In a turn-up for the books, the incumbent Slovenian president, Danilo Turk, not only failed to win a clear majority in the November 11 presidential election, but looks to have been pushed into second place.
With most ballots counted, the state election commission said former prime minister Borut Pahor was first with 40% of the vote, followed by President Turk with 36% and centre-right candidate Milan Zver at 24%. If that outcome holds when the commission announces the official results in the coming days, a run-off between the top two candidates will be held on December 2.
Chosen for a five-year term, the presidency is largely ceremonial post, though the president heads the army and proposes the national bank chief. The latter is an especially sensitive task considering the severe financial crisis caused here by state-owned banks' rampant lending.
Political analyst Tone Jerovsek told AP that Pahor finished first because "his statements were never radical," convincing the voters that he could bring together Slovenia's divided political scene.
The November 11 election came at a critical time when opposition is growing to the austerity measures of the government of Prime Minister Janez Jansa's conservative Democratic Party. A recent poll said only 21% of voters supported the government.
Turk had been critical of excessive austerity and argued for the preservation of the welfare state. He also wants to reduce income inequality and "social stratification". His campaign slogan is "For the common good".
But the government is intent on ploughing on with its austerity programme to right the listing economy, regardless of its unpopularity or sniping from the presidential palace, says Tomaz Klipsteter, Maribor correspondent for Dnevnik newspaper. The economy entered a second recession in 2011 - the first new EU member state to do so. With the economy forecast to contract another 2.3% this year and the banking sector being crushed by €6.5bn of bad loans, which is about 18% of annual GDP, Slovenia was odds-on favourite to be the next Eurozone country to ask the EU and International Monetary Fund for a bailout.
A run-off will be a close-run thing. Pahor has tried to build his political camp on the centre ground and aimed to pick up votes from those on the right who see him as the lesser of two evils. The rigours of the austerity programme of the Democratic government has meant that many see the Pahor's four-year government in a more favourable light.
This is Pahor's last chance in politics, says Klipsteter. After his government lost a confidence vote in September last year, he lost the chairmanship of his party in June. The photogenic 49-year-old's tactic of doing a different job each day of his campaign was apparently successful at some level, even though his populist antics have also made him the butt of some more cynical jokes.
Though running as an independent, Turk has the support of "Positive Slovenia", the political outfit of the mayor of Ljubljana, Zoran Jankovic, arguably the most potent political force in the country since last year's election. The powerful Pensioners' Party has also called for his re-election despite being part of the ruling government.
Turk appears able to move beyond political boundaries, but public discourse remains bitterly divided. "Old historic and often painful memories are exploited for political purposes," Turk told bne, a type of public discourse that should be "reduced or eliminated". He said, however, "On this score I'm not optimistic. I don't see an immediate opportunity."
Of all topics, the history of World War II remains the most perennial source of wounding conflict between left and Catholic right. On this, Turk does not give an inch. The "national liberation struggle" against German Nazi occupation was, he said, "the most wonderful feat in the history of the Slovenian nation". This is provocation to those on the right who do not see it as a story of collaboration and liberation.
The gravitas acquired as a former UN diplomat and one-time chair of the Security Council allows Turk to punch confidently above Slovenia's weight in international affairs in which he talks of Slovenia acting with "more maturity and responsibility". By this he means extending its existing role in furthering the EU's expansion in the Balkans, to helping to improve EU relations with Russia.
"We do not have excessive historic baggage, as many countries have," he says. "We understand the sensitivities of other EU members which have a different history. And we can play a role. We can be a place where meetings are held."
He says there is even room to manoeuvre on Kosovo, where Russia is a supporter of Serbia's opposition to recognition.
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