(AP) Former Slovenia Prime Minister Borut Pahor, who has called for unity in the tiny EU nation amid growing discontent with government budget cuts and other austerity measures, won the presidential election Sunday, according to preliminary official results.
Pahor won 67.44 percent of the vote compared to 32.56 for his rival, incumbent Danilo Turk, according to the State Electoral Commission, after nearly all votes were counted. Final results are expected later in the week.
Sunday's vote came just days after anti-austerity protests in Ljubljana, the capital, erupted into clashes that left 15 people injured, triggering fears this normally placid Alpine nation of 2 million was heading into instability.
Slovenia, once an economic star among EU newcomers when it joined in 2004, has faced one of the worst recessions of the 17-nation eurozone. 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.
Although the presidency is mostly a ceremonial post, the elected leader will play an important role as the country faces painful economic reforms.
Slovenia now needs trust, respect and tolerance, the 49-year-old left-leaning Pahor said. There is no problem that cannot be solved if we act together.
Turk congratulated his opponent and pledged to remain an active citizen, loyal to the Slovenian state.
Prime Minister Janez Jansa's center-right government has launched pension and labor reforms, made public sector cuts and moved to recapitalize the nation's banks, which are at the center of the financial crisis because they are burdened by bad loans. The cuts and reforms are designed so Slovenia won't have to ask for EU bailout help.
But Jansa's reforms have somewhat been stalled because of deep political divisions among the key players in the country. Opposition parties in parliament have sought a referendum on the banking laws, further fueling political tensions.
Pahor, whose own, center-left government fell last year because it was unable to tackle the economic crisis, has been sympathetic to Jansa's position, telling the AP that I know what it means to be the prime minister at the time of crisis.
Although he is Jansa's political opponent, Pahor has supported some of Jansa's austerity moves, saying that reform is the only way out of the crisis and that Slovenia must show to Europe that it was able to pull out of trouble on its own.
Analyst Tanja Staric believes that Pahor won support by systematically building an image of a politician who shares the destiny of the people.
Turk a fierce critic of the reforms has argued that Jansa's cost-cutting has not been equally distributed and will only hurt the poor.
We need to conduct reforms and adopt changes in accordance with what the demonstrators demanded, Turk said Sunday. That is how we should act.
Turnout among Slovenia's 1.7 million voters was lower than in the first round in another sign of voters' discontent.
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.
Thousands joined demonstrations in the capital of 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.
Some Slovenes, like 35-year-old high-school teacher Igor Vulic, say no politician can bring about any change and that Slovenia needs new leaders.
They should just all go, he said.
Ali Zerdin contributed.