Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 28 November 2020

Croatian presidential election heads to runoff vote

Former prime minister Zoran Milanovic finished ahead of a crowded field of 10 other candidates

Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic greets supporters in Zagreb on Sunday. AP
Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic greets supporters in Zagreb on Sunday. AP

Croatia’s incumbent President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic narrowly made it to a run-off election on Sunday after a nationalist folk singer won over a large chunk of her party’s far-right wing.

The closely fought first round vote signalled a shift to the right in a Balkan country struggling with an influx of migrants at its borders, an emigration exodus and widespread corruption.

With the second-round vote scheduled for January 5, the result leaves Croatia waiting to know who will be head of state only days before the country takes over the European Union’s rotating presidency for the first time.

Zoran Milanovic, a left-winger who served as prime minister between 2011 and 2016, led the field with almost 30 per cent of the votes in preliminary returns, the electoral commission said after counting almost all ballots.

Ms Grabar-Kitarovic, a former Nato assistant secretary general who became the country’s first female president in 2015, finished with 27 per cent after a campaign strewn with blunders including a car crash involving her campaign bus.

Far-right singer Miroslav Skoro finished in third place on about 24 per cent of the vote after campaigning on promises including sending troops to stop migrants on Croatia’s borders and pardoning convicted war criminal Tomislav Mercep.

Though Skoro’s nationalist pledges didn’t push him to round two, analysts said the strong showing revealed a clear shift to the right among Croatia’s electorate.

“The radical right showed its force,” said political analyst Tihomir Cipek, also saying it mirrored trends in other parts of Europe.

Addressing supporters late on Sunday, Ms Grabar-Kitarovic urged her supporters to unite for the run-off on January 5.

“Now we have to get together and let’s go for a victory!” she said, this time describing her opponent Mr Skoro as a “co-candidate on my political spectrum”.

Though the country’s left has appeared to rally around Mr Milanovic, Ms Grabar-Kitarovic will go into the second round in a stronger position after defeating her far-right challenger.

Croatia is known for its stunning Adriatic Sea coast, which includes more than 1,000 islands and picturesque coastal towns including the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik.

Although the country has recovered since the devastating 1991-95 war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, it remains one of the poorest nations in the EU.

The government has struggled in particular to curb the outflow of Croatians who are packing their bags for better pay and professional opportunities in wealthier member states.

Many who leave also cite the culture of nepotism and corruption at home, as well as poor public services, as key motivations.

Labour gaps have started to affect important industries such as tourism, which accounts for a fifth of Croatia’s GDP.

At the same time, authorities have taken a hard line against migrants from Asia, the Middle East and North Africa who have been trying to slip through its borders on the way to Western Europe.

Updated: December 23, 2019 04:15 PM

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