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Crisis-hit Croatia to elect president in uncertain vote 09 января 2015, 14:21

Croatia elects a president in a run-off vote expected to be a tight fight between centre-left incumbent Ivo Josipovic and conservative Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic.
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Croatia's President Ivo Josipovic. ©REUTERS Croatia's President Ivo Josipovic. ©REUTERS

 Croatia elects a president in a run-off vote Sunday expected to be a tight fight between centre-left incumbent Ivo Josipovic and conservative Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, with both pledging to lead the country out of a deep economic crisis, AFP reports.

In the first-round of voting for the largely ceremonial post two weeks ago, Josipovic garnered 38.5 percent, barely one percent more than his rival from the main opposition HDZ party.

The results were seen as a blow to Josipovic, especially since pre-vote surveys had given him a comfortable lead.

The incumbent president is backed by the Social Democrats (SDP), the main force in the ruling coalition of the former Yugoslav republic.

Analysts believe the closely run first-round result reflects dissatisfaction over the SDP-led government's lacklustre performance and Josipovic's failure to criticise its economic policies.

Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic's government has become hugely unpopular having failed to revive Croatia's economy, which has been mired in recession for the past six years.

Voters complain that the ruling coalition has been unable to reform the huge and inefficient public sector or improve the business climate.

Zagreb's inability to attract EU development funds is another gripe.

Croatia's tourism-oriented economy is among the 28-nation European Union's weakest. Unemployment is around 20 percent, every second person under the age of 25 is jobless and the government forecasts a meagre 0.5 percent growth this year.

"We were a burden for him (Josipovic) and will remain one in the second round. He has to live with that fact," Milanovic admitted after the December 28 vote.

Josipovic was elected on an anti-corruption ticket in 2010, becoming the third president since independence in 1991.

The 57-year-old former law professor and classical music composer famously played Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" on the piano when Croatia joined the EU last year.

But hopes that EU membership would help the small Adriatic nation of 4.2 million to overcome the crisis have faded.

   Uncertain outcome 

 Analysts say the run-off is hard to predict.

"Josipovic is not the front runner any more but he is still in the running," political analyst Zarko Puhovski told AFP.

"HDZ has the best-organised voters but SDP still has a potential voters reserve. However, the question is whether it can mobilise them," he said.

The Croatian president is elected for a term of five years and his powers are limited.

But Sunday's vote is seen as a key test for parliamentary elections later this year in which Grabar-Kitarovic's opposition HDZ is likely to make significant gains.

During the campaign, Josipovic had pledged to initiate constitutional changes -- namely decentralisation of the country -- that would, he claimed, eventually kick-start the economy.

"I offer a country of strong regions... that is the basis for economic recovery... a better organisation of the state and reduction of the administration," he said.

   'Incapable and cold-hearted government' 

 Grabar-Kitarovic, who represents moderates within the HDZ, insisted the first-round result showed a desire for change.

The 46-year-old ex-foreign minister and former NATO assistant secretary general slammed the "incapable and cold-hearted government" and labelled Josipovic its "accomplice" for economic hardship.

"Josipovic is just the flip side of SDP's devaluated coin," the energetic leader has stressed.

But her soft-spoken rival believes she will not bring the change voters seek, given that she was a minister in the corruption-plagued HDZ government headed by Ivo Sanader -- he was tried and jailed for corruption.

"People who created those problems cannot be the solution to them," Josipovic said.

The HDZ has been relatively dominant since Croatia became independent, but lost the 2011 elections after a series of top-level corruption scandals.

Last year, the party was found guilty over slush funds and ordered to return three million euros ($3.5 million) it earned illegally.

The disillusionment with the political elite was evident in the first round where a little-known activist came third with 16 percent of the vote.

Ivan Vilibor Sincic, a 24-year-old student dubbed Croatia's Che Guevara, has built a reputation fighting against forced evictions for people who fall behind on debt repayments.

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