By Marja Novak
LJUBLJANA (Reuters) - Slovenia voted for a new government on Sunday with the center-right opposition set to return to power on a pledge of painful reforms to halt the European Union member's slide back into recession.
Prime Minister Borut Pahor's Social Democrats look likely to be the latest casualty of the euro zone crisis, punished over rising unemployment and the threat of more credit rating cuts.
"I hope for a high turnout and ... that Slovenia will get a strong new government," opposition Slovenian Democratic Party leader Janez Jansa said on Sunday, casting his vote shortly after polls opened in the town of Velenje in eastern Slovenia.
Jansa, prime minister of the former Yugoslav republic from 2004 to 2008, is eyeing a return to office, promising to cut the budget deficit, create jobs and raise the retirement age.
Polls suggest Jansa will regain the premiership but will need the support of smaller parties to secure a majority.
Pahor's government lost its majority in May amid internal policy squabbles and was ousted by parliament in September.
An Alpine state of 2 million people, Slovenia was once a model of successful post-communist transition but is now facing renewed economic contraction.
"I hope that things will change after the election, that the economy will be better, that there will be more jobs," said 24-year-old student Jus Koren.
Slovenia's was the fastest-growing euro zone member four years ago, but its export-driven economy was badly hit by the global crisis and contracted as much as 8 percent in 2009.
After a modest recovery, data released last week suggest another recession is on the way after the economy shrank 0.5 percent in the third quarter of 2011.
Turnout was 18.7 percent by mid-morning, the State Electoral Commission said.
Jansa's SDS has pledged to cut Slovenia's deficit by trimming public administration and accelerating privatization. He proposes to ease a credit crunch by establishing a "bad bank" to take over state-owned banks' non-performing loans.
The party would selectively raise the retirement age, currently among the lowest in the EU at 57 for women and 58 for men.
Center-left Ljubljana Mayor Zoran Jankovic is seen as Jansa's closest challenger for the premiership.
"I am a big optimist," Jankovic said after voting on the outskirts of Ljubljana.
"I am sure that the Slovenian citizens realize that we are offering an economically successful state on one side and a state of social solidarity on the other," he told Reuters.
Polls close at 7 p.m. (1800 GMT). The state election committee said exit polls would now be released at 1900 GMT, later than planned, after voting in one region was extended by an hour after some ballot papers were lost.
Preliminary results are expected by 2100 GMT.