Croatia to elect new leader amid EU presidency (Update)

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Croatia’s bitterly contested presidential race is headed for a runoff this weekend to decide whether a conservative or a liberal will become the new head of state while the country holds the European Union presidency for the first time.

Incumbent President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic from the governing conservative party is facing leftist former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic in what analysts say could be a highly unpredictable and tight vote on Sunday.

In the first round of voting two weeks ago, former prime minister Zoran Milanovic, who is Social Democrats’ candidate, came first among the 11 candidates with 29.6% of votes. He finished ahead of the incumbent president, the conservative Croatian Democratic Union’s (HDZ) Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic with 26.7%.

Reuters report that the opinion polls and analysts suggest that the race for the next five-year presidential term, which begins in February, could be tight, although some give a slight advantage to Grabar-Kitarovic.

“I believe that she has somewhat bigger chances as the Croatian electorate is generally slightly right-leaning. In any case, this election is a kind of a preliminary stage for the parliamentary election later this year,” said political analyst Zarko Puhovski.

The polling stations close at 1800 GMT and the first preliminary results will be known around 1900 GMT.

Croatia’s president is facing possible defeat in a vote where frustration over corruption and ambitions for deeper integration in the European Union may rebalance politics in the bloc’s newest member.

Grabar Kitarovic, a former NATO executive running on the carefully crafted image of a globe-trotting diplomat, must overcome a second-place finish in the first round and links to the scandal-plagued mayor of Zagreb to win. If she fails, the result could spell trouble for her ally Andrej Plenkovic, the prime minister, before general elections in the fall.

While the president’s role is largely ceremonial, the office commands the armed forces and decides over foreign-policy appointments with the premier. A new term for Kitarovic would strengthen Plenkovic’s position as he tries to stoke an economy that’s trailing other eastern European peers after years of stagnation.

Read more via AP/Bloomberg

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