Croats vote for new president


Croats were voting for a new president today, with an opposition candidate who pledges to back the European Union candidate country's anti-corruption drive seen as favourite to win most votes in the first round.

The last surveys released before the election gave Social Democrat Ivo Josipovic (52) a clear edge over 11 rivals, but the law professor and composer is unlikely to muster the 50 percent of votes needed for outright victory.

Mr Josipovic, a newcomer with no blemishes in his career but seen as lacking charisma, is likely to face a January 10th run-off against either Milan Bandic, the powerful, populist mayor of Zagreb recently expelled from the Social Democrats, or Nadan Vidosevic, a wealthy businessman and former member of the ruling conservative HDZ party.

By 10am Irish time turnout was 11 per cent, five per cent lower than five years ago. Voting, which includes Croats in neighbouring Bosnia, ends at 6pm, with exit polls released immediately.

Official results are due five hours later.

The president has a say in foreign policy, security and defence, but no power to veto legislation. Diplomats hope he will back the government's renewed efforts to fight corruption and enforce reforms needed to complete EU entry talks in 2010.

The HDZ's candidate, former health minister Andrija Hebrang, will not make it to the second round, according to the surveys, which analysts said reflected the electorate's deep discontent with rising unemployment and low living standards.

The winner will replace veteran reformer Stjepan Mesic, whose second five-year term expires in February. All leading candidates back Croatia's efforts to join the EU, a goal Zagreb aims to achieve during the new president's mandate, in 2012.

The election comes at a time when prime minister Jadranka Kosor's cabinet has stepped up efforts to fight corruption, with several high-level investigations in state companies under way.

"I expect to cooperate well with a new president, on the basis of mutual respect and tolerance, on the tasks which we have in common," Ms Kosor told reporters after casting her vote.

Led by its first president, the late Franjo Tudjman, Croatia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and fought a four-year war against rebel Serbs backed by Belgrade. The West criticized Tudjman for his hardline nationalist policies and mishandled privatisation of state companies.

The HDZ has been in power almost the entire period since independence. The Social Democrats ruled only from 2000 to 2003, when they started reforms and set the country on course towards NATO and EU membership.

The HDZ's rating sank after prime minister Ivo Sanader, the country's dominant political figure, unexpectedly quit in July without giving reasons. Economic woes and corruption further pushed voters towards opposition candidates despite the new prime minister's relatively positive image, analysts say.