ZAGREB: A leftist former prime minister, who has pledged to make Croatia a tolerant country turning the page on its wartime past, has defeated the incumbent conservative in a presidential run-off vote on Sunday, official results showed.

Zoran Milanovic took 53.25 per cent of the vote while President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, who had tried to unite a fractured right-wing, garnered 46.67 per cent, according to results based on vote count at nearly all polling stations released by the electoral commission.

Some 3.8 million people were eligible to vote in a second-round election that was held just days after Croatia took over the European Union’s helm for a six-month period, which will be dominated by Brexit and the bloc’s enlargement.

At the same time, the EU’s newest member is struggling with a mass exodus of its people, corruption and a lacklustre economy at home.

Grabar-Kitarovic campaigned on a slogan promoting “real Croatia”, hinting she believes the ruling conservative HDZ party that backed her was the only one who can truly represent the country.

Milanovic, a former Social Democratic premier, called such statements “very dangerous”, and advocated for a “normal Croatia” as a liberal democracy which promotes equality for all citizens.

“This election is not a showdown with anyone but an attempt to be a normal, decent country,” Milanovic, said after casting his ballot in native Zagreb.

‘Wars are over’

The 53-year-old stressed that the “wars are over”, referring to Croatia’s 1990s independence conflict, and that the country should now fight for its place in Europe.

Grabar-Kitarovic, 51, the country’s first female president, tried to lure back hardliners who had voted for a nationalist folk singer in the presidential election’s first round in December.

She stressed unity, patriotism and references to the 1990s independence war that remains an emotive issue, in her re-election bid.

Dominating in cities, Milanovic had led the first round with about a third of the vote, thanks in part to the split among the right-wingers.

Turnout was at nearly 44 per cent two-and-a-half hours before the polls were to close, the electoral commission said. It was about five percentage points less compared with the 2014 vote.

The election was seen as a key test for the ruling HDZ party of moderate Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic ahead of parliamentary elections later this year. and Grabar-Kitarovic’s loss was seen as a heavy blow.

“It will weaken the (HDZ) party” and harms Plenkovic’s reputation, political analyst Tihomir Cipek said.

The prime minister is facing the discontent of hardliners within the HDZ over his moderate policies.

Grabar-Kitarovic’s defeat also comes after HDZ scored worse-than-expected results in European Parliament elections last year.

Youngsters are leaving

She presented herself as the “woman of the people” with humble farming roots, and is well known for stunts such as singing in public which her critics deride as embarrassing.

She also came under fire for downplaying the crimes committed by Croatia’s World War II pro-Nazi regime.

Meanwhile, Milanovic, premier from 2011 until 2016 whose government failed to push through much-needed reforms, sought to make a political comeback and throw off a reputation as arrogant and elitist.

He will now take office during Croatia’s EU presidency where four main issues are likely to dominate — the bloc’s relationship with the UK after Brexit; the membership bids of Western Balkan states; climate change; and the bloc’s budget framework for the next decade.

The Adriatic country joined the EU in 2013, but its economy, strongly relying on tourism, remains one of the bloc’s weakest.

EU’s open borders also accelerated the exodus of its people to seek better pay in wealthier member states.

Many emigrants also cite corruption, nepotism and poor public services as reasons for leaving.

“Politicians are wrangling about the past and insignificant issues while my generation is leaving,” said Maja Maric, a 20-year-old economy student. She said she voted for a “lesser evil”.