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Slovenia: Presidential Elections Leave Prime Minster Ahead But Still Facing Runoff

Slovenia's center-left prime minister, Janez Drnovsek, won the most votes in the first round of presidential elections on 10 November, but he fell short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Drnovsek is set to face public prosecutor Barbara Brezigar in a second round next month. Pro-Western Drnovsek, who has been prime minister since 1992 except for a short period in 2000, appears well-positioned to replace President Milan Kucan. Drnovsek is widely seen as the architect of Slovenia's successful drive toward NATO and EU membership.

Prague, 11 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek has won the first round of presidential elections, with more than 44 percent of the vote.

Drnovsek, leader of the center-left Liberal Democracy of Slovenia party (LDS), will now face runner-up Barbara Brezigar in a 1 December runoff.

Public prosecutor Brezigar, who is running as an independent supported by the opposition center-right Social Democrat Party (SDS), secured almost 31 percent of the vote in the poll, which saw a turnout of more than 71 percent.

Drnovsek, 52, who has been prime minister since 1992 with a short exception during 2000, is favored to win the second round and replace President Milan Kucan. Kucan, under the constitution, is barred from running for a third five-year term and will step down on 23 December.

Drnovsek, an economist by training, is widely regarded as the architect of the former Yugoslav republic's transition to democracy and a market economy. The tiny Alpine republic of 2 million is a front-runner for both European Union and NATO membership.

Voters were apparently not deterred by Drnovsek's fragile health. He had a kidney tumor removed some three years ago, and earlier this year he said he had a tumor on his lung, but that it was not spreading.

Drnovsek last night said the results show Slovenes were satisfied with his work as prime minister. "I think Slovenes are more or less satisfied with what we have achieved until now, and I think they have good reasons for that. We have fulfilled most of our objectives, including the EU membership and lots of others. Otherwise, it would be difficult after 10 years of being prime minister to get such a result," Drnovsek said.

Under reformed communist Kucan, who was first elected president of the Yugoslav republic in 1990, Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia in June 1991. Following a 10-day war, the Yugoslav Army withdrew completely three months later.

Slovenia, the most developed of the former Yugoslav republics, has made steady political and economic progress under Kucan's and Drnovsek's leadership.

Slovenia currently has a gross domestic product of about 70 percent of the EU average, and an annual per capita income of some $11,000, similar to EU members Portugal and Greece.

Experts say that for many prosperous Slovenes, Drnovsek now appears as the logical successor to Kucan.

Analyst Damir Grubisa of the Institute for International Relations in Zagreb told RFE/RL that yesterday's result was expected: "First, because Prime Minister Drnovsek has been a pragmatic politician who followed the line created by President Kucan, and President Kucan practically is the founding father of modern Slovenia, being a charismatic leader but also a very pragmatic one. So they succeeded in bringing Slovenia closer to the European Union and NATO. I think that this was done also with full control of all the social processes within Slovenia, mainly the privatization process, which did not run out of control like in other Southeastern European countries or the countries of the former Yugoslavia," Drnovsek said.

Amid strong public consensus on the main issues of EU and NATO membership, public prosecutor Barbara Brezigar, 48, put on a surprisingly strong showing, rising from 5 percent in opinion polls to almost a third of the vote.

Brezigar, renowned for her tough line on organized crime and corruption, was justice minister in a short-lived conservative government in 2000.

She is running as an independent candidate but enjoys the support of the center-right opposition and the Catholic Church. About 70 percent of Slovenes are Catholics.

Grubisa said that while Brezigar is strongly in favor of EU and NATO membership, she also represents conservative values. "Practically, she embodies more or less the conservative or the center-right ideas and policies in Slovenia. She has received strong support from the Catholic Church, unlike Drnovsek and Kucan. Brezigar's project is more conservative [and], despite the fact that both candidates declared their allegiance to the concept of European integration, her project would probably be more attached to the family values, to the Catholic tradition," Grubisa said.

None of the other seven candidates won more than 10 percent.

Nationalist Zmago Jelincic came third, with 8.5 percent, and former central bank governor France Arhar was fourth with 7.6 percent. Jelincic has already asked his supporters to vote for Drnovsek in the runoff.

President Kucan, an independent, has also thrown his support behind Drnovsek.

If Drnovsek wins the second round, his LDS will control both the presidency and the government.

But analysts say that since the presidency holds a largely ceremonial role, there is no risk of too much power concentrating in the hands of liberal democrats.

Grubisa said: "Practically, the problem is not a question of stability or of even too much power concentrated with the liberal democrats. I think that the problem will be how the liberal democrats will continue their efficient policy led so far."

If Drnovsek wins the runoff, Finance Minister Anton Rop, who is also a member of the liberal democrats, is expected to become prime minister.