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Opposition Leader Tops Croat Vote

Main opposition Social Democratic candidate Ivo Josipovic won the most votes in the first round of Croatia's presidential election.

ZAGREB (Reuters) -- An opposition Social Democrat has won the most votes in the first round of Croatia's presidential election and will compete against an independent candidate in a runoff ballot on January 10.

Ivo Josipovic, a law professor and composer, captured 32.4 percent of votes, state electoral commission said, but failed to win 50 percent of votes for an outright victory.

His rival in the second round will be his former party colleague, influential Zagreb mayor Milan Bandic, who won 14.8 percent of votes as an independent candidate.

Both have pledged to back Croatia's European Union membership bid, which it hopes to achieve in 2012, during the next president's mandate.

Despite his strong edge, Josipovic is not guaranteed a victory as Bandic, a populist supported by liberal and conservative voters, is likely to put up a strong challenge.

Josipovic ran on an anti-corruption ticket, while Bandic, highlighting his achievements in Zagreb, said he was "ready to work like a horse for Croatia".

"The failure of the ruling HDZ's candidate opens the space for Bandic in the right-wing camp. That's where he has a chance because he has obviously already attracted some of the rightwing voters," political analyst Ivan Rimac said.

The HDZ's official candidate, Andrija Hebrang, came in third, followed closely by two more HDZ renegades, which analysts said reflected the electorate's discontent with high unemployment and low living standards.

The president has a role in foreign policy, security and defense, but no power to veto legislation. Diplomats hope the winner will back the government's renewed efforts to fight corruption and enforce reforms needed to complete EU entry talks next year.

"The next president will be leading the country when it is part of the EU in at least half of his mandate, so we would really like to hear the candidates' vision of Croatia in that time," political analyst Ivan Grdesic said.

The victor will replace veteran reformer Stjepan Mesic, whose second five-year term expires in February, and inherit a country deeply hit by the economic crisis, with unemployment and poverty likely to rise further next year.

The election comes at a time when Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor's cabinet has stepped up efforts to fight corruption, with several high-level investigations in state companies under way.

The HDZ has been in power almost the entire period since independence in 1991. The Social Democrats ruled from 2000 to 2003, when they started reforms and set the country on course towards NATO and EU membership.

The HDZ's rating sank after former prime minister Ivo Sanader, the country's dominant political figure, unexpectedly quit in July without giving reasons.

Economic woes and corruption further pushed voters towards opposition candidates despite the new prime minister's relatively positive image, analysts say.