Croatian president to face leftist ex-PM in run-off

ZAGREB - Croatia's conservative president narrowly made it to a run-off election against a leftist former premier on Sunday, after a nationalist folk singer won over a large chunk of her camp's far-right wing. The hotly contested first round vote signaled the appeal of populism in a Balkan country struggling with an influx of migrants at its borders, an emigration exodus and widespread corruption. It also leaves Croatia waiting to know who will be head of state as the country takes over the European Union's rotating presidency in the new year. With nearly all ballots counted, center-left former prime minister Zoran Milanovic took the lead with 29.5 percent of the vote, according to the electoral commission. Incumbent President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic garnered 26.6 percent, eking out a second place finish just two points ahead of 57-year-old far-right singer Miroslav Skoro. Skoro, whose patriotic folk tunes were a hit in the 1990s, won nearly a quarter of the vote with campaign promises such as pardoning a notorious war criminal and deploying troops to stop migrants at the border. Though Skoro's nationalist pledges didn't push him to round two, analysts said the strong showing revealed a clear shift to the right among Croatia's electorate. As Grabar-Kitarovic addressed supporters late Sunday, the 51-year-old urged them to unite for the run-off on January 5. "Now we have to get together and let's go for a victory!" she said, this time describing her opponent Skoro as a "co-candidate on my political spectrum". Grabar-Kitarovic became Croatia's first female president -- a largely ceremonial role -- in 2015 with the backing of the center-right HDZ, which has led Croatia for most of the past three decades. She has often wavered between representing moderates and pandering to the nationalist faction. If she fails to unite the two wings of the party in the run-off, analysts say it would spell trouble for HDZ's moderate Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic when he faces general elections next year. "The radical right showed its force," said political analyst Tihomir Cipek, adding it mirrored trends in other parts of Europe. "We will see whether it will be repeated in the parliamentary elections," he said. -AFP