Zagreb: Croatians go to the polls on Sunday amid a deepening economic crisis and concerns over high-level corruption to elect a president to steer the Balkans country into the European Union.
A dozen candidates are seeking to replace the popular centrist Stipe Mesic, who during his maximum two five-year terms in office guided the country to a parliamentary democracy following the authoritarian rule of independence leader Franjo Tudjman.
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 dispute with neighbouring Slovenia and the country is unlikely to join the 27-member bloc before 2012.
Polls show that the election is likely to go to a January 10 runoff as none of the 12 candidates is close to the 50 percent support needed for an outright victory.
Ivo Josipovic of the main opposition Social Democrats (SDP) is virtually assured a place in the runoff as polls 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 show the populist Bandic, 54, a former veteran SDP member, is running neck-and-neck with Vidosevic, 49, a former member of the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) who has headed the Croatian Chamber of Commerce since 1995.
Concerns over the economy, which is set to contract by more than five percent this year and experts warn is likely to worsen in 2010, could play to Vidosevic`s advantage.
Consumer spending and industrial output have also been dented, while the country`s debt is climbing.
Croatia`s external debt is expected to reach 42.2 billion euros, or 94 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), this year and could reach 100 percent of GDP in 2010, the central bank has warned.
Eradicating high-level corruption, a long-standing concern of the European Union, has also been a top campaign issue.
In an annual report on countries seeking to join the bloc Brussels warned that although anti-corruption efforts in Croatia were producing initial results "corruption remains prevalent in many areas and tools are not being deployed with sufficient vigour, especially on political corruption."
Over the past few months, Zagreb has launched several corruption probes in state-run companies which are perceived here as hotbeds of corruption, while some dozen officials were detained.
In an unprecedented move, Vice Prime Minister Damir Polancec resigned in October after media reports linked him to a major corruption scandal.
Analysts say the arrival of Jadranka Kosor at the helm of the conservative government after the sudden resignation of her predecessor Ivo Sanader in July also contributed to the crackdown.
Candidates haven`t escaped the taint of corruption either, with independent media criticising Bandic`s alleged links with corruption in the capital and Vidosevic facing questions about the origins of his wealth.
Some 4.4 million people, including more than 400,000 living abroad mostly in neighbouring Bosnia, are eligible to vote.