ZAGREB (AFP) – Croatia votes Sunday to elect a president in a run-off between incumbent centre-left Ivo Josipovic and conservative Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, both pledging to help kickstart the newest EU member’s ailing economy.
A tight fight is expected, as was seen in the first-round balloting for the largely ceremonial post two weeks ago when there was just one per cent difference in the candidates’ vote tallies.
Josipovic, a 57-year-old former law professor and classical music composer, came first with 38.5 per cent of ballots, but failed to win an outright majority.
The popular incumbent, who is the third president of the former Yugoslav republic since independence in 1991, is a member of the Social Democrats (SDP), the main force in the ruling coalition.
His rival from the primary opposition party HDZ is an ex-foreign minister and former NATO assistant secretary general, who aims to be Croatia’s first woman president.
Although presidential powers are limited in the Balkan nation, Sunday’s vote is seen as a key test for parliamentary elections later this year in which Grabar-Kitarovic’s HDZ is likely to make significant gains.
Analysts believe the close first-round result reflects dissatisfaction with the SDP-led govern-ment’s performance and Josipovic’s failure to criticise its economic policies.
Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic’s government has become hugely unpopular after having failed to revive Croatia’s economy, which has been struggling with recession for the past six years.
Hopes that entry into the European Union would help pump economic vigour into the small Adriatic nation of 4.2 million have faded.
Croatia joined the EU in 2013, but its economy remains among the bloc’s weakest. Unemploy-ment is almost 20 per cent, every second person under the age of 25 is jobless and the government forecasts a meagre 0.5 per cent growth this year.
Analysts say the ruling coalition has failed to reform the huge and inefficient public sector, improve the business climate and attract EU development funds.
Although the country is largely run by the government, the two rivals focused their cam-paigns on making promises to overcome a grim economic situation.
Josipovic has vowed to initiate constitutional changes – namely decentralisation of the country – claiming the reforms would eventually revive the economy.