(RFE/RL) -- Croats are voting today in a presidential runoff between a left-wing professor and the populist Zagreb mayor, with the winner hoping to lead the Balkan country into the European Union.
The first round of the election on December 27 was won by Social Democratic Party (SDP) candidate Ivo Josipovic, but he failed to get an outright majority.
Opinion polls suggest he had a lead over his challenger in today's runoff, Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandic, who ran as an independent.
Croatia's president has little power to shape policy. But the next head of state will face the challenge of helping guide Croatia through EU membership negotiations and dealing with the country's economic crisis -- a great concern to many voters.
"Jobs -- we need a man who will do something about that, so we have jobs and an opportunity to make a living, that's what's important," one man told Reuters in Zagreb.
"All this other talk about this and that is irrelevant for us small people."
The country's economy is expected to shrink by almost 6 percent in 2009 and show barely any growth this year. Unemployment stands stubbornly high at around 16 percent.
During the campaign, both Josipovic and Bandic pledged that Croatia will become an EU member during their mandate. They also promised to step up the fight against corruption and revive the economy.
Despite their similar agendas, the two contenders project very different images.
Josipovic, a classical music composer and law professor, is credited for his untarnished background but criticized for lacking charisma.
During his campaign, he has pledged justice and called for politics to be grounded in morality.
By contrast, the outspoken Bandic has styled himself a fighter for the common man, but has been hit by corruption allegations.
A veteran SDP member who was expelled from the party when he announced his candidacy for the presidency, Bandic called on the electorate to "vote for a man, and not for a party."
Bandic has moved to the right, trying to pick up voters after the candidate of the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) party failed to make the runoff. He also enjoys the backing of Roman Catholic Church in Croatia.
A total of 4.4 million Croats are entitled to vote.
Exit polls are expected to be released shortly after polls close at 7 p.m. local time, with the first official results expected by midnight.
There is a general mood of public disenchantment with politics in Croatia, which was one reason for the low turnout of 44 percent in the first round of the presidential election.
The election winner will replace outgoing President Stipe Mesic, who during his two five-year terms helped lead Croatia to parliamentary democracy and membership in NATO in 2009, following the authoritarian rule of independence and wartime leader Franjo Tudjman.
compiled from agency reports