Croatia's incumbent President Stipe Mesic failed by a narrow margin to win an outright first-round victory in the presidential election, forcing him into a runoff with a female Cabinet minister, nearly complete official results showed.
Mesic had 49.03 percent of the votes in Sunday's election -- less than 1 percent short of an outright majority that would have given him a first-round victory, the state-run Electoral Commission announced after more than 99 percent of votes were counted.
Jadranka Kosor, the Minister of Families and War Veterans in the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union-led Cabinet, was trailing far behind with 20.18 percent. Kosor is a close ally of Prime Minister Ivo Sanader.
Mesic, who was backed by most opposition parties, declared the results a "brilliant victory" and voiced confidence that he would win in the runoff scheduled for Jan. 16.
"I led Croatia to the doors of the [mainstream] Europe, and I will lead it to it," Mesic, 70, said, to the euphoric cheers from his supporters.
The former Yugoslav country of 4.5 million hopes to join the EU by the end of decade.
Mesic also referred to Kosor's ruling party's nationalist agenda from the 1990's, saying that in the runoff, voters will choose between "a president who will be leading them into the 21st century, or the one that leads back to the 19th century."
Kosor, 51, said her goal was to reach the runoff, "which I'm sure I'll win."
"There's something else that makes me happy as well -- a woman is in the runoff," she said. "I'm sure Croatia is mature enough to finally have a female president."
In the runoff, Kosor could pick up support from nationalists who voted for rightist candidates in the first round, but are certain to rally around her against Mesic.
Indicating a fierce campaign, Mesic and Kosor immediately exchanged sharp remarks in the live TV broadcast.
Mesic faced 12 other candidates in Sunday's first round. The third-leading candidate with 17.80 percent of the votes was Boris Miksic, a businessman who launched a multimillion dollar business in the US and insisted later there "must have been" irregularities in the official vote counting.
Staunchly pro-Western and easygoing by nature, Mesic won overwhelming support in 2000 to replace autocratic Franjo Tudjman, who had died two months before.
The president is elected to a five-year term and has limited powers, as the prime minister and parliament exercise most decision-making. Croats apparently didn't see the vote as so crucial -- just over 50 percent of the 4.4 million voters cast their ballots.
For the first time, no international observers monitored the vote, an indication of the former Yugoslav republic's democratic progress since it gained independence in 1992 through a bloody war with its rebel Serbs.
Mesic is credited by many at home and abroad for directing democratic standards and reforms. But he has made enemies among the nationalists who consider him a traitor for insisting that any Croat who committed war crimes should be punished.
Both Kosor and Mesic have pledged to maintain Croatia's pro-Western course and cooperate with the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.
Croatia is pushing to join both the EU and NATO, and is scheduled to begin EU membership talks on March 17, provided it arrests fugitive General Ante Gotovina, charged in 2001 by the UN tribunal for wartime atrocities.