ZAGREB – Croatia will hold the first round of presidential elections on Sunday amid a wave of conservative nationalism that is sweeping across the Balkan state.
As campaigning came to a close on Friday, three clear candidates have emerged ahead of the ballot.
Incumbent Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, of the conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), could obtain between 25.3 and 28.3 percent of votes, according to the polls.
Zoran Milanovic, who served as prime minister between 2011-2016 with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) has been projected to take around 26 percent of votes, polls suggested.
The HDZ and SDP have dominated Croatian politics since the country gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
Independent Miroslav Skoro, a popular singer and former militant of the HDZ who is being propped up by ultra-right-wing nationalists, could grab 23.7 percent of the ballot.
If none of the candidates achieve an absolute majority, something that seems likely, the two candidates with the largest vote share will face off in a second-round slated for Jan. 5.
Polls have said that if Milanovic and Grabar-Kitarovic reach the second round, the conservatives will win the elections.
“It is almost certain that Milanovic cannot win in the second round because the left as a whole is weaker than the right,” analyst Zarko Puhovski told the Index information portal.
The election has been dominated by nationalist rhetoric with Grabar-Kitarovic and Skoro in a battle to prove their patriotism to the 3.8 million Croatians who have been called to the ballot.
Grabar-Kitarovic paid tribute on Facebook to Bosnian Croat general Slobodan Praljak who committed suicide two years ago in The Hague after being convicted for war crimes during the 1990s.
Skoro announced he would pardon former commander Tomislav Mercep, who is serving a sentence for the same crime.
The conservative HDZ candidate pledged to block Serbia’s access to the EU at the close of her campaign Friday.
“Serbia has to know that it will not receive my green light for the European Union until they give us data on our disappeared” during the war in which Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia.
Grabar-Kitarovic also promised to continue to assert Croatian nationalism over Serbian minorities in the region.
“Until the truth is accepted and recognized, Cyrillic signs cannot be used in Vukovar,” she said about the use of the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet which was used in the city during its occupation at the hands of Serbian rebels until 1996.
The siege of Vokodar ended and the city returned to Croatian rule under the mediation of the United Nations, with the commitment to respect the rights of the Serbian minority.
Croatians and Serbo-Croatians are both accused of crimes during the war.
Milanovic, the progressive voice during the electoral campaign, warned that those who “swear to be patriots” only want to steal “from the pockets” of voters.
The Social Democratic candidate defends a “normal” Croatia, and has made calls for tolerance and spoken out against hatred and corruption.
During his time as prime minister, he rolled out a bill to allow official signs in Latin and Cyrillic in Vukovar, but it was met with an ultra-nationalist backlash and protests.
The electoral campaign has been marked by several controversies affecting Grabar-Kitarovic.
The conservative delivered a cake to the mayor of Zagreb Milan Bandic for his birthday, and despite being accused of corruption she later claimed she would continue to take sweets to him if he were sentenced to prison.
Grabar-Kitarovic has appeared disoriented on several occasions and has made implausible promises, like suggesting Croats could earn 8,000 euros via online employment with other countries thanks to supposed agreements she has signed.
Skoro is the only candidate, according to the polls, capable of snatching the presidency off Grabar-Kitarovic in the second round.
The pop-folk musician who is well known for his patriotic songs is the first candidate running without a member of the army in his party.
He presents himself as someone outside the elite and has promised to “return Croatia to the people.”
He has accused traditional parties of corruption and the challenges the country faces.
Croatia is the second poorest member state in the European Union.
Seventy percent of citizens are unhappy about the direction the country is taking.
A victory for Grabar-Kitarovic would reinforce the position of the HDZ for the 2020 general elections.
Croatia will have its first rotating presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2020.