Croatians went to the polls Sunday to elect a president under the cloud of a deep economic crisis, with incumbent Ivo Josipovic seen as the frontrunner, as he seeks a second term in the EU's newest member state.
Surveys ahead of the vote showed that of the four candidates vying for the largely ceremonial post, the 57-year-old center-left leader had only one serious rival – Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic of the main opposition conservative HDZ. With none of the candidates expected to win more than 50 percent outright, a run-off round Jan. 11 is likely.
The soft-spoken Josipovic, the popular third president of the former Yugoslav republic since independence in 1991, is a member of Croatia's Social Democrats (SDP), the main partner in the ruling coalition. A former law professor who won office on an anti-corruption ticket, Josipovic famously played Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" when Croatia joined the European Union in 2013 hoping membership would revive its flagging economy.
The tourism-reliant economy of the small Adriatic nation of 4.2 million remains one of the EU's weakest after six years of recession. Unemployment is close to 20 percent, half of the country's youth are jobless and public debt is close to 80 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
The center-left government stands accused of failing to carry out the necessary reforms to address the country's huge and inefficient public sector or improve the investment climate. Weighed down by the SDP-led government's unpopularity and accused by critics of not taking a clear stance on major issues, Josipovic has taken firmer attitudes in the months leading up to the vote.
On the economic front, he has pledged a "better economy with jobs for every young person." Though the president has limited powers, Sunday's election is seen as a key test for Croatia's political parties ahead of parliamentary contests in late 2015. A victory for Grabar-Kitarovic would further boost the position of the HDZ, currently the most popular party.
The 46-year-old, who represents moderates within the HDZ, is a former foreign and European affairs minister and an ex-NATO assistant secretary general. During the campaign, she slammed Josipovic's lack of initiative on tackling economic hardship.
"He shares the blame with the government for a bad (economic) situation in the country since he remained silent and did nothing," Grabar-Kitarovic said. The other two candidates in the race, whose chances according to polls are very slim, are rightist Milan Kujundzic and activist Ivan Vilibor Sincic, who is known for fighting against forced evictions for people who fall behind on debt repayments.
Croatians will determine the new president for the fifth time since their independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, as 3,779,281 registered voters cast their votes at 6,350 polling stations. The elections will be observed by 794 people from civil society organizations and approximately 20,000 people from political parties. The official results will be declared on Monday.