ZAGREB, Croatia—A soft-spoken liberal incumbent is facing a tough challenge from a conservative populist rival in Croatia’s presidential runoff election Sunday amid deep discontent over economic woes in the European Union’s newest member.
The vote is seen as a major test for Croatia’s center-left government, which is facing parliamentary elections this year under a cloud of criticism over its handling of the crisis. A conservative triumph could shift Croatia back to right-wing nationalism, jeopardizing relations with its neighbors, including bitter Balkan wartime rival Serbia.
The vote is expected to be close. In the first round two weeks ago current President Ivo Josipovic won 38.5 percent of the vote, just edging Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic with 37.2 percent. The runoff was called because neither candidate captured over 50 percent needed to win outright.
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.
Grabar-Kitarovic, a former foreign minister and an ex-assistant to the NATO secretary general, said Sunday she feels “very confident” of a victory because “people will vote for a change.”
She has said that Josipovic, a law professor and composer of classical music, did nothing to stop Croatia’s economic downturn, including a 20 percent unemployment rate — one of the highest in the EU.
Josipovic has said that the president’s duties do not include government’s economic policies and has proposed constitutional changes that would decentralize the country and give more power to Croatia’s regional authorities.
Grabar-Kitarovic also criticized Josipovic for allegedly being too soft toward Serbs, who in the 1990s fought a war against Croatia’s independence from the former Yugoslavia. She said Serbia’s EU membership bid must be conditioned by Croatia.
“Serbia is our neighborly and friendly country,” Josipovic said after he cast his ballot on Sunday. “But, it has to meet the same conditions which we had during our bid for the European Union.”
A large turnout on Sunday was expected to boost Josipovic’s chances of winning the presidential vote, the third such since Croatia declared independence in 1991. The turnout some three hours before the polls were to close was more than 48 percent, 11 percent more than in the first round.
“Of course I expect the victory,” Josipovic said, after voting in the capital, Zagreb.
Autocratic nationalist President Franjo Tudjman and his conservative HDZ party ruled Croatia until his death in 1999, marking the start of democratization that put Croatia, with the population of 4.2 million, on track to EU membership which was accomplished in 2013.
From The Associated Press. Eldar Emric and Darko Bandic contributed.