By Zoran Radosavljevic
ZAGREB (Reuters) - Croats voted on Sunday in a run-off presidential ballot, with the conservative opposition hoping popular discontent over the country's economic woes will propel their candidate into the mainly ceremonial top job.
In Croatia, the president cannot veto laws but has a say in foreign policy and defense. Political analysts say a win for the conservative HDZ would bode well for its prospects in the more important parliamentary elections due in late 2015.
The ex-Yugoslav republic of 4.4 million people, which joined the European Union last July, has been in recession for six years. No growth is expected in 2015, unemployment stands at 19 percent and high taxes and poor administration hamper business.
President Ivo Josipovic, who is seeking a second five-year term with the support of the increasingly unpopular ruling Social Democrats, won the first round of the election on Dec. 28 by a narrow margin.
But he faces a stiff challenge from HDZ's Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, a former diplomat.
"It's going to be very tight but I would say Grabar-Kitarovic has a slight advantage now. Josipovic is perceived as co-responsible for the government's failure," said Davor Gjenero, a Zagreb-based political analyst.
No opinion polls have been published in the past two weeks.
Josipovic, 57, is a jurist and composer of classical music who won his first term on an anti-corruption ticket, but has kept a relatively low profile as the country grappled with its worst economic crisis since becoming independent in 1991.
Grabar-Kitarovic, 46, a former foreign minister and ambassador to Washington, says Croatia needs a change of course and a more active head of state.
"Her victory would throw the door wide open for the HDZ's triumph in the parliamentary ballot, on the wave of popular discontent with the lack of any success of this government," said Zeljko Trkanjec, editor of the daily Jutarnji List.
Not all voters agreed it was time for a change.
"Josipovic could have been more vocal as president, given our disastrous economic situation, but he is still the better of the two, with more experience and stature," said pensioner Zvonimir Hrabar, casting his vote in downtown Zagreb.
The HDZ ruled Croatia from its first democratic election in 1990 until its founder, President Franjo Tudjman, died in December 1999. Since then it has alternated in power with the Social Democrats but has never regained the presidential post.
Polls close at 19 p.m (1 p.m. ET). First official results are due several hours later.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)