ZAGREB (Reuters) - An opposition candidate who pledges to fight corruption — a crucial issue in Croatia’s bid for European Union membership — looks likely to win the country’s presidential election runoff ballot on Sunday.
Social Democrat Ivo Josipovic, a 52-year-old law professor and composer who convincingly beat 11 candidates in the first round on December 27, retained a clear lead in the latest opinion polls over maverick Zagreb mayor Milan Bandic.
Both men support Croatia’s aim of completing EU accession talks this year and joining the bloc in 2011 or 2012.
Opinion polls give Josipovic 52 to 55 percent of the vote, compared to between 38 and 45 percent for Bandic, but the race — which comes as Croatia enters the final stage of its EU accession talks — is far from decided.
Bandic has made up ground on Josipovic and won the support of the powerful Roman Catholic church and many veterans of the 1990s war that broke up the former Yugoslavia.
“The final battle is on Sunday and I expect to win,” Bandic said on Friday.
The last week of the campaign was largely overshadowed by troubles in the ruling conservative HDZ party.
The HDZ, led by popular Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, expelled her predecessor, Ivo Sanader, who announced a political comeback last Sunday with stinging criticism of the party leadership and the government.
Bandic played up fears of a “return to communism” under Josipovic. That message is aimed at conservative voters reluctant to back a left-leaning candidate, given the country’s recent past as part of communist Yugoslavia.
The soft-spoken, bespectacled Josipovic, whose anti-corruption platform won over many urban and liberal voters, has accused Bandic of malpractice in the Zagreb administration, although no charges against him have ever been pressed.
“I am really disillusioned by all the mud-slinging in the campaign,” said Ivica Zupetic, a manager at a large retail chain in Zagreb.
“I want a president who can represent Croatia’s values abroad, help our economy, exports, tourism, make the best use of our comparative advantages and help create jobs,” he said.
Bandic, known for populist policies and flirting with the right, prides himself on Zagreb’s revamped public services and says he will work even harder if he becomes president.
He was expelled from the Social Democrats in November for putting himself forward as a candidate against the party’s will.
The president will succeed veteran reformer Stjepan Mesic, who served two five-year mandates, and will have limited powers over diplomacy, defense and the intelligence services but none over the economy or legislation.
Editing by Dominic Evans