By Stefan J. Bos
And as Croats went to vote on a rainy day ahead of Christmas, polls suggested she faces a tough challenge. The primary challengers are leftist former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic and right-wing singer Miroslav Skoro.
While the incumbent has been accused of flirting with the far-right, Milanovic has promised to turn Croatia into a "normal" tolerant country, while Skoro used anti-establishment, nationalist rhetoric.
However, analysts predict that a presidential runoff vote will have to be held in two weeks as no candidate is due to win an outright majority.
Although the post is mainly ceremonial in Croatia — the president formally commands the army and represents the country abroad. Keeping the presidency is seen as necessary for the ruling Croatian Democratic Union party as its government is to assume the European Union chairmanship on January 1.
That job will include overseeing Britain's exit from the 28-nation bloc, expected on January 31. Croatia will also supervise the post-Brexit trade talks.
Croatia's roughly 3.8 million voters in the EU's newest member could also choose from 11 candidates, though only three were considered the leading contenders.
As she cast her ballot in the capital Zagreb, the 51-year-old incumbent Grabar Kitarovic called the election crucial for Croatia's future. She made clear to reporters that "voters are deciding in which direction democratic Croatia will go."
Whoever comes to power will have to deal with economic difficulties as Croatia is still recovering from the devastating war in the 1990s.
Critics have criticized the government for setting the election date three days before Christmas. But ruling HDZ counts on the support from Croats who live abroad and normally flock home for the holidays.
Croatia is known for its stunning Adriatic Sea coast, which includes over 1,000 islands and picturesque coastal towns such as the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik.