Croatian President to meet with former leftside Prime Minister in the second round

Croatia’s conservative president will face a liberal former prime minister in a runoff election in early January after no candidate won an outright majority in a first round of voting on Sunday, near-complete results showed.

The vote was held just days before Croatia takes over the European Union presidency for the first time. The governing conservatives are hoping to to keep their grip on power ahead of assuming the EU chairmanship.

The left-wing former prime minister Zoran Milanović led the field with nearly 30% of the votes in preliminary returns. President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović had almost 27%, the state election authorities said after counting almost all ballots. Miroslav Škoro, a rightwing singer, was in third place with about 24%.

Some 3.8 million voters in the EU’s newest member country chose from among 11 candidates in Sunday’s election, but only the top three finishers were considered serious contenders.

Milanović and Grabar Kitarović now will face each other in a second round of voting on 5 January.

Although the incumbent finished second, analysts said Grabar Kitarović could be considered a favourite in the runoff because other right-leaning challengers would no longer be in contention.

Addressing supporters, Grabar Kitarović called for all those on the right to unite behind her candidacy in the second round. She described the first round as a 10-on-one battle.

Milanović called for a civilised contest rather than a battle, referring to traditionally deep divisions in Croatia between the political left and right. “We are going to the second round, not a war,” he said. “Let the better one of us win and I believe I am better.”

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, known as HDZ, as Croatia prepares for its six-month term in the EU presidency. The job will include overseeing Britain’s departure from the bloc, expected to take place on 31 January, and the start of post-Brexit trade talks.

Grabar Kitarović started off her campaign looking strong but her position weakened after a series of gaffes. The 51-year-old incumbent is known for flirting with the extreme right while seeking also to portray herself as a people’s president.

Milanović promised during the campaign to turn Croatia into a normal, tolerant country.

Although Croatia has recovered since the devastating 1991-95 war that followed the breakup of former Yugoslavia, it is still is one of the poorest nations in the EU and corruption is regarded as widespread.

Critics blasted the government for setting the election date three days before Christmas, a time when many people travel abroad. The governing HDZ party, they said, counted on the support from Croats who live abroad and normally flock home for the holidays.

Analysts said the strong showing by the rightwing Skoro party signalled that the governing HDZ had lost some support among party followers ahead of a parliamentary election set for next year.