By DARKO BANDIC, Associated Press

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — A leftist challenger won Croatia’s highly contested presidential election on Sunday, beating a conservative incumbent — a rare victory by a liberal in recent votes in Central Europe.

With 99% of the vote counted, Zoran Milanovic, a former Croatian prime minister, had 53% while Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, the country’s first female head of state when she won five years ago, had 47%.

The result is a blow for the ruling conservatives while Croatia holds the European Union’s rotating presidency, and before a parliamentary election later this year.

Milanovic’s team and supporters at his election headquarters were jubilant. Milanovic himself thanked his supporters and campaign volunteers, stopping short of declaring victory before complete results were published.

“Thanks to all the volunteers, all of you who supported me during the past six months,” Milanovic wrote on Facebook. “People, thank you!”

Grabar Kitarovic’s associates said they will wait for complete results, but admitted that the gap between the two candidates as shown by the official vote count suggested major changes can’t be expected.

Croatia assumed the EU’s 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 for six months with overseeing Britain’s divorce from the bloc on Jan. 31 and the start of post-Brexit talks.

Milanovic’s win is a rare victory for a left-wing official to a major post in central Europe where populists and conservatives have been winning elections in recent years.

Sunday’s presidential runoff was expected to be a very tight, unpredictable vote.

Grabar Kitarovic and Milanovic made it into the runoff after the first round of voting on Dec. 22.

Milanovic won slightly more votes than Grabar Kitarovic in the first round. 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 Croatia’s presidency is largely ceremonial, Sunday’s election is an important test before a parliamentary election expected later this year. The victory for Milanovic could rattle the conservative government during the crucial EU presidency and weaken its grip on power in an election year.

Upon voting in the capital of Zagreb, Milanovic said the presidential election was a first step toward changes.

“The election is not a clash with anyone but an attempt to create a normal Croatia,” Milanovic said.

Grabar Kitarovic said “today we decide what Croatia will look like in the next several years.”

“Each person is important, each vote is important,” she said. “Let’s build together a Croatia that will look forward and not back.”

Support for Grabar Kitarovic has ebbed 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, Grabar Kitarovic evoked Croatia’s unity during the 1991-95 war in a bid to attract far-right votes.

The 53-year-old Milanovic is hoping to regain some clout for liberals in the predominantly conservative nation where the Roman Catholic Church holds significant influence.

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.

Although Croatia is a member of the EU, it still has corruption problems and economic woes — issues not resolved since its devastating 1991-95 war to break free of the Serb-led Yugoslav federation.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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