How Europe’s Top Christmas Market Could Swing an Election

(Bloomberg) -- Frequently named Europe’s best, the Christmas market in Croatia’s capital is bringing little festive cheer to the country’s president this year.

The issue for Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic as she heads into elections on Sunday is a video of her handing a cake and singing ‘happy birthday’ to Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandic, who’s at the center of a scandal over preferential access at the city’s mulled wine and trinket stalls.

How Europe’s Top Christmas Market Could Swing an Election

Kitarovic, a former NATO executive, had been riding high on a carefully managed image as a globe-trotting diplomat. She was also the face of Croatia with her enthusiastic support during the national soccer team’s historic run to the World Cup final last year.

But the storm over the market is turning the election into a close race.

For the European Union’s newest member-state, even the whiff of murky dealings is bad. The Adriatic nation of 4.2 million people, which joined the bloc in 2013, is pushing to adopt the euro and has seen corruption concerns delay similar efforts in nearby Bulgaria.

Other Balkan countries also targeting EU membership won’t benefit either.

It’s not the first time Kitarovic has flirted with controversy. Previous instances include claiming Croatia’s World War II-era Nazi salute was just a historical greeting -- a position she later reversed -- and the appearance at her inauguration of a right-wing media personality convicted of paying prostitutes and using cocaine to do so.

Then there’s the bizarre. Kitarovic has begun singing at some official meetings and was recently mocked on social media for vaguely claiming she’d stuck a deal with “some countries” for young Croats to earn 8,000 euros ($9,000) a month “via the internet.”

How Europe’s Top Christmas Market Could Swing an Election

“All this begs a question: Who is Kitarovic?” said Tvrtko Jakovina, a contemporary history professor at the University of Zagreb. “Is she a skilled international diplomat and fighter for women’s rights, as she presents herself abroad? Or is she someone who doesn’t know her country’s past and is friendly with characters who see laws as obstacles.”

The latest headlines have hurt the 51-year-old incumbent, who’s polling only slightly ahead of ex-Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic and right-wing newcomer Miroslav Skoro, a popular folk singer, before the first round of voting. A runoff is almost certain two weeks later.

How Europe’s Top Christmas Market Could Swing an Election

While the president’s role is largely ceremonial, defeat for Kitarovic could reverberate through the government of Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, who’s backed her strongly and would risk unrest from within the ruling Croatian Democratic Union.

Plenkovic has enough on his plate as he tries to rein in a bulging bureaucracy, stem outflows of workers to richer EU nations and improve corruption that’s seen as the bloc’s fifth-worst in Transparency International’s latest annual survey.

How Europe’s Top Christmas Market Could Swing an Election

After years of stagnation, the economy is expanding at a steady 3%, below the pace of other eastern EU members.

While vowing to continue beating the drum for Croatia abroad, Kitarovic has also created a “traveling office” so she can meet citizens in smaller towns back home. Milanovic, from the opposition Social Democrats, is pushing a more conventional center-left agenda, while Skoro is running on a nationalist platform.

All three have promised things beyond the scope of the presidency.

But it’s Kitarovic’s integrity, not her policy agenda, that’s come into question. And she’s doubled down on her support of Bandic, who’s fought graft accusations for much of his career, since the clip with him surfaced.

If he’s convicted for alleged abuse-of-office, she said she’ll “bring him cookies in jail.”

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