Support boost for hardliners
– Croatians went to the polls yesterday to elect a new president in an uncertain vote where the conservative incumbent faces a serious challenge from a leftist former prime minister.
About 3.8 million people were eligible to vote in a poll that was being held just days after Croatia took over the European Union’s helm for a six-month period.
At the same time, the EU’s newest member is struggling with a mass exodus of its people, corruption and a lacklustre economy.
Centre-right incumbent Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic was campaigning on a “real Croatia” ticket and Zoran Milanovic, a former Social Democratic premier, promised a “normal” liberal democracy of equal citizens.
The outcome of the vote for the largely ceremonial post was uncertain, with the latest survey by Ipsos agency giving Milanovic a three-percentage-point lead over Grabar-Kitarovic.
The latter, backed by the ruling HDZ party, would have to lure back hardliners who voted for a nationalist folk singer in the election’s first round in December.
Dominating in cities, Milanovic led the first round with around a third of the vote, thanks in part to that split among the right-wingers.
Analysts said the first-round results showed an increase in support for hardliners, a trend seen in other European countries, such as Poland or Hungary.
If Grabar-Kitarovic failed to win the presidency, it would deal a heavy blow to the HDZ, whose moderate prime minister, Andrej Plenkovic, faces parliamentary elections later this year.
“I am a Croatia that unifies,” Grabar-Kitarovic, 51, said during a TV election debate with her rival.
Unity, patriotism and references to the 1990s independence war, that remains an emotive issue, were the key points of her re-election bid.
“We should come together as in 1990”, before the country declared independence from Yugoslavia, Croatia’s first female president told her supporters in Zagreb.
Meanwhile, Milanovic insisted that the “wars are over” and Croatia should now fight for its place in Europe.
“There is no ‘real Croatia’... rather a Croatian republic for all, equal citizens,” the 53-year-old told a campaign rally in his native Zagreb.
Presenting herself as the “woman of the people” with humble farming roots, Grabar-Kitarovic is well known for stunts, such as singing in public which her critics deride as embarrassing.
The EU’s open borders have also accelerated the exodus of its people to seek better pay in wealthier member states.
“Our youngsters are leaving, that is the biggest problem, while politicians are only insulting each other,” said Stjepan Golub, a 70-year-old man from Zagreb.