ZAGREB - Conservative Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic was elected Croatia’s first female president Sunday, narrowly winning a run-off election in which voters punished centre-left leaders for failing to revive the country’s ailing economy.

Grabar-Kitarovic, a former top diplomat and member of the main opposition HDZ party, won 50.7 percent of the vote, according to official tallies of nearly all ballots cast. Her Social Democrat SDP rival, incumbent Ivo Josipovic, took 49.3 percent of the vote. ‘Woman President’ read front-page headlines Monday, accompanied by photos of the smiling 46-year-old Grabar-Kitarovic.

She is also the first female head of state elected directly by voters in the largely patriarchal Balkans. In her victory speech, the former foreign minister and NATO official called for unity and pledged a ‘prosperous and wealthy Croatia’.

‘Let’s go together, a tough job awaits us,’ the radiant blonde urged voters while surrounded by cheering supporters at her Zagreb headquarter Sunday.

‘Let’s unite our patriotism, love and faith in the Croatia and lead it out of the crisis into well-being,’ she said. But Grabar-Kitarovic, who will be sworn into office on February 19, faces a tough task. Croatia’s hopes prior to joining the European Union last year that membership would boost the economy of the small Adriatic nation of 4.2 million have faded. Its economy remains among the weakest in the 28-nation bloc. Unemployment stands at almost 20 percent, rising to 50 percent for under-25s, and the government forecasts a meagre 0.5 percent growth this year. During the campaigning for the largely ceremonial post both contenders pledged to kickstart Croatia’s economy, which has been mired in recession for the past six years. But voters demonstrated their disappointment with the SDP-led government’s failure to overcome the crisis, as well as Josipovic’s lack of criticism of its results.

‘The crisis was a tailwind for the HDZ candidate,’ political analyst Zarko Puhovski told AFP. Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic’s government is primarily blamed for failing to reform the huge and inefficient public sector, improve the business climate or attract EU development funds. ‘We were a burden’ for Josipovic, admitted Milanovic late Sunday. But analysts say that Josipovic - a 57-year-old law expert and classical musical composer - shares part of the blame due to his lacklustre performance and overly consensual politics that shies from staking out firm positions on key issues.