ZAGREB, Croatia -- Croatia's conservative president will face a liberal former prime minister in a runoff election early next month after no candidate won an outright majority in a first round of voting Sunday, near-complete results showed.
The vote was held just days before Croatia takes over the European Union’s presidency for the first time. The governing conservatives are hoping to to keep their grip on power ahead of assuming the EU chairmanship.
Left-wing former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic led the field with nearly 30% of the votes in preliminary returns. President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic had almost 27%, the state election authorities said after counting almost all ballots.
Right-wing singer Miroslav Skoro was in third place with around 24%.
Some 3.8 million voters in the EU's newest member country chose from among 11 candidates in Sunday's election, but only the top three finishers had been considered serious contenders.
Milanovic and Grabar Kitarovic now will face each other in a second round of voting Jan. 5.
Although the incumbent finished second in the first round, analysts said Grabar Kitarovic could be considered a favorite in the runoff because other right-leaning challengers would no longer be in contention.
Addressing supporters, Grabar Kitarovic called for all those on the right to unite behind her candidacy in the second round. She described the first round as a “10 on 1 battle.”
“Unlike Mr. Milanovic, I had a tough fellow-candidate at my political specter,” Grabar Kitarovic said. “Now, we must all gather together and go for a victory!”
Milanovic, too, said he can win and called for a “civilized civic match” and not a battle, referring to traditionally deep divisions in Crotia between the political left and right.
“We are going to the second round, not a war," he said. “Let the better one of us win and I believe I am better.”
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, known as HDZ, as Croatia prepares for its six-month term in the EU presidency. The job will include overseeing Britain's departure from the bloc, expected to take place Jan. 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 gaffes. The 51-year-old incumbent is known for flirting with the extreme right while seeking also to portray herself as a peoples' president.
Milanovic promised during the campaign to turn Croatia into a “normal,” tolerant country.
Although Croatia has recovered since the devastating 1991-95 war that followed the breakup of former Yugoslavia, it still is one of the poorest nations in the EU and corruption is believed to be widespread.
The nation of 4.2 million people is best known for its stunning Adriatic Sea coast, which includes over 1,000 islands and picturesque coastal towns such as the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik.
Critics blasted the government for setting the election date three days before Christmas, a time when many people travel abroad. The governing HDZ party, they said, counted on the support from Croats who live abroad and normally flock home for the holidays.
Analysts said the strong showing by the right-wing Skoro party signaled that the governing HDZ had lost some support among party followers ahead of a parliamentary election set for next year.