The vote comes at a key time as Croatia is set to assume the six-month rotating EU presidency on January 1.
Eleven candidates will be running in the election but opinion polls suggest a tight three-way race between incumbent President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic of the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) Zoran Milanovic of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP), who previously served as prime minister and independent candidate Miroslav Skoro, a folk singer supported by right-wing parties.
All three challengers are predicted to win between 23 and 25 percent of the votes.
A candidate must win an absolute majority to be declared an outright winner.
If, as expected, no contender exceeds the 50 percent threshold, the top two candidates will advance to a January 5 runoff.
The powers of the president are limited, mostly holding a representative role abroad and serving as the head of the armed forces.
As a result, observers say the presidential campaign has not addressed any serious issues concerning the citizens.
However, the vote comes at a key time as Zagreb is set to assume the six-month rotating European Union presidency on January 1 and will preside over the United Kingdom‘s likely exit from the bloc.
During the election campaign, Grabar-Kitarovic and Skoro tried to appeal to the right wing in several ways.
Earlier this week, Skoro said in a TV interview that he would pardon a convicted war criminal if he won the presidency.
Grabar-Kitarovic stirred controversy earlier this month when she posted a photo on her Instagram account commemorating the death of convicted Bosnian Croat war criminal Slobodan Praljak.
In November 2017, Praljak committed suicide in court after The Hague-based court sentenced him to 20 years for persecuting, expelling and murdering Bosnian Muslims in order to create a “Greater Croatia” as part of a “joint criminal enterprise”.
Her post was met with condemnation, with critics including former Croatian President Jadranka Kosor.
Croatian political analyst Davor Gjenero said Grabar-Kitarovic’s bid to appeal to the right-wing was a “grave mistake” as “it didn’t sit well with centrist voters in Croatia”.
“She forgets that elections are not won from the margins of the political arena not from the left or the right but rather by fighting for centrist voters,” Gjenero said.
“Until war criminals are treated as only war criminals there will be no happiness here.”
Analysts have remarked that even Milanovic, who represents the largest left-wing party, does not offer any political alternative from either Grabar-Kitarovic and Skoro.
“In the 2016 parliamentary elections that he lost, he led the strangest political campaign where he presented himself as the grandson of someone who belonged to the Ustashe” Analysts said.
The Ustashe was a Croatian movement that led the country’s fascist regime, allied with the Nazi Germany during the second world war.
Croatian political analyst Zarko Puhovski said many of Milanovic’s supporters were disappointed because there are no serious left-wing candidates to choose from and the left has consistently been losing elections in the past few years.
Former Croatian presidents Stjepan Mesic and Ivo Josipovic normalised relations with the country’s neighbours an important task following the disastrous breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s war.
But Grabar-Kitarovic’s term has been marked with deteriorating relations with Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Croats account for 15 percent of the 3.5 million population, according to a 2013 census.
Zeljko Komsic, a Croat member of Bosnia’s triumvirate presidency elected in October 2018, remains a point of contention, with many nationalist hardliners accusing him of not being “Croat enough”.
Grabar-Kitarovic and other Croatian politicians have continued to deny his legitimacy, arguing he was heavily supported with votes by Bosniaks who outnumber Croats living in Bosnia’s Federation entity.
Since Grabar-Kitarovic assumed office in 2015, Croatia has been actively lobbying the EU and NATO for support in reforming Bosnia’s electoral law, proposing that votes should only be counted from cantons with a clear Croat majority.
Critics argue the demand for a third electoral unit would be a step towards creating a third Croat entity, further dividing Bosnia, which many Croat political parties and politicians have, for years, been pushing for.
At the start of the election campaign in November, Grabar-Kitarovic pledged at a meeting with Bosnian Croats in the Bosnian city of Mostar that her “concern” for Bosnian Croats will remain her state policy and that she will continue to assure that Bosnian Croats can elect their own representative without anyone outvoting them.
“I will, with your help, continue to be the guarantee that the neglect of Croats won’t be repeated as [was the case] in the 15 long years of two of my predecessors.”
Grabar-Kitarovic and Skoro repeated this message in a live TV debate on Tuesday.
Skoro has gone a step further, saying in an interview this month that if elected, he will “do something no one has done in 20 years”, that is to appoint a special adviser for Bosnia to address the electoral law issue.
According to Gjenero, polemics around the electoral law will not change following the election.
“Whatever the results are, citizens won’t have such a brave president as Mesic, who always repeated this simple, key line to Croats in Bosnia: ‘Sarajevo is your capital city.You have to solve your problems in Sarajevo in unity with Bosniaks’.
Croatian voters will pick new president in three-way race.