Croatian voters rejected the authoritarian, conservative legacy of president Franjo Tudjman on Monday as two pro-Western candidates emerged as the top vote-getters in the first round of the country's presidential election.

Stipe Mesic, a reformist, took nearly 42 percent of the vote, falling short of an absolute majority, the election commission announced early this morning. He will face Drazen Budisa, a technocrat who captured 28 percent of the vote, in a runoff on Feb. 7. Both men have promised to push Croatia closer to the West, bolster its respect for human rights, improve conditions for ethnic Serbs and other minorities, and respect the country's legal boundary with neighboring Bosnia.

Mate Granic, the nominee of Tudjman's party, the Croatian Democratic Union, finished in third place, at least 6 percentage points behind Budisa. Granic was foreign minister under Tudjman, who died in December.

The results amount to the second major defeat for Tudjman's party this month. In parliamentary elections Jan. 3, the Croatian Democratic Union lost its controlling majority and retained only 30 percent of the seats, while a coalition of reformist and centrist legislators won more than 60 percent.

Analysts here said the election effectively draws to a close Croatia's long-standing effort to win control of ethnic Croat-populated area's of neighboring Bosnia and create a greater Croatia--a major goal of Tudjman and his nationalist government. "With these two in the finals, it's a win-win situation," a Western diplomat said. "Everything is going to be a lot easier than it has been," for Western interests in Croatia and elsewhere in the region, he said.

"Everybody agrees that Croatia has turned a page," said another Western diplomat.

Nine candidates competed in Monday's first presidential ballot, but the six others--several of whom had inveighed against European integration, foreign investment and ethnic minorities--attracted negligible voter support. Zvonimir Separovic, Tudjman's justice minister and the most vocal opponent of Croatian cooperation with the international war crimes tribunal probing wartime atrocities in Croatia and other Balkan states, came in last, with just one-quarter of 1 percent of the vote.

Asked why he had done so well, particularly in Zagreb, the capital, and western regions of the country, Mesic declared: "My messages were very convincing. I disagreed with former policies, with centralization of the state and [with the past] policy toward Bosnia. I am all for the European orientation of Croatia, for membership in the EU and NATO."

Many voters in Zagreb and the city of Sisak, 35 miles to the southwest, said they hoped their ballots would send a message that Tudjman's nationalist policies had failed and that the former Yugoslav republic could no longer survive in diplomatic and economic isolation from the rest of Europe. They said they believe that with new leadership, the United States and the European Union would no longer discourage investment in Croatia and curtail diplomatic contacts with the Croatian government.

"Tudjman totally destroyed us," said Josip Dvornekovic, 61, a locksmith in Sisak, a city heavily damaged by artillery fire in 1991 as separatist Serb forces backed by the Yugoslav army fought to win autonomy from Tudjman's Zagreb government. Until this month, Sisak was regarded as one of the most nationalist-minded areas of the country.

Dvornekovic and other residents complained bitterly about Tudjman's economic policies, which they said had benefited only a few people. "Ninety percent of the privatization should be dismantled," he said. "It was theft."

Another Sisak resident, Stepjan Frei, 67, a retired teacher, said that he and his wife Marija had worked for 35 years and "got no shares in any state-owned companies. Either Budisa or Mesic would be fine" as a successor to Tudjman, he said.

Many voters said they respect Mesic, 65, because he resigned as president of the Croatian parliament in 1994 to protest Tudjman's policy toward Bosnia, a decision that cost him his home and led to an unofficial ban on his speaking on state-run television. Mesic's last-minute rise in the polls astonished his opponents, since his political organization, the Croatian People's Party, has just a few hundred members and attracted only 2 percent of the votes cast in the parliamentary elections earlier this month.

But he attracted crowds with his caustic appraisal of Tudjman's party as being interested in "material interest, not the national interest" and because he promised to end Croatian government subsidies for ethnic Croats living in Bosnia. Mesic also waged an effective advertising campaign, using funds he said were donated by small- to medium-size businesses.

Other voters said they backed Budisa, 57, a leader of the Social Liberal Party, which finished second in the parliamentary election, because he, too, supports a more open economic policy and closer ties to the West. They said they also supported him because he has close ties with the Social Democratic Party, which will have the most seats in the new parliament.

In comparison with Mesic, Budisa favors a more cautious reduction in aid to Bosnian Croats--not an abrupt cutoff--and he also is more wary about collaboration with international war crimes investigators.

Irregularities were reported in a handful of polling places in Bosnia, where tens of thousands of eligible Croat voters lined up in deep snow to cast their ballots--primarily for Granic, the candidate of Croatia's ruling party. International election monitors complained to Bosnian and Croatian authorities that they witnessed double voting by some citizens and other votes cast by people who were not properly registered.

Both Mesic and Budisa have told Western officials that this election will be the last in which Croats who live in Bosnia will be allowed to vote in Croatian elections.