updated 1/2/2005 7:45:37 PM ET 2005-01-03T00:45:37

Croatia’s pro-Western president failed to win an outright majority for re-election on Sunday, forcing him to face a runoff vote against the conservative government’s candidate in two weeks.

Stipe Mesic had 49.03 percent of the votes — just short of the majority needed to give him a second term, the state-run Electoral Commission said after more than 99 percent of the votes were counted.

The 70-year-old incumbent, who was backed by most opposition parties, declared the results a “brilliant victory” and voiced confidence that he would win the runoff on Jan. 16.

“I led Croatia to the doors of the (mainstream) Europe, and I will lead it to it,” Mesic said, to the euphoric cheers from his supporters.

His opponent, Jadranka Kosor, a minister of families and war veterans in the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union-led Cabinet, was trailing far behind with 20.18 percent.

Both Mesic and Kosor have pledged to maintain Croatia’s pro-Western course and cooperate with the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.

But Kosor is a close ally of Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, whose Croatian Democratic Union returned to power a year ago and has distanced itself from its nationalists to become a European-style conservative party.

The president is elected to a five-year term and has limited powers, as the prime minister and parliament exercise most decision-making and Croats apparently didn’t see the vote as so crucial — just over 50 percent of 4.4 million eligible voters cast their ballots.

For the first time, no international observers monitored the vote, an indication of the former Yugoslav country’s democratic progress since it gained independence in 1992 through a bloody war with its rebel Serbs.

Mesic said voters will choose in the runoff between “a president who will be leading them into the 21st century, or the one that leads back to the 19th century.”

Kosor, 51, also expressed confidence.

“There’s something else that makes me happy — a woman is in the runoff,” she said. “I’m sure Croatia is mature enough to finally have a female president.”

The third-place candidate was Boris Miksic, a businessman who launched a multimillion dollar business in the United States, with 17.80 percent of votes. He insisted there “must have been” irregularities in the official vote counting because exit polls had put him in second place.

The former Yugoslav republic is pushing to join both the European Union and NATO, and begins EU membership talks on March 17, provided it arrests fugitive Gen. Ante Gotovina, charged in 2001 by the U.N. tribunal for wartime atrocities. Mesic and Kosor both insist Gotovina has fled the country and is out of Croatia’s reach.

Mesic won overwhelming support in 2000 to replace autocratic Franjo Tudjman, who had died two months before.

The incumbent is credited by many at home and abroad for directing democratic standards and reforms. But he has made enemies among the nationalists, who consider him a traitor for insisting that any Croat who committed war crimes should be punished.

Kosor is a Cabinet minister and many saw the election as a referendum on the 1-year-old government, represented by her candidacy.

“Anyone but Kosor,” designer Katja Jovic, 38, said before casting her ballot in downtown Zagreb. The governing party “failed to bring us better standards, and now we should award her for the failure?”

Mila Mihailov, 83, however, said Sanader was a “fine leader.” But since he was not running Sunday, “it had to be his ally” — Kosor.

Many see Kosor as a patriot. She has said she is “proud” of Tudjman, who led Croatia to declare its independence. She speaks for war veterans, orphans and abused women, but critics say her rhetoric has rarely translated into deeds.

Other candidates vying for Mesic’s job included a popular soccer coach and an extreme nationalist.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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