( Reuters ) - Slovenians started voting in a presidential runoff on Sunday with leftist Danilo Turk likely to win and lead the small but wealthy ex-communist state which takes over the European Union presidency next year.
Turk, a law professor and former diplomat supported by the main left-wing parties, leads the opinion polls and is expected to beat conservative Lojze Peterle, who is backed by most of the right-of-centre ruling coalition.
Polling stations for 1.7 million eligible voters opened at 7 a.m. (1 a.m. EST) and close at 7 p.m. (1 p.m. EST). First exit polls are expected immediately after the polls close and preliminary results are due around 9 p.m. EST.
A victory for Turk would extend Slovenia's tradition of having left-wing heads of state since it quit communist Yugoslavia in 1991.
The winner will be sworn in days before Slovenia takes over the rotating six-month EU presidency on January 1.
The latest opinion polls, published last week, gave Turk between 58 and 69 percent support and analysts said a win for him could boost the social democrats ahead of a parliamentary election due in autumn 2008.
"If Turk wins by a big margin, it could cause alarm on the centre right, in which case the campaign for the parliamentary vote next year could start as early as Monday," Meta Roglic, an analyst at the daily Dnevnik, told Reuters.
The president's role is largely ceremonial but will include an active part in international contacts during the EU presidency, when analysts say Turk's diplomatic background could be an asset.
Turk was Slovenia's first ambassador to the United Nations. He chaired the U.N. Security Council in 1998-1999 and then became U.N. assistant secretary general for political affairs.
Turk came second to Peterle in the first round of the election in October but has gained support from backers of a losing leftist candidate.
Incumbent Janez Drnovsek, a popular left-winger who has often clashed with the centre-right cabinet, did not run for a second five-year term.