By Stefan J. Bos
His supporters celebrated as official results showed that Zoran Milanovic, a former Croatian prime minister, won the second and final round of Croatia's presidential elections. He received roughly 53 percent of the vote. It came as a setback for Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, the country's first female head of state. She had hoped to win re-election but failed as she received 47 percent of the vote.
Speaking about his victory, Milanovic made clear he had not been everyone's favorite to become president. He said he realized "there are differences in Croatian society" but insisted that he would "not hurt anyone on purpose." He pledged that as president, he would be "the ear and the head for everybody."
The outcome is a rare victory by a liberal in recent national votes in Central and Eastern Europe. Shaken, Grabar Kitarovic congratulated Milanovic, but unlike her opponent insisted on a more nationalist message.
She thanked her supporters but also reminded everyone that they should not forget what Croatia became after the war in the 1990s that followed the country's split from the former Yugoslavia.
Milanovic stressed that the "Croatian state was created in blood, defended in blood, and carried in love and that it should remain so."
Her election defeat means a blow for the ruling conservatives at a time when Croatia holds the European Union's rotating presidency. It also comes before a parliamentary election later this year.
Croatia assumed the European Union's presidency on January 1 for the first time since joining the bloc in 2013.
The EU's newest member state will be tasked for six months with overseeing Britain's expected divorce from the bloc at the end of the month and the start of post-Brexit talks.
Milanovic is hoping to regain some clout for liberals in the predominantly conservative nation where the Roman Catholic Church holds significant influence.
President-elect Milanovic will also face corruption problems and economic woes — issues not resolved since Croatia's devastating war in the 1990s to break free of the Serb-led Yugoslav federation.
Croatia's Former Premier Wins Presidential Race
By Stefan J. Bos