Mon, Jan 06, 2020 - Page 5 News List

Croatian leader faces leftist challenge

CLOSE RACE:President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic campaigned on patriotism and the nation’s 1990s independence war, while Zoran Milanovic called for looking forward

AFP, ZAGREB

Croatia was to elect a new president yesterday in an uncertain vote where the conservative incumbent — trying to unite a fractured right wing — faced a serious challenge from a former leftist 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 EU’s helm for a six-month period that would be dominated by the issues of Brexit and the bloc’s enlargement.

At the same time, the EU’s newest member is struggling with an emigration exodus, corruption and a lackluster economy at home.

Center-right Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic is campaigning on a “real Croatia” ticket, while her rival, former Croatian prime minister Zoran Milanovic, has 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 3 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 last month.

Dominating in cities, Milanovic led the first round with about one-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 fails to win the presidency, it would deal a heavy blow to the HDZ, whose moderate Croatian 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, which remains an emotive issue, were the key points of her campaign.

“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 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 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.

She has also come under fire for downplaying the crimes committed by Croatia’s World War II pro-Nazi regime.

Meanwhile, Milanovic is trying to make a political comeback and throw off a reputation as elitist.

In office from 2011 to 2016, he was welcomed at the time as a bright, young politician clean of the corruption tainting the rival HDZ.

However, the excitement waned after his government failed to push through much-needed reforms.

Croatia joined the EU in 2013, but its economy, strongly relying on tourism on its Adriatic coast, remains one of the bloc’s weakest.

EU’s open borders also accelerated the emigration exodus for better pay in wealthier member states.

“Our youngsters are leaving,” while politicians are only “insulting each other,” Stjepan Golub, 70, told reporters in Zagreb.

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