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EU chair Croatia votes in tight presidential runoff

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Voters in Croatia on Sunday cast ballots to choose a new president in a fiercely contested runoff race, with a liberal opposition candidate challenging the conservative incumbent while the country presides over the European Union during a crucial period.

Croatia took over the EU's rotating presidency on Jan. 1. for the first time since joining the bloc in 2013. This means that the EU's newest member state will be tasked with overseeing Britain's divorce from the union on Jan. 31 and the start of post-Brexit talks.

Sunday's runoff presidential vote is expected to be a very tight and unpredictable race. It's being held because none of the candidates won more than half of the votes in the first round on Dec. 22. Current President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic is running for a second term, challenged by leftist former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic.

Milanovic won slightly more votes than Grabar Kitarovic in the first round but analysts have warned there is no clear favorite in the runoff and that each vote counts. There are 3.8 million voters in Croatia, a country of 4.2 million that is also a member of NATO.

The two candidates represent the two main political options in Croatia: Grabar Kitarovic is backed by the governing, conservative Croatian Democratic Union, a dominating political force since the country split from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, while Milanovic enjoys support from the leftist Social Democrats and their liberal allies.

Even though the presidency is largely ceremonial in Croatia, Sunday's election is important as a test ahead of parliamentary elections expected later this year. Milanovic's victory over Grabar Kitarovic would rattle the conservative government during the crucial EU presidency and weaken its grip on power in an election year.

While starting out stronger, support for Grabar Kitarovic had been slashed following a series of gaffes in the election campaign. The 51-year-old had a career in diplomacy and in NATO before becoming Croatia's first female president in 2015. Going into the runoff vote, Grabar Kitarovic evoked the Croatian unity during the 1991-95 war in a bid to attract far-right votes to her side.

The 53-year-old Milanovic is leading the struggling liberals' bid to regain clout in the predominantly right-leaning nation. Prone to populist outbursts while prime minister, Milanovic lost popularity after the ouster of his government in 2016. He now says he has learned from the experience and matured. Milanovic has urged the voters to give him a chance to surprise them.

Though a member of the EU, Croatia is still coping with graft and economic woes, partly because of the consequences of the 1991-95 conflict that erupted because of Croatia's decision to leave the Serb-led Yugoslav federation. The Catholic Church plays an important role in the society.

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