Croatia presidential election: Voters choose head of state days after starting six-month EU role
Croatia citizens went to the polls on Sunday in a tight election runoff to choose their next president.
Voters will opt between the incumbent conservative and a left-wing rival in what analysts say is an unpredictable race with no clear favourite emerging from recent polls.
It comes just days after the country took over the presidency of the European Union, meaning the winner will be a key figure on the European stage just as the bloc wrestles with the accession of Albania and North Macedonia and the departure of Britain.
Members of the European Commission are due to visit Zagreb on Thursday (January 9).
The runoff falls in the middle of a winter holiday week in which thousands of Croatians traditionally head across the border to Italy to ski, although it is unclear how this would impact the result.
Social media users have been tracking the election with the hashtag #izboriRH
Who are the candidates?
Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, a former Croatian ambassador to the United States, is running for a second term as the candidate for the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which is allied to the European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament.
The 51-year-old became the country’s first post-independence female president in 2015 and also the youngest.
She has two children, including a daughter who is a professional figure skater, speaks languages and is a practising Catholic who opposes same-sex marriage,
Her opponent is Zoran Milanović, a former prime minister of Croatia and leader of the centre-left Social Democratic Party of Croatia (SDP), which is part of the Party of European Socialists in the European parliament.
Like Grabar-Kitarović, the 53-year-old is also a former diplomat, having worked in the Croatian foreign ministry before entering politics. He was also an advisor at the Croatian Mission to the European Union and NATO in Brussels and has a master’s degree in EU law.
In December, he became the first presidential candidate in Croatian history to acquire more votes in the first round of an election than the incumbent president.
As prime minister, Milanović introduced liberal reforms including health education in schools and an expansion of rights for same-sex couples.
What happened in the first round?
Milanovic came out ahead in the first round, trailed by Grabar-Kitarovic.
Both saw off a significant challenge from anti-establishment independent candidate Miroslav Škoro, a former folk singer and nationalist who had pledged to “give Croatia back to the people”.
Škoro won 24.44% of the vote, which he described as a “historic result” that proved most voters were unhappy with the current Croatian government.
It is unclear how Skoro’s support will transfer to the remaining candidates in the runoff. He has not endorsed either of the final candidates and said he will spoil his ballot.
Analysts say Skoro’s votes could split both ways, although Grabar-Kitarovic is ideologically closer. As Europe Elects notes, a recent poll from Ipsos found that 28% of Škoro voters plan to vote for Milanović in the second round, while many more could simply not vote altogether.
What does the Croatian president do?
It is a largely ceremonial post compared to the prime minister, who holds more actual power, yet the president still formally commands the army and represents the country abroad.
However, the president is chosen in a direct public vote, which gives the head of state additional political weight and an important voice on key topics in society.
In particular, the president will be a visible figure during Croatia’s EU presidency.
What is at stake?
Sunday’s election is a test for HDZ ahead of parliamentary elections later this year. It could also shake up the political scene in Croatia just as the EU presidency gets underway.
The EU presidency rotates among the bloc’s 28 members every six months. For Croatia, which only joined the EU in 2013 and remains its newest member, this is the country’s first time at the helm. It’s six-month term began on January 1.
Croatia’s HDZ prime minister Andrej Plenkovic said he will try to restart European Union membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia, which were blocked by France in October.
“We will do our best to overcome problems and unblock the process that was held back at the summit in October 2019,” Plenkovic on Wednesday.
If Brexit goes as planned and the UK leaves the EU on January 31, Croatia’s task will be to coordinate efforts within the EU to outline a framework proposal for future agreements with Britain.
“That is our job,” he said. ‘’And we have already started working on it. Together with (chief EU Brexit negotiator) Michel Barnier.”
Croatia country profile
Home to 4.2 million people, Croatia joined the EU after coming out of the Yugoslav wars of independence in the early 1990s that left over 10,000 people dead.
It is best known for its Adriatic Sea coast, dotted with hundreds of islands and the walled city of Dubrovnik.
Its economy is performing better than most of southeastern Europe but lags behind the EU average. However, Croatia is on track to join Europe’s border-free Schengen Area and to adopt the euro as the country’s main currency.
The 1990s war remains a politically relevant topic in Croatia, a predominantly conservative nation where the Catholic Church plays an important role.