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SLUG: 2-321477 Croatian Election (L-O)
HEADLINE: Croatians Vote For President to Lead Nation into EU
INTRO: Croatians are voting to pick a president to lead their country into the European Union and improve relations with the West. Incumbent Stjepan Mesic is expected to be re-elected at a time when the former Yugoslav republic is under pressure to increase cooperation with the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal. From Budapest, Stefan Bos reports.
TEXT: As voters cast ballots, opinion polls suggest that most of them prefer the 70-year-old President Mesic to oversee Croatia's European Union membership, which is planned for 2009.
Surveys indicate Mr. Mesic could capture the necessary 50-percent of the vote, and avoid a run-off election in two weeks. His main rival, Deputy Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, a 51-year old former journalist, is expected to get about 20-percent of the vote.
She shares some of Mr. Mesic's pro-EU stance, but is seen as less appealing to the public. None of the other 11 candidates looks like a serious rival in the election.
Analysts say most of Croatia's nearly four-and-one-half million eligible voters see Mr. Mesic as a counterbalance to the ruling conservative government of Prime Minister Ivo Sanader of the once hard-line nationalist Croatian Democratic Union.
Croats also praise Mr. Mesic for his perceived bravery as the last president of old Yugoslavia, which broke up in the Balkan wars of the 1990's, which ensued after Croatia and other republics declared independence.
Although Mr. Mesic's post as president is largely ceremonial, he has a say in foreign policy, defense and intelligence, and appoints the prime minister.
In recent days he has warned voters of difficult times ahead. He told an internet news Web site that Croatians should realize European Union entry "does not bring milk and honey instantaneously," and suggested that Croatia should cooperate with the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal.
European leaders set March 2005 as a starting date for Croatia's accession talks, but they made the decision conditional on the government's full co-operation with the Netherlands-based U.N. court.
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They particularly want to see the handover of retired General Ante Gotovina, one of the tribunal's most-wanted suspects for crimes in the Balkan battles. Voicing confidence that his country would meet that requirement before March of next year, Mr. Mesic said authorities would "either arrest" the general "or give proof that he is abroad."
Mr. Mesic succeeded the late autocratic leader Franjo Tudjman, who opposed handing over suspects, in a landmark election in 2000. Mr. Tudjman oversaw his country's move to independence and subsequent descent into war. He was later criticized by the West for what was viewed as his government's hard-line nationalism.
The first official election results are expected by midnight. (SIGNED)
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