Zagreb: Croats voted for a new president on Sunday, with an opposition candidate who promises to back the government`s reform and anti-corruption drives well placed for victory.
Social Democrat Ivo Josipovic, a 52-year-old law professor and composer who convincingly beat 11 candidates in the first round on December 27, has held a solid lead in opinion polls over maverick Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandic.
Both men support Croatia`s aim to complete European Union entry talks this year and to join the bloc in 2011 or 2012. Fighting corruption is a main requirement that Zagreb has to meet, as well as overhauling its judiciary and public administration.
The last published polls gave Josipovic 52 to 55 percent of the vote, compared with up to 45 percent for Bandic, but the Zagreb mayor who is running as an independent has refused to throw in the towel.
"The final battle is on Sunday and I expect to win," said Bandic, who was due to cast his ballot soon after the polls opened at 0600 GMT, just before campaigning ended on Friday.
Polling stations close at 1800 GMT with exit polls due immediately afterwards and official results expected five hours later.
Bandic has staged a late charge, winning support from the powerful Roman Catholic church and many war veterans, contrasting his image as a self-made man who is close to the people to Josipovic`s academic and relatively wealthy background.
He also played up fears of a "return to communism" under Josipovic, a message aimed at conservative voters, who are traditionally reluctant to back a left-leaning candidate because of the country`s past as part of communist Yugoslavia.
The mild-mannered, bespectacled Josipovic, whose anti-corruption platform won over many urban and liberal voters, has in turn accused Bandic of malpractice in his Zagreb administration, though no such charges have been pressed to date.
Bandic, expelled from the Social Democrats for insisting on running, prides himself on Zagreb`s revamped public services and says he will work even harder if he wins.
Despite the mud-slinging campaign, many ordinary Croats said they were unperturbed by ideology and only wanted a better life, after the hardship of the economic crisis in 2009.
"The president has such small powers, all this talk about communists and patriots is nonsense, particularly when you`re my age," said Stefanija, a 65-year old pensioner in Zagreb. "What matters is that he is a decent man, that he monitors the government`s work and makes proposals to help us live better."
The president will succeed veteran reformer Stjepan Mesic, whose second five-year term ends in February, and will have limited powers over foreign policy, defence and the intelligence services but none over the economy or legislation.