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Slovenia elects new leader amid social tensions

LJUBLJANA: Slovenians voted yesterday in a presidential run-off with opinion polls favoring former premier Borut Pahor, despite his support for government austerity plans that have brought thousands of protesters on to the streets.
Pahor, 49, pulled off an upset in the first round on Nov. 11 when he won almost 40 percent of the vote ahead of incumbent President Danilo Turk, 60, with almost 36 percent.
On Sunday, he was expected to win just 60 percent ahead of 40 percent for Turk, according to latest opinion polls published Friday.
Pahor, who is backed by the center left opposition Social Democrats (SD), appeared to have won voters over by admitting that some of his decisions as prime minister were wrong.
Having been ousted after a no-confidence vote in 2011, he has capitalized on his image as a good-looking, relaxed, people’s politician with a US-style campaign for the post of president, a largely ceremonial role.
Turk, who is running as an independent candidate with the backing of the largest center left opposition party, Positive Slovenija (PS), lost most of the candidates’ televised debates, according to commentators.
Analysts said however the results could be impacted by a wave of protests against austerity measures introduced by the center-right government of Prime Minister Janez Jansa aimed at cutting the public deficit this year to 3.5 percent of GDP.
Slovenia, once seen as a star new member of the European Union, is suffering one of the deepest recessions in the eurozone, while problems with its banks have raised fears it may need a bailout.
While Pahor has defended Jansa’s unpopular austerity policies — which include public sector wage reductions and social welfare cuts — Turk’s position has been more in line with the public mood.
“Turk’s victory would be a big surprise... but he still has some chances,” Vlado Miheljak, a political specialist at Ljubljana University, said, adding that he might be able to “ride the wave” of social dissatisfaction.
“People do not want their president to be excessively soft, they want somebody who can point his finger at the government.”
A week after the first-round vote, 30,000 people attended a rally in Ljubljana called by Slovenia’s main unions to protest at the austerity cuts, and several other demonstrations have followed.
On Friday, police in Ljubljana used tear gas and water cannon against demonstrators and detained over 30 people after violence erupted at the end of a largely peaceful rally.
“The government should listen to protesters, it should not try to intimidate them,” Turk said as he voted yesterday.
“This government has been unsuccessful, it is arrogant, and it should make big changes.

“The government has a recession much deeper than they had forecast, it is producing very bad results and it should know that it is responsible for such a situation.” Turk said Sunday he was optimistic of his chances after opinion polls showed him closing the gap on Pahor.
While the Slovenian president has little power, analysts say the prime minister would benefit from collaborating with the head of state — particularly if the opposition and unions succeed in calling referendums to try to prevent the implementation of new austerity or reform measures.
And Pahor would be more effective in “bridging the gap” between government and opposition to lead Slovenia out of the crisis, according to analyst Matevz Tomsic from the Nova Gorica School of Advanced Social Studies faculty.
Pahor said at a candidate debate that there was no other option than belt-tightening.
“We should not lose any more time speculating about possible alternatives,” he said. “We should collaborate without further delaying the important decisions the government has to take.” Some 1.7 million Slovenians are eligible to vote. Polls close at 1800 GMT, with initial results expected later in the evening.