LJUBLJANA, Slovenia (AP) — Former Slovenia Prime Minister Borut Pahor won the presidential election Sunday, calling for unity in the tiny EU nation where discontent has been mounting with government budget cuts and other austerity measures designed to avoid a bailout.
"There is a way out and we must find it together," Pahor said in his victory speech. "We must not turn against each other."
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.
Several hundred protesters waving banners gathered Sunday in the eastern town of Krsko, even as snow blanketed the country, disrupting traffic in some parts and contributing to a low election turnout.
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 living standards and a surge in unemployment, which now stands at about 12 percent.
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.
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. He urged an agreement between Slovenia's bitterly divided political groups, saying that "there is no problem that we cannot solve 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.
But Jansa's reforms have somewhat been stalled because of the political divisions. The opposition has demanded a referendum on the banking law, fueling EU concerns that Slovenia will not be able to carry out the promised reforms.
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 the 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.
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 to this report.