Croats pick president in tight test for ruling conservatives


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 were picking among 11 candidates, but only three were considered to be contenders in the election taking place on a rainy day during the holiday season.

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

Election authorities said turnout was higher than during the last election in 2014, with some 100,000 more voters having cast ballots by mid-afternoon despite bad weather.

Croatia’s presidency is largely ceremonial. The office holder formally commands the army and represents the country abroad. But retaining the post is important for the ruling Croatian Democratic Union party, whose government is set to assume the EU chairmanship on Jan. 1.

The EU job will include overseeing Britain’s departure from the bloc, expected on Jan. 31, and the start of post-Brexit trade talks.

Grabar Kitarovic started off her campaign looking strong but her position weakened after a series of gaffes. She was still believed to have a slight lead going into the election, followed closely by Milanovic. Skoro was trailing in third place.

“We are deciding in which direction Croatia will go,” Grabar Kitarovic said upon voting in Zagreb, the capital.

The 51-year-old incumbent is known for flirting with the extreme right while seeking also to portray herself as a peoples’ president. Milanovic during campaign promised to turn Croatia into a “normal” tolerant country, while Skoro played an anti-establishment, nationalist card.

Although Croatia has recovered since the devastating 1991-95 war that followed the breakup of former Yugoslavia, it still is one of the poorest nations in the EU and corruption is believed to be widespread. The 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. The ruling HDZ party, they said, counts on the support from Croats who live abroad and normally flock home for the holidays.

After voting in Zagreb, 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 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.”

A voter casts his ballot at a polling station in Zagreb, Croatia, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019. Voters in Croatia go to the polls Sunday to pick a new president in a tight, holiday-season election race that is pitting the conservative incumbent against the left and right wing challengers. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)