Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, Croatia‘s conservative president, has narrowly made it to a runoff election against Zoran Milanovic, a left-wing former prime minister.
The vote on Sunday was held just days before Croatia takes over the European Union‘s presidency for the first time.
The governing conservatives are hoping to keep their grip on power ahead of assuming the EU chairmanship.
The hotly contested first-round vote signalled the appeal of populism in a Balkan country struggling with an influx of migrants at its borders, an emigration exodus and widespread corruption.
With nearly all ballots counted, Milanovic took the lead with 29.56 percent of the vote, according to the electoral commission.
Incumbent Grabar-Kitarovic garnered 26.7 percent, eking out a second-place finish just two points ahead of 57-year-old far-right singer Miroslav Skoro.
Skoro, whose patriotic folk tunes were a hit in the 1990s, won nearly a quarter of the vote with campaign promises such as pardoning a notorious war criminal and deploying troops to stop refugees and migrants at the border.
That left Grabar-Kitarovic without the hardline segment of her centre-right HDZ party’s base.
Grabar-Kitarovic, 51, became Croatia’s first female president – a largely ceremonial role – in 2015 with the backing of HDZ, which has led Croatia for most of the past 30 years.
During her mandate, she has often wavered between representing moderates and pandering to the nationalist faction.
Now she faces the tough task of uniting the two wings of the party in the runoff on January 5.
If she fails, analysts say it would spell trouble for HDZ’s moderate Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic when he faces general elections next year.
In the meantime, his government will be tasked with holding the EU presidency for a six-month term, with thorny issues like Brexit and the Western Balkans’ membership bids on the agenda.
“Croatia went to the right and it is reflected in the elections,” said political analyst Tihomir Cipek, adding it mirrored trends in other parts of Europe.
“The radical right showed its force … We will see whether it will be repeated in the parliamentary elections,” he added.
The left, meanwhile, rallied around Milanovic, a 53-year-old who served as prime minister from 2011 to 2016 and hails from Croatia’s Social Democrat opposition.
Considered driven by supporters, he has been trying to make a comeback with a promise to make Croatia a “normal” liberal democracy with an independent judiciary and respect for minorities.
While the split right-wing opened a way for his rise in the first round, he will face a tougher race if HDZ manages to unite its party for the runoff.
Croatia may be a magnet for tourists, but it is no paradise for locals who are fed up with a sluggish economy and rampant corruption.
And yet the campaign was light on policy ideas with many candidates instead attacking each other with war-era grievances.
“They stole the space for issues of vital importance for most people’s lives, including the young who are leaving in increasing numbers,” lamented Matija Horvat, a 27-year-old economist.
The government has struggled in particular to curb the outflow of Croatians who are packing their bags for better pay and professional opportunities in wealthier EU states.
Many who leave also cite the culture of nepotism and corruption at home, plus poor public services, as key motivations.
Labour gaps have started to affect key industries like tourism, which accounts for a fifth of Croatia’s gross domestic product.
At the same time, authorities have taken a hardline stance against refugees and migrants.