Latest update: 11/01/2010
Social Democrat Josipovic to face major of Zagreb in presidential run-off
Croatia's opposition Social Democrat presidential candidate Ivo Josipovic will face independent Zagreb mayor Milan Bandic in a run-off vote on Jan. 10 after taking 32.7% of the vote in the first round on Sunday.
By News Wires (text)
AFP- Ivo Josipovic of Croatia's main opposition Social Democrats and independent Zagreb mayor Milan Bandic will contest a presidential election run-off, exit polls showed after a first round Sunday.
Josipovic took 32.7 percent of the vote and his former party colleague Bandic just over 14 percent, according to exit polls by RTL and Nova television stations at the close of voting Sunday evening.
The run-off vote will be held January 10.
Bandic edged out third-placed Andrija Hebrang of the governing conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), who polled just over 12 percent, the exit polls showed.
The first official results were expected at midnight (2300 GMT). However, analysts warned that both Hebrang and fourth-placed Nadan Vidosevic, a businessman and former HDZ veteran, could still catch Bandic.
All three candidates were largely counting on Croat voters living abroad, mostly in neighbouring Bosnia. Hebrang and Vidosevic because they are traditional HDZ supporters, and Bandic because he is Bosnian-born. Exit polls did not include these voters.
Some 4.4 million people, including more than 400,000 living abroad, were eligible to vote in Sunday's election to choose a president to steer the Balkans country into the European Union amid a deepening economic crisis and concerns over high-level corruption.
The incumbent, popular centrist Stipe Mesic, stands down in February after serving the maximum two five-year terms.
The 75-year-old is credited with helping transform the former Yugoslav republic from a nationalist autocracy -- the legacy of late strongman Franjo Tudjman -- into a parliamentary democracy, curbing the president's powers.
Josipovic's score came as no surprise as opinion polls gave him an average lead of 15 percentage points over his opponents.
"Josipovic is the only one who represents values I believe this country should strive for," lawyer Nenad Vezic told AFP as he cast his ballot in the capital.
Josipovic has run his campaign under the slogan "Justice for Croatia," insisting on the need to fight corruption.
The 52-year-old legal expert and classical music composer has an untarnished political career but analysts warn he lacks charisma.
Bandic, his likely rival in the January 10 run-off, is a former SDP veteran who largely avoided confrontation during the campaign, arguing he was a "man of deeds and not of words."
Like some of the other candidates the 54-year-old, who has been mayor of Zabreb since 2000, has been the target of questions about his involvement in alleged corruption in the capital.
Croatian authorities in recent months have launched investigations into several state-run companies and police have arrested dozen of officials.
The issue of high-level corruption became one of the hot topics in the run-up to the election and it has long been a concern of the European Union.
The economy, which is set to contract by more than five percent this year as experts warn the crisis will likely worsen in 2010, was also a major campaign issue.
Mesic, the outgoing president, expressed regret that he had failed to get his country into the European club.
"I regret that during my mandate we did not enter the EU. It will be the task for the next president and the government," Mesic said after he voted in Zagreb.
The country's EU ambitions were delayed by a border dispute with neighbouring Slovenia and the former Yugoslav republic is now unlikely to join the 27-member bloc before 2012.
But Mesic did succeed in gaining Croatia's entry into the NATO military alliance earlier this year.
At 4:00 pm (1500 GMT), three hours before polling stations were to close, turnout was 33.8 percent, the electoral commission said -- about seven percent down on the January 2005 vote.