian Democratic Union that ruled Croatia after it became an independent state in 1991.
"Josipovic is an accomplice in the country's economic hardships," Grabar-Kitarovic said. "He is just the flip side of the government's devaluated coin."
The presidency in Croatia is a largely ceremonial position, but the vote is considered an important test for the main political parties before the parliamentary elections expected in the second half of the year. A victory for Grabar-Kitarovic — giving her a five-year term — would greatly boost the chances of her center-right Croatian Democratic Union to win back power. She would be Croatia's first woman president.
Josipovic won 38.5 percent of the vote, edging Grabar-Kitarovic with 37.2 percent. Two other candidates also took part in the first round on Dec. 28. The runoff was called because neither Josipovic nor Grabar-Kitarovic captured over 50 percent needed to win outright.
Croatia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in June 1991, sparking a four-year war with rebel Serbs who were supported by the Serb-led Yugoslav army. Autocratic nationalist Franjo Tudjman ruled the country until his death in 1999, marking the start of democratization that put Croatia on track to EU membership. A center-left coalition won elections in 2011, ousting the conservative HDZ that had been tainted by a string of corruption scandals. Croatia, which joined the EU in 2013, has one of the weakest economies in the bloc and has an unemployment rate of nearly 20 percent. Its population is 4.2 million.
Dusan Stojanovic contributed.