Croatian President Stipe Mesic beat his ruling conservative party rival in Sunday's election, securing a second five-year term and promising to lead the former Yugoslav republic into the European Union.
Mesic (left) won an overwhelming victory over Kosor
Official results gave Mesic 66 percent of the vote compared to 34 percent for Deputy Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).
"I thank everybody who voted for me as well as all those who cast ballots. I am proud of the maturity of Croatia's democracy," Mesic said in a victory speech early Monday, immediately after the official results were announced. "Today Croatia is marching with big steps towards Europe. Now we have to be united and have a national consensus to achieve our goals. We can do it only if we are united."
Mesic, 70, has pledged to lead the Balkan country of some 4.4 million people into the EU before the end of the decade, a major prize for a country that was ravaged by a brutal inter-ethnic war only 10 years ago after it split from the Yugoslav federation.
"We have traveled a long way and Croatia's democracy has been confirmed. The world can see that and that's why we're standing at the doorsteps of Europe," said Mesic, a centrist politician who ran in the election as an independent.
Not ready for a female president?
Kosor, a 51-year-old former radio journalist and the first woman to make the second round of a Croatian presidential race, congratulated Mesic and also praised HDZ supporters and her party chief, Prime Minister Ivo Sanader (photo), for his support.
Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader
"I thank Prime Minister Sanader for having the courage to put forward a woman as a candidate of the biggest and most historic Croatian party," she told supporters at HDZ headquarters.
"I'm proud to have maintained a high level of dialogue in my campaign. I have not spoken badly of my rivals. In the runoff I did not accept a dialogue of disqualifications, which was sometimes below any acceptable level."
Sanader conceded defeat for the conservatives late Sunday after exit polls showed Mesic had an unassailable lead. But he insisted the result was not a blow for the HDZ, the former nationalist party which he has transformed into a mainstream conservative force since he was elected prime minister in November 2003.
"In this election we showed that the HDZ has a permanent, strong and loyal constituency," he said, adding: "Maybe the time has not yet come for Croatia to have a woman president."
In the first round on January 2, Mesic won 48.92 percent of the vote, just short of the 50 percent necessary to avoid a runoff and well ahead of Kosor's 20.3 percent.
While Kosor is a relative newcomer to Croatian politics, Mesic was able to campaign on his first-term record of democratic reform and improved international relations following the isolation of his hardline nationalist predecessor, HDZ founder Franjo Tudjman.
EU leaders last month said they would open accession talks with Croatia in March, but they warned that progress hinged on the transfer of war crimes indictee Ante Gotovina to the UN tribunal at The Hague. Sanader insists that Gotovina, a former general who remains a hero to many Croats, is no longer in the country, and Mesic said during the election campaign that Zagreb merely had to prove to Brussels that it was "doing everything" to find him.
Mesic, who has the backing of the three main opposition parties, also reminded voters of the autocratic rule of Tudjman, who died in 1999, and warned against giving too much power to one party.