Slovene President Set for Second Term as Anti-Elite Rival Fades

Updated on
  • Opinion polls suggest the incumbent may win in first round
  • Anti-establishment candidate set for second-place finish

Borut Pahor is on course to become the first Slovenian president in 15 years to win a second term, fighting off a challenge from a former comedian who has vowed to replace the country’s ruling elite and criticized the European Union’s approach toward Russia.

Forced out of government six years ago, Pahor, 53, has staged a comeback in the euro country of 2 million people. After stepping down as prime minister when voters rejected his plan to address a 2011 financial crisis that almost drove the country into a Greece-like international bailout, he snatched the presidency in a runoff a year later. While his opponents say he avoids making decisions and has mishandled Slovenia’s anti-graft agency, opinion polls suggest an outright victory is possible in a first round of voting in Sunday’s election.

Borut Pahor

Photographer: Jure Makovec/AFP via Getty Images

“This term has been dominated by public relation moves and not the real advocacy of concrete policies -- he rather refrained from intervening,” said Rok Zupancic, a research fellow at the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz. “With regard to his next term, I do not expect any significant changes.”

A former fashion model, Pahor has campaigned for the mostly ceremonial post by trekking 700 kilometers (430 miles) across the former Yugoslav republic to meet citizens. He’s documented the trip with a slick social-media campaign packed with Instagram photos of him hiking, sitting under trees and talking to voters. According to an opinion survey by pollster Episcenter for RTV Slovenija, he’ll win 56 percent in the first round of voting to clinch a second five-year term.

Anti-Government Comic

His closest rival is Marjan Sarec, 39, a comic who played an often drunk and government-criticizing peasant last decade until he became the mayor of Kamnik, a town of 29,000 people near the capital, Ljubljana. With no party affiliation, Sarec has branded Pahor as an empty suit who fears decision-making. Sarec had 21 percent in the Episcenter poll.

“The president’s role is largely ceremonial and that is exactly how Pahor has conducted himself over his first term,” Otilia Dhand, a political analyst at Teneo Intelligence in Brussels, said by phone. “His choices of appointments for the anti-corruption commission, which is his sole prerogative, appear to be counterproductive.”

At the heart of the criticism against Pahor is his handling of Slovenia’s Anti-Corruption Commission, which has been embroiled in disputes since he named Boris Stefanec to lead it in 2014. In stark contrast to its previous leadership, which accused former Prime Minister Janez Jansa of not disclosing assets and toppled his government in 2013, the institution under Stefanec has produced no major results. Pahor rejects accusations that he failed to intervene, saying his role is not to insert himself in “matters that only create divisions.”

“Political stability can’t be taken for granted,” Pahor told supporters in Ljubljana. “The president can significantly contribute to the political stability of the country by not meddling with affairs that are for the government or lawmakers to deal with.”

New Faces

After suffering a two-year recession that lasted until 2013, Slovenia’s economy has recovered under Pahor and the government of Prime Minister Miro Cerar, which holds most of the country’s executive powers. Gross domestic product grew annual 4.4 percent in the second quarter from 5.1 percent pace in the first three months. The yield on Slovenia’s 10-year government bonds rose 2 basis points, to 0.90 percent at 5:43 p.m. in Ljubljana from the previous session and compares with 6.27 percent at the end of October 2013.

In a country with a small ruling and business elite that has been more reluctant than other ex-communist states to sell state-owned banks and other companies into private hands, Sarec has vowed to bring new faces to politics. He’s promised to replace the head of Slovenia’s central bank, Bostjan Jazbec, who is also a governing council member at the European Central Bank.

While Sarec has rejected a departure from the EU and doesn’t challenge Slovenia’s place in the euro region. he diverges on the subjects of Russia and separatism in the EU. He called the bloc’s sanctions over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea “stupid.” He also backs Catalonia’s illegal referendum on independence from Spain.

“I support the independence of every nation that wants independence,” Sarec said.

(A previous version of this story corrected Sarec’s age)

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