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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - ZAGRB — A former leftist prime minister, who pledged to make Croatia a tolerant country turning a page on its wartime past, has defeated the incumbent conservative in a presidential run-off vote on Sunday, an exit poll showed.
Zoran Milanovic took 53.25 percent of the vote while President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, who was trying to unite a fractured rightwing, garnered 46.67 percent, the exit poll on state- run HRT television showed.
The first official results are expected around 1900 GMT.
Some 3.8 million people were eligible to vote in an election that was held just days after Croatia took over the European Union's helm for a six-month period, which will be dominated by Brexit and the bloc's enlargement.
At the same time, the EU's newest member is struggling with a mass exodus of its people, corruption and a lackluster economy at home.
Grabar-Kitarovic campaigned on a slogan promoting "real Croatia", hinting she believes the ruling HDZ party that backed her was the only one who can truly represent the country.
Milanovic, a former Social Democratic premier, labeled such statements as "very dangerous", and said he wants to see a liberal democratic country which promotes equality for all citizens.
"This election is not a showdown with anyone but an attempt to be a normal, decent country," Milanovic, said after casting his ballot in native Zagreb.
The 53-year-old stressed that the "wars are over", referring to Croatia's 1990s independence conflict, and that the country should now fight for its place in Europe.
Grabar-Kitarovic, 51, tried to lure back hard-liners who had voted for a nationalist folk singer in the presidential election's first round in December.
"Let's build together a more prosperous Croatia... that will look forward not backwards," the country's first female president said after voting in Zagreb.
Dominating in cities, Milanovic, 53, led the first round with around a 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.
Turnout was at nearly 44 percent two-and-a-half hours before the polls were to close, the electoral commission said. It was about five percentage points less compared with the 2014 vote.
The vote is seen as a key test for the ruling HDZ party of moderate Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic ahead of parliamentary elections later this year.
Loss of presidency by Grabar-Kitarovic would deal a heavy blow to the HDZ, analysts said.
Unity, patriotism and references to the 1990s independence war that remains an emotive issue, were the key points her re-election bid.
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, premier from 2011 until 2016 whose government failed to push through much-needed reforms, is trying to make a political comeback and throw off a reputation as arrogant and elitist.
The ruling HDZ hoped to keep Grabar-Kitarovic in office during the country's EU presidency where four main issues are likely to dominate — the bloc's relationship with the UK after Brexit; the membership bids of Western Balkan states; climate change; and the bloc's budget framework for the next decade.
The Adriatic country joined the EU in 2013, but its economy, strongly relying on tourism, remains one of the bloc's weakest.
EU's open borders also accelerated the exodus of its people to seek better pay in wealthier member states.
Many emigrants also cite corruption, nepotism and poor public services as reasons for leaving.
"Politicians are wrangling about the past and insignificant issues while my generation is leaving," said Maja Maric, a 20-year-old economy student. She said she voted for a "lesser evil". — AFP
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