The Socialist Democrats candidate Zoran Milanovic was leading in the first round of Croatia‘s presidential election, the State Electoral Commission said in its preliminary results on Sunday.
After 58 percent of votes were counted, Milanovic got 30.8 percent of the votes ahead of incumbent centre-right president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic with 27.5 percent, indicating that the election would likely head to a decisive second-round runoff vote on January 5.
An independent candidate Miroslav Skoro, a popular singer with conservative nationalist-leaning voters is third with 23 percent of votes.
Election authorities said turnout was higher than during the last election in 2014, with some 100,000 more voters having cast ballots by mid-afternoon despite the bad weather.
Croatia’s presidency is largely ceremonial. The office holder formally commands the army and represents the country abroad.
But retaining the post is important for the ruling Croatian Democratic Union party, whose government is set to assume the European Union chairmanship on January 1.
The EU job will include overseeing Britain’s departure from the bloc, expected on January 31, and the start of post-Brexit trade talks.
Grabar Kitarovic started off her campaign looking strong but her position weakened after a series of errors.
“We are deciding in which direction Croatia will go,” Kitarovic said upon voting in Zagreb, the capital.
The 51-year-old incumbent is known for flirting with the far right while seeking also to portray herself as the peoples’ president.
Milanovic during the campaign promised to turn Croatia into a “normal” tolerant country, while Skoro played an anti-establishment, nationalist card.
Although Croatia has recovered since the devastating 1991-95 war that followed the breakup of former Yugoslavia, it is still one of the poorest nations in the EU and corruption is believed to be widespread.
The first preliminary official results are expected at 19:00 GMT (8pm local time). The first two out of 11 candidates will go to a second round of voting on January 5, 2020.