LJUBLJANA, Slovenia (AP) — Voters in small, crisis-hit Slovenia chose a president on Sunday amid growing discontent with government cost-cutting measures designed to avoid an international bailout.
The vote came just days after anti-austerity protests in the capital erupted into 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 pitted anti-austerity incumbent Danilo Turk against former Prime Minister Borut Pahor, the front-runner who has supported some of the government's budget measures.
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 economic reforms.
Slovenia, which was once 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.
Pahor has 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 he hoped election outcome "will be a strong message that we want to work together."
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. "That is how we should act."
Turnout among Slovenia's 1.7 million voters was around 31 percent by mid-afternoon — 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.