LJUBLJANA - Slovenians voted on Sunday in snap elections with a political novice favoured to win but unlikely to restore stability in the crisis-hit eurozone country.
The vote will be the second early election in three years in the country that was once a model member of the European Union, but that has been on a downward spiral since the 2008 financial crisis.
Miro Cerar, an influential 50-year-old Ljubljana University law professor, is tipped to win despite his lack of political experience, and analysts predict that any new government will not last long, spelling further instability for the small nation of two million.
Latest polls show that his Miro Cerar Party (SMC), which he founded only in June, is expected to win some 31 per cent of the vote, ahead of the around 23 per cent for opposition centre-right Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) of ex-premier Janez Jansa, who began serving a two-year term for corruption last month.
Despite his lack of political experience Slovenians see Cerar, who helped draft Slovenia's first constitution in 1990 and has been advising parliament on legal issues for more than 20 years, as a welcome alternative to squabbling politicians and corruption scandals.
Slovenia's leaders agreed to hold snap elections on July 13, despite it being the height of the summer holiday season, after Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek lost the support of her centre-left Positive Slovenia (PS) party and resigned in May.
During her year in office, Slovenia avoided a much-dreaded bailout and recapitalised its largest state-owned banks.
But public debt increased to 70 per cent of gross domestic product in 2013, and little was done to halt the decline in quality of life for ordinary Slovenians amid crippling austerity measures and high unemployment.
Bratusek's newly-founded Alliance party (ZaAB) is expected to get around four per cent of the vote in Sunday's poll, just above the threshold needed to enter parliament.
Whoever wins Sunday's ballot will likely need to form a coalition, with the pensioners' party DESUS - currently third in the polls with 11 per cent - the likely kingmaker again.
More turmoil ahead
Observers warn that, regardless of the election results, more turmoil lies ahead for the former Yugoslav republic.
"I deeply doubt these elections will bring more political stability. In fact, we may face (fresh early elections) even faster than we did now," Matevz Tomsic, a professor at the Nova Gorica School of Social Sciences, told AFP.
Bratusek, who launched a privatisation drive to reduce public debt, has urged her successors to stay the course.
Frontrunner Cerar has already spoken out against privatising infrastructure companies but promised that "we will not halt the privatisations if they've reached a point at which it could damage Slovenia's credibility or cause losses." Despite returning to growth this year, Slovenia remains under the close watch of the European Commission because of its weak corporate governance and high public debt, which tripled from 2008 to 2013.
Ratings agency Standard & Poor's revised its outlook for the country from stable to negative in late June, warning that the political uncertainty could undermine reform efforts.
Some 1.7 million eligible voters will be able to cast their ballots from 7:00 am (0500 GMT) on Sunday. First exit polls are expected soon after polls close at 7:00 pm, with first partial official results announced later that evening.