File photo of Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, Croatia's first female president. (Agence France-Presse)
Opposition conservative Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic was elected Croatia's first female president Sunday, winning a tight run-off vote with a pledge to kickstart the ailing economy, almost complete results showed.
Grabar-Kitarovic, an ex-foreign minister and former NATO official, won 50.4 per cent of the vote, according to results based on more than 99 per cent of the ballots cast.
Her rival, centre-left incumbent Ivo Josipovic, garnered 49.6 per cent of the vote, according to the results released by the electoral commission.
The 46-year-old candidate of the main opposition HDZ party becomes the first woman to take the helm of the European Union's newest member.
She is also the first female head of state chosen by voters in the largely patriarchal Balkans region since Albania's Jatifete Jahjaga was elected by parliament in 2011.
Sunday's election for the largely ceremonial post was held as Croatia, which became the EU's 28th member in July 2013, grapples with a deep economic crisis.
Josipovic, a popular former law professor and classical music composer who belongs to the Social Democrats (SDP), the main force in the ruling coalition, had also pledged to pump new life into the ailing economy.
Although presidential powers are limited in Croatia, Sunday's vote was seen as a key test ahead of parliamentary elections later this year in which Grabar-Kitarovic's HDZ is likely to make significant gains.
The presidential election gave voters a chance to voice their dissatisfaction with the SDP-led government's performance and Josipovic's failure to criticise its economic policies.
The government of Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic has become increasingly unpopular as Croatia struggles to emerge from a six-year recession.
"The recession ... is not only the consequence of the global crisis in 2008. The problems rather are structural and the authorities have not been solving them," economic analyst Damir Novotny told AFP.
Hopes that entry into the EU would provide an economic boost for the small Adriatic nation of 4.2 million have faded. Among European Union's weakest
Croatia's economy remains among the EU bloc's weakest. Unemployment stands at almost 20 per cent, rising to 50 per cent for the under-25s, and the government forecasts a meagre 0.5 per cent growth this year.
Analysts say the ruling coalition has failed to reform the huge and inefficient public sector, improve the business climate or attract EU development funds.
Josipovic had vowed to initiate constitutional changes -- namely decentralisation -- as a way to revive the economy.
But Grabar-Kitarovic labelled Josipovic the "incapable and cold-hearted government's accomplice" in bringing about economic hardship.
"I will face with courage and determination all problems that Croatia is suffering from," she said after voting in downtown Zagreb.
"We are deciding on the direction in which Croatia will go."
Josipovic countered by arguing that his rival would not bring change given that she was a minister in the graft-plagued HDZ government headed by ex-prime minister Ivo Sanader -- who was tried and jailed for corruption.
"We are in a crisis and we now know why... You were in the government that was robbing Croatia, the government of Ivo Sanader," Josipovic said.
But Srecko Lukac, a voter from Zagreb, said: "Kolinda is above all a Catholic and has an impeccable career. She is a woman of the world, educated and certainly a patriot.
Croatia is a predominantly Catholic country.