Zoran Milanovic, a leftist former prime minister, won Croatia’s presidential election on Sunday, ousting Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, the sitting president, in a run-off vote.
With more than 99 per cent of the ballots counted, Mr Milanovic won almost 53 per cent of the vote, while Ms Grabar-Kitarovic received 47 per cent.
“If this narrow but fair and clear victory brought a little faith and a little spirit into this society of ours and among these people, I am a happy man, and let us rejoice together!” Mr Milanovic told a crowd of supporters in Zagreb.
Ms Grabar-Kitarovic was initially favoured to win the race, so Mr Milanovic’s victory is a blow to her and her centre-right party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), ahead of parliamentary elections late this year. It also comes at an awkward time for the leader of HDZ, Andrej Plenkovic, the prime minister, five days after Croatia took the helm of the rotating EU presidency. During its six-month term, Zagreb may play a crucial role in negotiating Brexit, overseeing internal EU reforms, and the bloc’s budget for the next seven years.
Mr Grabar-Kitarovic ran a gaffe-ridden campaign and was widely scorned in the days ahead of Sunday’s vote for promoting an endorsement from a nationalist who was convicted of hijacking a plane in America in 1976.
“This is a big win for Mr Milanovic, who came in as an outsider and ran a solid campaign,” said Tena Prelec, a researcher in the department of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford.
Mr Milanovic, a Social Democrat who served as premier from 2011 to 2015, will have a largely ceremonial role, including presiding over the armed forces and sharing foreign policy duties with the premier. He pledged to co-operate with Mr Plenkovic and anyone who might succeed him during his five-year presidential term.
“I will work with anyone who leads this country with good intentions. I was in that position [of premier], and I have no pretensions to power,” he said.
However, Mr Milanovic’s victory represents a challenge to the power of Mr Plenkovic within the government and within his own party, which is deeply divided between far-right and centre-right factions.
HDZ was rocked when folk singer Miroslav Skoro won 24 per cent of the votes in the first-round ballot in late December after waging a nationalist, anti-establishment campaign. Observers say that Ms Grabar-Kitarovic’s loss could embolden the far-right wing of the party.
Ms Grabar-Kitarovic had been expected to win the race with the votes that went to Mr Skoro in the first round, but turnout dipped in regions that Mr Skoro won handily two weeks ago.
However, Ms Prelec said it would be wrong to read Mr Skoro’s first-round tally and Ms Grabar-Kitarovic’s loss as a turn towards the hard right in Croatia. Rather, it should be seen as the “continuation of a long search for an anti-mainstream option that would break out of the duopoly of the HDZ and the Social Democrats”.
Speaking after Ms Grabar-Kitarovic’s concession speech, Mr Plenkovic rebuffed journalists’ questions about the party’s divisions, saying that the party would remain focused on “centre-right Christian values” .