ZAGREB - Croatians cast ballots Sunday to elect a president in a tight run-off between incumbent centre-left Ivo Josipovic and conservative Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, both pledging to help kickstart the newest EU member's ailing economy.
The two emerged practically neck and neck from the first round of polling two weeks ago, with Josipovic, a 57-year-old former law professor and classical music composer, just one percentage point ahead of Grabar-Kitarovic with 38.5 per cent of the vote.
The popular incumbent, the third president of the former Yugoslav republic since independence in 1991, is a member of the Social Democrats (SDP), the main force in the ruling coalition.
His rival from the main opposition HDZ party, a former foreign minister and NATO assistant secretary general, aims to become the country's first woman president.
Turnout was 21.92 per cent at 1030 GMT, four and a half hours after polling stations across the Balkan nation opened, the electoral commission said. It was almost nine percentage points more than at the same time in the first round and for elections in 2010.
Although presidential powers are limited in Croatia, Sunday's vote is seen as a key test for parliamentary elections later this year in which the HDZ is likely to make significant gains.
Analysts believe the close first-round result reflects dissatisfaction with the SDP-led government's performance and Josipovic's failure to criticise its economic policies.
Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic's government has become hugely unpopular after failing to revive Croatia's economy, which has been struggling with recession for the past six years.
"The recession ... is not only the consequence of the global crisis in 2008. Problems are rather structural and the authorities have not been solving them," economic analyst Damir Novotny told AFP.
Hopes that entry into the European Union would be an economic boost for the small Adriatic nation of 4.2 million have faded.
Among EU's weakest
Croatia joined the EU in 2013, but its economy remains among the bloc's weakest. Unemployment is almost 20 per cent, half of job-seekers under the age of 25 are unemployed and the government forecasts a meagre 0.5 per cent growth this year.
Analysts say the ruling coalition has failed to reform the huge and inefficient public sector, improve the business climate and attract EU development funds.
While vying for a post that is chiefly ceremonial, the two rivals made campaign promises to overcome a grim economic situation.
Josipovic has vowed to initiate constitutional changes - namely decentralisation - as a way to revive the economy.
Sasa Sainovski, a seller in his 30s, said he backs the incumbent president.
"Josipovic is a modern politician. He is an excellent legal expert with an exceptional education and above all a good person." But Grabar-Kitarovic, 46, who represents moderates within the HDZ, insists the first-round result showed a desire for change.
She labelled Josipovic the "incapable and cold-hearted government's accomplice" in bringing about economic hardship.
"To be a president one... has to speak and not remain silent... to call the government to account," the former top diplomat said in a recent television debate. "But this is exactly what you have not been doing during the past five years." However, Josipovic argued that his rival would not bring the change voters seek, given that she was a minister in the graft-plagued HDZ government headed by ex-prime minister Ivo Sanader - who was tried and jailed for corruption.
"We are in a crisis and we now know why... You were in the government that was robbing Croatia, the government of Ivo Sanader," Josipovic said.
But Srecko Lukac, a voter from Zagreb, supports Grabar-Kitarovic, a staunch Catholic running against avowed agnostic Josipovic.
"Kolinda is above all a Catholic and has an impeccable career. She is a woman of the world, educated and certainly a patriot," Lukac told AFP.
First official results in the predominantly Catholic country were expected around 2100 GMT, three hours after polls close.