With nearly all the ballots counted, former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, backed by centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP), came out on top in the first round of Croatia's presidential election with 29.5 percent of votes, followed by the incumbent conservative Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic with 26.7 percent. The two will go head to head in the run-off on January 5.
Grabar-Kitarovic, supported by the ruling centre-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), was given a slight edge in the polls over Milanovic in the days before the election, but projections released on Sunday after the polls were closed gave advantage to Milanovic, who held onto it throughout the evening.
Singer Miroslav Skoro, who ran as an independent endorsed by right-wing groups, did not manage to overtake Grabar-Kitarovic and remained in third place with some 24 percent of votes.
"What must happen will happen in two weeks. I believe in victory. I am not bitter, I am not afraid,“ said Zoran Milanovic in his victory speech.
"I believe I am mature and prepared enough to do this job in good faith. This is more than a job, this is a way of life. In the Croatia in which I am President, no one will feel less valued," he added.
"This was a battle of one against ten. Unlike Zoran Milanovic, I had strong competition in my own political spectrum (Miroslav Skoro), but now we must all unite and win,“ Grabar-Kitarovic said in her speech.
The role of the President is a largely ceremonial one in Croatia, and the next head of state will begin their five-year term in February next year.
Other candidates include former judge and MEP Mislav Kolakusic, who won 5.8 percent of votes, film director who ran on a satirical pro-corruption platform, Dario Jurican (4.5 percent), former chair of the Conflict of Interest Commission, Dalija Oreskovic (2.8 percent), anti-establishment MP Ivan Pernar (2.3 percent), left-wing activist Katarina Peovic (1.1 percent), economist Dejan Kovac (0.9 percent), right-wing former MP Anto Djapic (0.2 percent), and former mayor of the small northwestern town of Klanjec, Nedjeljko Babic (0.1 percent).