Croatia`s centre-left President Ivo Josipovic and his conservative rival Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic will face off in a run-off vote on January 11 after neither candidate won an outright majority in the first round, exit polls showed Sunday.
In a neck-and-neck race, Josipovic garnered 38.9 percent of the vote compared to Grabar-Kitarovic`s 38.1 percent, according to exit polls released by the national HRT and Nova television stations immediately after polling stations closed.
Josipovic -- the popular third president of the former Yugoslav republic since its independence in 1991 -- is a member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the main partner in the ruling coalition.
His opponent in the tight race belongs to the main opposition HDZ party.
The election for the largely ceremonial post comes as the European Union`s newest member is struggling with a deep economic crisis.
The other two presidential candidates, rightist Milan Kujundzic and activist Ivan Vilibor Sincic, garnered 5.7 and 15.6 percent of the vote respectively, exit polls by the Ipsos Puls agency showed.
Sincic, a 24-year-old student activist who has pledged to "liberate Croatia from tycoons and bankers", has been the big surprise of the campaign despite being a political newcomer.
Analysts say he struck a chord with voters disenchanted with the political elite and looking for change.