Zoran Milanović, the candidate for Croatia's centre-left Social Democratic Party, won the country's presidential race on Sunday, beating incumbent Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović.
With 99% of the vote counted, former Croatian PM Milanovic had 53% while Grabar-Kitarovic, the country’s first female head of state when she won five years ago, had 47%.
The result is a blow for the ruling conservatives at a time Croatia holds the European Union’s rotating presidency and before a parliamentary election later this year.
Milanovic's team and supporters at his election headquarters were jubilant after the exit poll tally was published. Milanovic himself thanked his supporters and campaign volunteers, stopping short of declaring victory.
"Thanks to all the volunteers, all of you who supported me during the past six months," Milanovic wrote on Facebook.
Apparently shaken, Grabar-Kitarovic congratulated Milanovic, but unlike her opponent, insisted on a nationalist message, referring to a united Croatia based on the war in the 1990′s that followed the country’s split from the former Yugoslavia.
“This is the Croatian state, created in blood, defended in blood and carried in love,” said Grabar Kitarovic in a trembling voice. “Let it remain so.”
Milanovic's win is a rare victory for a left-wing official to a major post in central Europe where populists and conservatives have been winning elections in recent years.
He won slightly more votes than Grabar-Kitarovic in the first round. There are 3.8 million voters in Croatia, a country of 4.2 million that is also a member of NATO.
The two candidates represent the two main political options in Croatia. Grabar-Kitarovic was backed by the governing, conservative Croatian Democratic Union, a dominating political force since the country declared independence in 1991. Milanovic enjoyed support from the leftist Social Democrats.
It comes just days after the country took over the presidency of the European Union on January 1, meaning the winner will be a key figure on the European stage just as the bloc wrestles with the accession of Albania and North Macedonia and the departure of Britain.
Members of the European Commission are due to visit Zagreb on Thursday (January 9).
The runoff falls in the middle of a winter holiday week in which thousands of Croatians traditionally head across the border to Italy to ski, although it is unclear how this would impact the result.
Social media users have been tracking the election with the hashtag #izboriRH
Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, a former Croatian ambassador to the United States, was running for a second term as the candidate for the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which is allied to the European People's Party (EPP) in the European Parliament.
The 51-year-old became the country’s first post-independence female president in 2015 and also the youngest.
She has two children, including a daughter who is a professional figure skater, speaks multiple languages and is a practising Catholic who opposes same-sex marriage,
Her opponent was Zoran Milanović, a former prime minister of Croatia and former leader (until 2016) of the centre-left Social Democratic Party of Croatia (SDP), which is part of the Party of European Socialists (PES) in the European parliament.
Like Grabar-Kitarović, the 53-year-old is also a former diplomat, having worked in the Croatian foreign ministry before entering politics. He was also an advisor at the Croatian Mission to the European Union and NATO in Brussels and has a master's degree in EU law.
In December, he became the first presidential candidate in Croatian history to acquire more votes in the first round of an election than the incumbent president.
As prime minister, Milanović introduced liberal reforms including health education in schools and an expansion of rights for same-sex couples.
What happened in the first round?
Milanovic came out ahead in the first round, trailed by Grabar-Kitarovic.
Both saw off a significant challenge from anti-establishment independent candidate Miroslav Škoro, a former folk singer and nationalist who had pledged to "give Croatia back to the people”.
Škoro won 24.44% of the vote, which he described as a “historic result” that proved most voters were unhappy with the current Croatian government.
What does the Croatian president do?
It is a largely ceremonial post compared to the prime minister, who holds more actual power, yet the president still formally commands the army and represents the country abroad.
However, the president is chosen by a direct public vote, which gives the head of state additional political weight and an important voice on key topics in society.
In particular, the president will be a visible figure during Croatia’s EU presidency.
The EU presidency rotates among the bloc's 28 members every six months. For Croatia, which only joined the EU in 2013 and remains its newest member, this is the country's first time at the helm. It’s six-month term began on January 1.
Croatia’s HDZ prime minister Andrej Plenkovic said he will try to restart European Union membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia, which were blocked by France in October.
"We will do our best to overcome problems and unblock the process that was held back at the summit in October 2019,'' Plenkovic on Wednesday.
If Brexit goes as planned and the UK leaves the EU on January 31, Croatia's task will be to coordinate efforts within the EU to outline a framework proposal for future agreements with Britain.
“That is our job,'' he said. ‘’And we have already started working on it. Together with (chief EU Brexit negotiator) Michel Barnier.”
Croatia country profile
Home to 4.2 million people, Croatia joined the EU after coming out of the Yugoslav wars of independence in the early 1990s that left over 10,000 people dead.
It is best known for its Adriatic Sea coast, dotted with hundreds of islands and the walled city of Dubrovnik.
Its economy is performing better than most of southeastern Europe but lags behind the EU average. However, Croatia is on track to join Europe's border-free Schengen Area and to adopt the euro as the country's main currency.
The 1990s war remains a politically relevant topic in Croatia, a predominantly conservative nation where the Catholic Church plays an important role.
_Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Zoran Milanović was the leader of the Social Democratic Party. He is in fact the party's candidate and former leader. Davor Bernardić is the incumbent president of the SDP. _