Slovenia to hold election amid divisions over populist path

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A man casts his ballot at a polling station for early voting in Ljubljana, Slovenia, Thursday, April 21, 2022. The vote on Sunday April 24 in Slovenia will be held amid heightened political divisions in the small Alpine nation of 2 million. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

LJUBLJANA – When he visited Ukraine last month with two other European leaders, Prime Minister Janez Jansa of Slovenia was looking to show solidarity with the war-stricken nation and to attract support at home ahead of what is expected to be a close parliamentary election.

The election set for Sunday is taking place amid heightened political divisions in Slovenia. Observers say the vote will determine whether the small Alpine nation of 2 million people slides further into right-wing populism under Jansa or returns to its traditionally moderate balance.

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Recent opinion surveys showed Jansa's Slovenian Democratic Party in a tight race with the Freedom Movement, a newly formed liberal-green political party. The party is led by a U.S.-educated expert, Robert Golob, who has promised to unite centrist and left-oriented groups in a future coalition government.

Both parties appeared to have voter support hovering around 20%. Polls showed several smaller left- and right-leaning groups trailing in the race for seats in Slovenia’s 90-member national legislature. Some surveys suggested 20% of the electorate remained undecided.

With no single party likely to secure enough votes to form a government on its own, analysts predicted Golob would have a better chance than Jansa at cobbling together a post-election coalition.

The 63-year-old Jansa, a veteran politician, took over as head of government at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, succeeding a liberal who resigned. While the prime minister has boasted of economic successes during tough times, critics have sounded alarm over his increasingly authoritarian course.

“The race is tight,” Jansa told a preelection convention of his party. “We will fight for every ballot.”

Known as a nature-loving nation of stunning scenic beauty, Slovenia was long regarded as a post-Communist success and one of the most stable countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Slovenia was among 10 countries that joined the European Union in May 2004, the bloc’s largest single expansion.

But it has come under EU scrutiny as Jansa has forged close relations with fellow populist, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Orban, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic — another right-wing regional leader — recently scored sweeping reelection victories.

Since he became the Slovenian Democratic Party's leader in 1993, Jansa has served as both defense minister and prime minister multiple times, faced a corruption trial and engaged in constant spats with journalists.

He denies recurring allegations that he has moved to give his party control over public media, intimidate critics and install loyalists in key positions at state institutions.

Fractured left-wing groups failed to mount a serious challenge to Jansa in more than two years despite simmering popular anger that fueled street protests and clashes with police. An array of civic movements have joined protests, seeking to galvanize public discontent and create a wider movement.

Golob, 55, has emerged as a new face, appealing to Slovenians who are disillusioned with the political mainstream. Under the slogan “We deserve a better state,” he has promised a green transformation and sustainable development to contrast with Jansa's strong nation narrative.

For Andraz Zorko, a public opinion analyst at the Valicon agency, the current pre-election campaign has been marked by a grassroots effort and tireless field work, designed to animate the new generation of Slovenia's youth to vote.

“Trends are now in favor of the Freedom Movement," Zorko said.

Political analyst Zenel Baragelj, however, told the AP election outcome is “impossible to predict," due to fluctuating loyalties and several parties teetering near the threshold line of 4%.

Observers say Jansa's similarities with Hungary's Orban can be spotted in their anti-liberal rhetoric and governing styles, as well as their financial dealings. Orban's associates have invested in Slovenia's pro-government media and companies.

A formerly pro-Jansa political magazine, Reporter, recently urged Slovenia's voters to "ask yourself if you want to live in a country such as Orban’s Hungary.” A group of prominent intellectuals and public figures warned in a petition that Sunday’s election was of “historic importance” and the “last chance to stop the authoritarian tendencies of Janez Jansa.”

Jansa has dismissed criticism as a leftist plot to undermine his government and promised voters stability and continuity in uncertain times. To polish his image, he distanced himself from Orban during the campaign and took a tough line against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

In an attention-grabbing move meant to display regional leadership within Europe, Jansa traveled to Ukraine's capital with the prime ministers of Poland and the Czech Republic in mid-March. Shortly after the trip, Slovenia's government reopened the country's embassy in Kyiv and urged other EU nations to do the same.

Surveys indicate that citizens' concerns center more around domestic issues such as social equality, environmental protection and the rule of law rather than the war in Ukraine. Jure Mocivnik, a resident of Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital, said he expected high turnout and strong voter interest in the election.

Asked about the outcome, Mocivnik said: “I don't have a clue, everything is possible.”