Zagreb: Croatia votes Sunday to elect a president in a run-off between incumbent centre-left Ivo Josipovic and conservative Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, both pledging to help kickstart the newest EU member`s ailing economy.
A tight fight is expected, as was seen in the first-round balloting for the largely ceremonial post two weeks ago when there was just one percent difference in the candidates` vote tallies.
Josipovic, a 57-year-old former law professor and classical music composer, came first with 38.5 percent of ballots, but failed to win an outright majority.
The popular incumbent, who is the third president of the former Yugoslav republic since independence in 1991, is a member of the Social Democrats (SDP), the main force in the ruling coalition.
His rival from the primary opposition party HDZ is an ex-foreign minister and former NATO assistant secretary general, who aims to be Croatia`s first woman president.
Although presidential powers are limited in the Balkan nation, Sunday`s vote is seen as a key test for parliamentary elections later this year in which Grabar-Kitarovic`s HDZ is likely to make significant gains.
Analysts believe the close first-round result reflects dissatisfaction with the SDP-led government`s performance and Josipovic`s failure to criticise its economic policies.
Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic`s government has become hugely unpopular after having failed to revive Croatia`s economy, which has been struggling with recession for the past six years.
Hopes that entry into the European Union would help pump economic vigour into the small Adriatic nation of 4.2 million have faded. Croatia joined the EU in 2013, but its economy remains among the bloc`s weakest. Unemployment is almost 20 percent, every second person under the age of 25 is jobless and the government forecasts a meagre 0.5 percent growth this year.
Analysts say the ruling coalition has failed to reform the huge and inefficient public sector, improve the business climate and attract EU development funds.
Although the country is largely run by the government, the two rivals focused their campaigns on making promises to overcome a grim economic situation.
Josipovic has vowed to initiate constitutional changes -- namely decentralisation of the country -- claiming the reforms would eventually revive the economy.
But the 46-year-old Grabar-Kitarovic, who represents moderates within the HDZ, insists the first-round result showed a desire for change.
She labelled Josipovic the "incapable and cold-hearted government`s accomplice" for the economic hardship.
"To be a president one... has to speak and not remain silent... to call the government to account," the former top diplomat said in a recent television debate. "But this is exactly what you have not been doing during the past five years."
However, Josipovic argued his rival would not bring the change voters seek, given that she was a minister in the graft-plagued HDZ government headed by ex-prime minister Ivo Sanader -- who was tried and jailed for corruption.
"We are in a crisis and we now know why... You were in the government that was robbing Croatia, the government of Ivo Sanader," Josipovic said.
Voting stations were to open at 0600 GMT. First official results were expected around 2100 GMT, three hours after polls close.