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Croatia’s President Heads to Runoff as Voters Weigh Her Links to Mayor

Jasmina Kuzmanovic

(Bloomberg) -- Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic will face a runoff against a former prime minister in her bid for re-election in the European Union’s newest member-state.

With almost all votes counted from Sunday’s first round, the incumbent had 26.7%, while ex-Premier Zoran Milanovic was ahead with 29.5%.

A decider between the top two candidates will be held Jan. 5 as no one reached the 50% threshold for outright victory. Kitarovic could expect to win support from voters who backed third-placed nationalist Miroslav Skoro, though her head-to-head contest with Milanovic is likely to be tight.

“That may not be enough,” said Tvrtko Jakovina, a contemporary history professor at the University of Zagreb. “It will be a very uncertain race, and a lot will depend on who does well in the TV debate.”

While the president’s role is largely ceremonial, a new term for Kitarovic would strengthen the government of her ally, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic as he tries to pep up an economy that’s trailing other eastern European peers EU after years of stagnation.

The Adriatic nation of 4.2 million people, which joined the EU in 2013, is pushing to adopt the euro and will host the bloc’s rotating presidency in the first half of next year.

Kitarovic, a former NATO executive, has carefully built an image as a globe-trotting diplomat and was also the face of Croatia during the national soccer team’s historic run to the World Cup final last year.

But her support dipped in recent weeks after a video surfaced of her handing a cake and singing ‘happy birthday’ to Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandic, who’s at the center of a scandal over preferential access at the capital’s Christmas market.

Milanovic, from the opposition Social Democrats, is running on a center-left platform, rejecting extreme nationalism and advocating a “normal” Croatia. He served as prime minister from 2011 until his party lost an election in 2015. Part of his time as premier was during Croatia’s worst-ever recession.

Aware he’ll need backing from beyond his core supporters to defeat the incumbent, Milanovic was similarly conciliatory.

“My goal is to work not only for those who voted for me, but also for others,” he said.

(Updates with almost full results, Milanovic comments.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Jasmina Kuzmanovic in Zagreb at jkuzmanovic@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrea Dudik at adudik@bloomberg.net, Andrew Langley

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