- Associated Press - Sunday, December 2, 2012

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia (AP) — Small, crisis-hit Slovenia went to the polls to chose a president Sunday amid growing discontent with cost-cutting measures designed to avoid an international bailout.

An exit poll published by Slovenia’s state television showed that former Prime Minister Borut Pahor won the election with 67.3 percent of the vote. The poll, conducted by Mediana polling agency, said that incumbent President Danilo Turk won 32.97 percent in Sunday’s runoff balloting. Official results are expected later in the evening.

Mr. Pahor said Slovenia needs “trust, respect and tolerance.” Mr. Pahor, a 49-year-old left-leaning politician, added that “there is no problem that cannot be solved if we act together.”

The vote came just days after anti-austerity protests in the capital erupted in clashes that left 15 people injured, triggering fears that the economic crisis could push the normally placid Alpine nation of 2 million into instability.

Developments in Slovenia are being closely watched in the European Union. The tiny eurozone nation has promised to follow through with budget cuts and banking changes so it won’t have to ask for EU help.

The presidential runoff pit the anti-austerity incumbent Mr. Turk against former Mr. Pahor, who has supported some of the government’s budget measures during his campaign. Mr. Pahor won more votes in the first round last month and was the front-runner in polls.

Although the presidency is a largely ceremonial post in Slovenia, the elected leader commands political authority and will play an important role in guiding Slovenes as the country faces painful reforms.

Worried Slovenes said they hoped the election would bring a sense of security.

“I think things will start to calm down from today,” said 86-year-old retiree Mihael Grund, who ventured out early despite drizzle and cold to cast his ballot. “We have had so much tension recently, and that is a big worry for us.”

But new protests are planned for the coming days against “corrupt elite.” Thousands joined demonstrations in Ljubljana on Friday and in the second-largest city of Maribor earlier in the week. Both rallies ended in riots, with police using water cannons and tear gas to repel rock-throwing extremists.

Senior police official Stanislav Venger said on Saturday that police were attacked by organized groups of hooligans who were prepared to fight — unusual for Slovenia, where demonstrations are usually calm and smaller in number.

Slovenia, which was an economic star among EU newcomers when it joined in 2004, has faced one of the worst recessions of the 17 nations that use the euro currency. Its economy has shrunk more than 8 percent since 2009 and continues to decline, resulting in a sharp drop in exports and living standards and a surge in unemployment, which now stands at about 12 percent.

Prime Minister Janez Jansa’s center-right government has launched pension and labor reform, made public-sector cuts and moved to recapitalize the nation’s banks, which are at the center of the crisis because they are burdened by bad loans.

Mr. Pahor called for unity in the face of the crisis, promising to “bring hope” to disillusioned Slovenes and show the EU that the country can pull out of the crisis on its own. He said Sunday that he hoped the election outcome “will be a strong message that we want to work together.”

Mr. Turk — a fierce critic of the reform plans — argued that Mr. Jansa’s cost-cutting has not been equally distributed and will only hurt the poorest, eliminating the long-cherished welfare state.

“We need to conduct reforms and adopt changes in accordance with what the demonstrators demanded,” Mr. Turk said. “That is how we should act.”

Turnout among Slovenia‘s 1.7 million voters was around 12 percent in the first four hours — lower than in the first round — in another sign of voters’ discontent.

Some Slovenes, such as 35-year-old high-school teacher Igor Vulic, say that no politician can bring about any change and that Slovenia needs new leaders.

“They should just all go,” he said.

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