Croats began casting ballots on Sunday in a run-off election to choose a new president who will lead the former Yugoslav republic into the European Union.
Left-wing candidate Ivo Josipovic is expected to win
Polls opened at 7:00 a.m. but voting stations were largely empty in the early morning.
Last-minute opinion polls predicted an easy win for left-wing professor Ivo Josipovic, giving him between 56-69 percent of votes. His rival, the populist mayor of Zagreb, Milan Bandic, has just 31-40 percent.
A second round became necessary when no candidate emerged as clear winner in the elections held at the end of last month. According to the constitution, the winner must gain more that 50 percent of votes cast.
In the December 27 poll, law expert and classical music composer Ivo Josipovic gained over 33 percent of the votes, more than double those cast for Milan Bandic.
Croatia is heading toward EU membership
Both candidates are running on similar tickets, pro-EU and anti-corruption. And both men have pledged to revive the country's economy, currently suffering from the effects of the recession.
The unemployment rate is currently at 16 percent and its external debt last September was estimated at around 43 billion euros ($62 billion). This figure represents almost 94 percent of Croatia's gross domestic product.
In spite of similarities in their election manifestos, the two men have vastly different public images.
Analysts describe the 52-year-old Josipovic as an able and moral academic, who has never been involved in what some would describe as the corruption endemic to Croatian politics. However, he loses points for his muted charisma.
By contrast, Bandic, the mayor of the Croatian capital, Zagreb, is known for his energy and outspokenness. He is also overtly religious and has the backing of Croatia's powerful Roman Catholic Church lobby.
Bandic insists that his leading virtues are "patriotism, philanthropy and love of God"
While the 54-year-old trailed in the first round of the polls, his team are counting this time on the support of the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union, whose candidate did not make it into the run-off.
Although the post is largely ceremonial one of the main tasks ahead of the new president will be helping to steer Croatia successfully into the EU. The country would like to become the bloc's 28th member by 2012, but accession talks are by no means complete yet.
The new president will succeed veteran reformer Stjepan Mesic, who served two five-year terms.
A total of 4.4 million Croatians are entitled to vote. First results are expected at midnight.
Editor: Toma Tasovac