Croatian president, rival head for run-off after tight contest

This combo photo shows Croatian President Ivo Josipovic (R) and Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic (L) of the opposition conservative party, HDZ in Zagreb.

ZAGREB - Croatia's President Ivo Josipovic and his conservative rival on Sunday headed for a January run-off following a tight first round vote overshadowed by the country's deep economic crisis.

Centre-left incumbent Josipovic and his main challenger Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic will face off on Jan 11 after both failed to win an outright majority in the race for the largely ceremonial post.

In a neck-and-neck first round, Josipovic garnered 38.56 per cent of the vote compared to Grabar-Kitarovic's 37.08 per cent, the electoral commission said after 95 per cent of polling stations had reported their results.

Bad weather and snow that hit most of the European Union's youngest member overnight did not appear to have affected turnout, which stood at 47.11 per cent.

This was up some three per cent from presidential elections held five years ago.

The soft-spoken Josipovic - the third president of the former Yugoslav republic since its independence in 1991- is a member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the main partner in the ruling coalition.

The 57-year-old former law professor, who came to office on an anti-corruption ticket, famously played Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" on the piano when Croatia joined the European Union in 2013 hoping membership would revive its flagging economy.

But the tourism-reliant economy of the small Adriatic nation of 4.2 million remains one of the EU's weakest after six years of recession.

Unemployment is close to 20 per cent, half of the country's youth are jobless and public debt is close to 80 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).

"We won in the first round, we will win in the second," Josipovic told supporters at his campaign headquarters in Zagreb late Sunday.

"My programme offers Croatia more democracy, more human rights, tolerance," he said, pledging to work towards an economy "without so many unemployed".

Grabar-Kitarovic, 46, who represents moderates within the opposition HDZ, for her part said voters had shown they wanted "change".

Activist candidate surprises

"Croatia deserves, can and has to do better!" Grabar-Kitarovic - a former foreign and European affairs minister and an ex-NATO assistant secretary general - told supporters at the HDZ election headquarters, vowing to lead the country "towards prosperity".

During her campaign Grabar-Kitarovic had slammed Josipovic's lack of initiative in tackling Croatia's economic woes, accusing him of sharing the blame for the country's ills.

The centre-left government has been accused of failing to carry out the necessary reforms to address the country's huge and inefficient public sector or improve the investment climate.

Though the president has limited powers - running the country is primarily left to the government - the election was seen as a key test for Croatia's political parties ahead of parliamentary contests in late 2015.

Mario Rozankovic, a voter from Zagreb in his 30s, said he backed Josipovic because he viewed him as "honest, respectable, intelligent and capable".

Ivan Janjic, a clerk in his 40s, said he backed the HDZ candidate.

"She is a genuine patriot who left a good job abroad to help her country," he said.

The other two candidates in the race were rightist Milan Kujundzic and activist Ivan Vilibor Sincic, who is known for fighting against forced evictions for people who fall behind on debt repayments.

Sincic won 16.48 of the vote, followed by Kujundzic with 6.26 per cent.

Analysts said 24-year-old student Sincic had been the big surprise of the campaign, striking a chord with voters disenchanted with the political elite and looking for change.