The Miro Cerar Party, founded in June by a renowned law professor of the same name, received 35 percent of the vote, with 95 percent of votes counted, officials said. That result gives the party 36 seats in the 90-seat parliament.
The opposition center-right Slovenian Democratic Party led by ex-premier Janez Jansa, who began serving a two-year jail term for bribery last month, garnered 21 percent, but rejected the results even before they had been officially announced.
The vote was the second early election in three years in a country that was once a model member of the European Union, but which has been on a downward spiral since the 2008 financial crisis.
Reacting to earlier exit polls which gave roughly the same margin of victory, 50-year-old Cerar urged caution.
“These results are good. Let’s wait for the official ones,” he said, adding that victory would represent “a very big responsibility that will require big efforts from us.”
Cerar announced coalition talks would start on Monday, but ruled out any deal with the SDS.
“We do not see any possibility of a coalition since it is a party that has been acting against some state institutions,” he said.
Slovenia’s leaders agreed to hold snap elections after outgoing Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek lost the support of her center-left Positive Slovenia (PS) party and resigned in May.
Her new party barely entered parliament with four percent, or four seats.
The Democratic Party of Pensioners of Slovenia came in third with 10 percent ― its best result ever ― and will likely play kingmaker again.
For many voters, Cerar, who helped draft Slovenia’s first constitution in 1990 and has advised parliament on legal issues for more than 20 years, is a welcome alternative to squabbling politicians and shady dealings.
“I think political newcomers can bring new opportunities, in particular if they collaborate with other parties,” Nina Pirnat, a woman in her 40s, said after casting her vote in central Ljubljana.
Speaking before any official results had been released, a spokesman for SDS, which won 21 seats, rejected the polls, and announced that his party would obstruct the work of parliament.
“These elections were neither free nor fair,” said Zvonko Cernac. “The government, which will be constructed on the basis of such elections, will not be legitimate. The person who will lead such a government will not be legitimate,” he added.
Outgoing prime minister Bratusek, meanwhile, did not rule out joining a new coalition led by Cerar, speculating that her party had paid the price for having led a government that “adopted hard and unpopular measures.”
During Bratusek’s year in office, Slovenia avoided a much-dreaded bailout and recapitalized its largest state-owned banks.
But public debt increased to 70 percent 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.
Observers warn that, regardless of the 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 this time,” Matevz Tomsic, a professor at the Nova Gorica School of Social Sciences, told AFP.
One of the surprises of the election was the performance of United Left, a party that has united several smaller mostly leftist parties that emerged from civil protests against Jansa’s government in 2012.
The party won a surprising six percent of the vote on a platform of anti-austerity.