Croats pick president in tight test for ruling conservatives

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ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) – Voters in Croatia cast ballots Sunday in a tight presidential election, with the ruling conservatives seeking to keep their grip on power days before the country takes over the European Union’s rotating presidency for the first time.

Some 3.8 million voters in the EU’s newest member are picking among 11 candidates, but only three are considered to be the front-runners.

Conservative incumbent Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic is running for a second term, challenged by leftist former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic and right-wing singer Miroslav Skoro.

Although the post is largely ceremonial in Croatia – the president formally commands the army and represents the country abroad – keeping the presidency is important for the ruling Croatian Democratic Union party as its government is set to assume the EU chairmanship on Jan. 1. That job will include overseeing Britain’s departure from the bloc, expected on Jan. 31, and the start of post-Brexit trade talks.

Analysts predicted that a presidential runoff vote will have to be held in two weeks as none of the candidates is expected to win an outright majority.

Grabar Kitarovic started off stronger than other candidates but her position has weakened after a series of gaffes during the campaign. She is still believed to have a slight lead going into the election, followed closely by Milanovic. Skoro is trailing in third, chipping away right-wing votes from Grabar Kitarovic.

Although Croatia has recovered since the devastating 1991-95 war that followed the breakup of former Yugoslavia, it still has one of the poorest economies in the EU and corruption is believed to be widespread. The Adriatic nation of 4.2 million people is best known for its stunning Adriatic Sea coast, which includes over 1,000 islands and picturesque coastal towns such as the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik.

Critics have blasted the government for setting the election date three days before Christmas, a time when many people travel abroad.

After voting in the capital of Zagreb on a rainy Sunday, Milanovic predicted there would be a runoff.

“We have done all we could, I have done my best,” he said. “People could see that and now it is up to them to decide.”

Skoro, meanwhile, urged citizens not to stay at home because of the rain.

“The voters decide today about the future of our country,” he said. “Changes have to happen and people must come out to vote despite bad weather.”

In this Thursday, Dec.19, 2019 photo, a cyclist rides past a poster of presidential candidate Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic in Zagreb, Croatia. The European Union’s newest member state Croatia is holding a tight presidential election this weekend, only days before it takes over the EU presidency for the first time. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
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