Croatia's piano-playing president tipped to retain post

Zagreb (AFP) - Croatia's piano playing president Ivo Josipovic is tipped to lead the field when voters in the European Union's newest member vote on Sunday, as the country struggles with severe economic crisis.

Josipovic, a popular politician and former law professor who won office on an anti-corruption ticket, famously played Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" when Croatia joined the EU in 2013 hoping membership would revive its flagging economy.

A poll released days before Sunday's vote showed the centre-left incumbent backed by 46.5 percent support, followed by conservative candidate Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, with 34.9 percent.

Though the president has limited powers -- running the country is primarily left to the government -- the election is seen as a key test for Croatia's political parties ahead of parliamentary contests in late 2015.

With the centre-left government blamed for failing to revive the economy, Grabar-Kitarovic's opposition HDZ party is likely to gain considerable backing.

But with neither of the two top candidates expected to win more than 50 percent, a run-off round on January 11 is likely.

Josipovic -- the third president of the former Yugoslav republic since independence in 1991 -- is a member of Croatia's Social Democrats (SDP), the main partner in the ruling coalition.

Critics say the soft-spoken 57-year-old intellectual doesn't clearly articulate his stance on major issues and failed to push the government to seriously battle economic decline.

But Josipovic has taken firmer stances on issues in the months ahead of the election, pledging in particular to initiate pressing constitutional changes.

"Constitutional changes .... are the condition for implementation of economic reforms. Without reforming the state, administration and judiciary there will be no economic recovery," he said.

- Extremely poor economy -

Though still personally popular, Josipovic's standing has dropped as the now widely unpopular SDP-led government of Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic has struggled to revive the economy.

"The main burden for Josipovic is an extremely poor economic situation in the country, for which the SDP is responsible," political analyst Zarko Puhovski told AFP.

The small Adriatic nation of 4.2 million had expected EU membership would stimulate growth, notably through the use of potential financial aid from Brussels.

But Croatia remains one of the bloc's weakest economies after six years of recession.

Unemployment is close to 20 percent, half of the country's youth are jobless and public debt is close to 80 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), which is overly dependent on tourism.

The government has failed to address structural weakness by reforming the huge and inefficient public sector, improving the investment climate and trying to attract EU funds.

A victory for Grabar-Kitarovic would further boost the position of the HDZ, currently the most popular party, in next year's parliamentary vote.

Grabar-Kitarovic, who represents moderates within HDZ, is a former foreign and European affairs minister and an ex-NATO assistant secretary general.

During the campaign the 46-year-old, who holds a masters degree in political science, slammed Josipovic over lack of initiative for tackling economic hardship.

"Can you remember what he did for his country, or what any of his important views are?" she asked, claiming he had "wasted the last five years in Croatia".

But as a woman, Grabar-Kitarovic might lack support from traditional HDZ voters, and analysts warn she showed a lack of knowledge regarding real presidential powers.

Croatia's president, elected for a five-year term, coordinates foreign policy with the government and is supreme commander of the armed forces.

The other two candidates, whose chances according to polls are very slim, are rightist Milan Kujundzic and activist Ivan Vilibor Sincic.

The latter, a 24-year-old student pledging to "liberate Croatia from tycoons and bankers who robbed it," has been the main surprise of the campaign.

Opinion polls show the political new-comer might come in third by mobilising voters disappointed in political elites and wanting a change.

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