Croatian president, former PM in presidential run-off on Jan. 5

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Croatian president, former PM in presidential run-off on Jan. 5

Presidential election in Croatia

ZAGREB (Reuters) - The Socialist Democrats' candidate and former prime minister Zoran Milanovic came first in the first round of Croatia's presidential election, the State Electoral Commission said on Sunday after 99% of votes were counted.

Milanovic got 29.5% of the votes ahead of incumbent center-right president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, the candidate of the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), with 26.7%. Independent candidate Miroslav Skoro, a popular singer with conservative nationalist-leaning views came in third with 24.4% of votes.

Milanovic and Grabar-Kitarovic will face in a run-off on Jan. 5, 2020.

The presidential role is to a large extent ceremonial as the head of state cannot veto laws, but has a say in foreign policy and defense matters. The president has a five-year term with the next one starting in February 2020.

Despite her second place in the first round Grabar-Kitarovic, whose first term in office some observers assessed as rather bland with little policy substance and a lot of populist patriotic rhetoric, seems to be the favorite in the second round.

"Skoro's right wing voters are unlikely to support Milanovic, so Grabar-Kitarovic seems set to rely on a larger pool of potential voters in the second round," said political analyst Davor Gjenero.

The second round pits the candidates of the two biggest parties in a year when Croatia will also hold parliamentary elections, most likely in the autumn.

(Reporting by Igor Ilic; Editing by Sandra Maler)