Croatians vote for president to lead EU entry

Croatia moved into election gear on the eve of Sunday’s presidential run-off vote pitting a leftwing professor against the populist Zagreb mayor, with the winner expected to lead the former Yugoslav republic into the European Union.

Campaigning is traditionally banned on the last day before the vote but on Friday a final poll showed a solid lead of almost 17 percent for Ivo Josipovic, of the opposition Social Democrats (SDP) against his rival, Zagreb mayor Milan Bandic, running as an independent.

Josipovic won the December 27 first round with 33.4 percent of the vote, more than double the support for Bandic.

The 52-year-old law expert and classical music composer, vowed to lead a “firm and uncompromised fight against corruption,” a key criteria for Zagreb’s EU bid.

Croatia hopes to become the bloc’s 28th member by 2012.

Bandic, a veteran SDP member expelled from the party when he announced his candidacy for the presidency last November, called the electorate “vote for a man and not for a party.”

“Say ‘Yes’ for a Croatia of work, unity, dignity and pride,” the 54-year-old said at the end of a debate.

He mounted a last minute attack on Josipovic by suggesting a vote for the leftwing candidate would mean a choice for a communist “red Croatia”. However observers noted that Bandic himself also emerged from the former communist SDP party.

During the campaign, which ended at midnight Friday, the two contenders pledged a similar agenda — the country’s EU entry, the fight against corruption and revival of the recession-hit economy.

Despite the candidates’ wide-ranging pledges, a Croatian president has limited powers, curtailed by the incumbent Stipe Mesic who steps down on February 18 after serving the maximum two terms.

Voter Milena Panic, a librarian, told AFP Saturday she backed Josipovic, explaining that she saw him as a “a decent and civilised man.” Another voter, Marko Zeljeznak, however said Josipovic was “distant” while his choice Bandic understood “us, ordinary people.”

The president of the former Yugoslav republic that proclaimed independence in 1991, is the supreme commander of the army, helps shape foreign policy and takes part in the nomination of secret service chiefs.

Despite a similar platform Bandic and Josipovic have opposite images and view points, which analysts say led to polarisation between a “civil left or a nationalism playing with rightwing sentiments, modern or a conservative Croatia.”

According to analysts Josipovic has a reputation as a competent mister Clean, untarnished by corruption scandals that have engulfed Croatian politics. But the bookish professor has trouble stirring up the popular vote, they warn.

By contrast the energetic and outspoken Bandic has styled himself a fighter for the common man and tried to lure rightwing voters to try and bridge the gap with Josipovic.

Bandic is counting on the votes of supporters of the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), whose candidate did not make it into the run-off.

He is also very popular among the some 268,000 ethnic Croats living in Bosnia who are entitled to vote in the presidential elections.

The devoutly religious mayor, who said spends more time reading prayer books than the constitution, also enjoys the backing of Croatia’s powerful Catholic Church.

During debates Bandic made several gaffes about foreign policy and independent observers point to allegations about suspected links with corruption in the capital, all of which could work against him.

A total of 4.4 million Croatians are entitled to vote. The polling stations open at 7 am (0600 GMT) and close twelve hours later. Exit polls are to be released shortly after polls close, with the first official results expected by midnight.

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