(Bloomberg) -- Croatians shot down President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic’s bid for a second term, electing the prime minister who led the nation into the European Union to rebalance politics in the bloc’s newest member.
Zoran Milanovic, who ran the Adriatic state’s government from 2011 to 2015, won 52.7% of votes in Sunday’s presidential runoff. Kitarovic, a former NATO executive whose popularity unexpectedly plummeted in the last weeks of the campaign after she was tied to the scandal-plagued mayor of Zagreb, got 47.3%.
Kitarovic’s defeat could spell trouble for her ally Andrej Plenkovic, the current prime minister, before general elections in the fall and just after his government took over the EU’s rotating presidency. While she reached out to voters embracing anti-immigrant positions seen in fellow EU states Poland and Hungary, Milanovic vowed to reject extremism, fight graft, and stop the outflow of young people who have left Croatia to seek better lives in western Europe.
“This is the victory for everyone, not only for those who are ethnic Croats, but for all citizens,” Milanovic told cheering supporters in Zagreb. “In my term, I’ll try to listen to everyone, and try not to hurt anyone, because we’re all different.”
While the president’s role is largely ceremonial, the office commands the armed forces and decides over foreign-policy appointments with the premier. It also provides a political platform and Milanovic’s opposition-leading Social Democratic party is looking for any edge it can get over Plenkovic’s conservative Croatian Democratic Union.
“The result is a big blow to right-wing voters,” said Nenad Zakosek, political science professor at the University of Zagreb.
The rivals also differed on who the nation’s biggest ally is. While Kitarovic said it was the U.S., and touted when she met President Donald Trump, Milanovic said Croatia depended most on ties with the EU.
But the main issue before the presidential vote was corruption, and Kitarovic’s campaign suffered after she was filmed singing Happy Birthday and giving a cake to Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandic. He’s fighting graft accusations over the granting of preferential access to stalls at Zagreb’s Christmas market.
The accusations, which Bandic denies, come at a sensitive time for former Yugoslav republic of 4.2 million, which joined the EU in 2013 and took over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency on Jan. 1. During the term, it will organize meetings that may decide important issues including Brexit and the bloc’s next seven-year budget.
The bloc is scrutinizing Croatia’s readiness to adopt the euro and join Schengen, the EU’s passport-free travel zone. Graft concerns delayed similar efforts in nearby Bulgaria, adding pressure to Croatia, which is ranked fifth-worst in the EU by Transparency International.
Turnout increased in the second round of voting to 55%, indicating that the general elections will be a tough battle between the nation’s two main political parties.
“With Milanovic’s victory, we now have a new situation, with a lot of uncertainty before parliamentary elections later this year,” said Zakosek.
(Updates with turnout and analyst quote in last two paragraphs.)
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