ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Voters in Croatia on Sunday cast ballots in a tight presidential election, with the ruling conservatives seeking to keep their grip on power days before the country take over the European Union's presidency for the first time.
Some 3.8 million voters in the European Union's newest member state can pick among 11 candidates, but only three are considered to be the front runners while the others are lagging far behind.
Conservative incumbent Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic is running for a second term, challenged by leftist former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic and right-wing singer Miroslav Skoro.
Though the post is largely ceremonial in Croatia — the president formally commands the army and represents the country abroad — keeping the presidency is important for the ruling Croatian Democratic Union party as its government is set to assume the EU rotating chairmanship on Jan. 1 that that will include overseeing Brexit and the start of post-Brexit talks.
Analysts have predicted that a runoff vote will be held in two weeks as none of the candidates is expected to win an outright majority and they are all polling close to one another.
Grabar Kitarovic had started off stronger than other candidates but her position has weakened after the she made a series of gaffes during the campaign.
She is still believed to have a slight lead going into the election, followed closely by Milanovic. Skoro is trailing third, chipping away right-wing votes from Grabar Kitarovic.
Analysts believe that Grabar Kitarovic and Milanovic — who represent two main political options — will face each other in the Jan. 5 runoff, but they haven't completely ruled out an upset by Skoro.
Though it has recovered since the 1991-95 war that followed the breakup of former Yugoslavia, Croatia still has one of the poorest economies in the EU and corruption is believed to be widespread.
Critics have blasted the government for setting the election three days before Christmas when many people travel abroad.
The Adriatic nation of 4.2 million people is best known for its stunning Adriatic Sea coast that includes over 1,000 islands and picturesque coastal towns such as the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik.