Croatians go to the polls

2009-12-27 14:30

Zagreb - Polls opened in Croatia on Sunday in elections for the country's third president since its independence in 1991, with the winner expected to lead the former Yugoslav republic into the European Union.

Croatians are choosing a successor to popular centrist Stipe Mesic, who stands down in February after serving the maximum two five-year terms and successfully transforming the country from a nationalist autocracy into a parliamentary democracy.

While Mesic succeeded in gaining Croatia's entry into the Nato military alliance earlier this year, the country's EU ambitions were delayed by a border row with neighbouring Slovenia and Zagreb is unlikely to join the 27-member bloc before 2012.

The opinion polls show that the winner will be decided in a run-off with none of the 12 candidates likely to secure more than 50% of the vote.

Ivo Josipovic of the main opposition Social Democrats (SDP) is virtually certain to enter the January 10 run-off, according to the polls which give him an average lead of 15 percentage points over his opponents.

The 52-year-old legal expert and classical music composer, who has an untarnished political career but lacks political charisma, is likely to face either controversial Zagreb mayor Milan Bandic or businessman Nadan Vidosevic.

Polls suggest a neck-and-neck race between the populist Bandic, 54, a former veteran SDP member, and Vidosevic, 49, a former member of the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) who has headed the Croatian Chamber of Commerce since 1995.

Recovery of the country's recession-hit economy and eradicating high-level corruption, a long-standing concern of EU, were top campaign issues.

Polling stations where some 4.4 eligible voters, including more than 400 000 living abroad, mostly in neighbouring Bosnia, opened at 07:00 (06:00 GMT).

They are to close 12 hours later while first results are expected late on Sunday.