Conservative Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic elected Croatia's first female president

Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic celebrates her victory against Ivo Josipovic in the presidential elections in Zagreb, Croatia, on Jan 11, 2015. Conservative Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic was elected Croatia's first female president on Sunday, narrowly winni
Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic celebrates her victory against Ivo Josipovic in the presidential elections in Zagreb, Croatia, on Jan 11, 2015. Conservative Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic was elected Croatia's first female president on Sunday, narrowly winning a run-off election in which voters punished centre-left leaders for failing to revive the country's ailing economy. -- PHOTO: EPA

ZAGREB (AFP) - Conservative Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic was elected Croatia's first female president on Sunday, narrowly winning a run-off election in which voters punished centre-left leaders for failing to revive the country's ailing economy.

Grabar-Kitarovic, a former top diplomat and member of the main opposition HDZ party, won 50.7 per cent of the vote, according to official tallies of nearly all ballots cast.

Her Social Democrat SDP rival, incumbent Ivo Josipovic, took 49.3 per cent of the vote.

"Woman President" read front-page headlines Monday, accompanied by photos of the smiling 46-year-old Grabar-Kitarovic.

She is also the first female head of state elected directly by voters in the largely patriarchal Balkans.

In her victory speech, the former foreign minister and Nato official called for unity and pledged a "prosperous and wealthy Croatia".

"Let's go together, a tough job awaits us," the radiant blonde urged voters while surrounded by cheering supporters at her Zagreb headquarter on Sunday.

"Let's unite our patriotism, love and faith in the Croatia and lead it out of the crisis...into well-being," she said.

But Grabar-Kitarovic, who will be sworn into office on Feb 19, faces a tough task.

Croatia's hopes prior to joining the European Union last year that membership would boost the economy of the small Adriatic nation of 4.2 million have faded.

Its economy remains among the weakest in the 28-nation bloc. Unemployment stands at almost 20 per cent, rising to 50 per cent for under-25s, and the government forecasts a meagre 0.5 per cent growth this year.

During the campaigning for the largely ceremonial post both contenders pledged to kickstart Croatia's economy, which has been mired in recession for the past six years.

But voters demonstrated their disappointment with the SDP-led government's failure to overcome the crisis, as well as Josipovic's lack of criticism of its results.

"The crisis was a tailwind for the HDZ candidate," political analyst Zarko Puhovski told AFP.

Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic's government is primarily blamed for failing to reform the huge and inefficient public sector, improve the business climate or attract EU development funds.

"We were a burden" for Josipovic, admitted Milanovic late Sunday.

But analysts say that Josipovic - a 57-year-old law expert and classical musical composer - shares part of the blame due to his lacklustre performance and overly consensual politics that shies from staking out firm positions on key issues.

On the other hand Grabar-Kitarovic's moderate views attracted centrist voters, which played a large role in handing her victory.

During the campaign she said she would not have a problem if her child was gay, and discussed legalising medicinal use of marijuana.

A staunch Catholic, Grabar-Kitarovic has nevertheless said she respects a women's right to choice on abortion - a significantly pragmatic stance in predominantly Roman Catholic Croatia.

"Without her moderate, non-conflictual rhetoric HDZ would not have succeed in winning," said the Jutarnji List daily.

Due to limited powers of Croatia's president, Sunday's vote was seen as a major test ahead of parliamentary elections due late this year, and in which Grabar-Kitarovic's HDZ is likely to make significant gains.

Grabar-Kitarovic is Croatia's fourth president since independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, and the first HDZ head of state since nationalist leader Franjo Tudjman died in 1999.

Analysts warn that it remains to be seen whether Grabar-Kitarovic could distance herself from HDZ radicals, who some fear may push the party back to its nationalist rhetoric of the 1990s.

The HDZ has governed Croatia during most of the post-independence era, but lost 2011 elections after a series of top-level corruption scandals.

Last year, the party was found guilty of maintaining slush funds, and ordered to return three million euros (S$4.73 million) it illegally obtained.