Slovenians vote in tight race between populists, liberals

A member of electoral commission inspects ballot boxes at a polling station in Sentilj, Slovenia, Sunday, April 24, 2022.

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia (AP) — Slovenians are casting ballots Sunday in a parliamentary election that is expected to be a tight race between the ruling right-wing populist party of Prime Minister Janez Jansa and opposition green-liberals in the politically divided European Union nation.

About 1.7 million voters will choose from an array of parties running for seats in the 90-member legislature. The ruling conservative Slovenian Democratic Party and newly formed Freedom Movement have led polls ahead of the vote.

Surveys, however, have suggested that there will be no clear winner in the election and that a coalition government will have to be formed after the vote, made up of at least three or four parties.

Jansa became prime minister a little over two years ago after the previous liberal premier resigned. An admirer of former U.S. President Donald Trump, Jansa has pushed the country to the right since taking over at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The main challenger Sunday is U.S.-educated former business executive Robert Golob and his Freedom Movement party. The party has advocated green energy transition and sustainable development over Jansa’s nation-centered narrative.

The two blocs are projected to win an almost equal number of votes — around 20-25% — which would mean the composition and course of the future government could depend on which smaller groups pass the 4% election threshold.

Jansa’s SDS won the most votes in an election four years ago, but couldn’t initially find partners for a coalition government. He took over after lawmakers from centrist and left-leaning groups switched sides following the resignation in 2020 of liberal Prime Minister Marjan Sarec.

Jansa has since faced accusations of sliding toward authoritarian rule in the style of his ally, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Jansa came under EU scrutiny amid reports that he pressured opponents and public media, and installed loyalists in key positions for control over state institutions.

Liberals have described Sunday’s election as a referendum on Slovenia’s future. They argue that Jansa, if reelected, would push the traditionally moderate nation further away from “core” EU democratic values and toward other populist regimes.

The Freedom House democracy watchdog recently said that “while political rights and civil liberties are generally respected (in Slovenia), the current right-wing government has continued attempts to undermine the rule of law and democratic institutions, including the media and judiciary.”

The 63-year-old political veteran Jansa has denied this, portraying himself as a victim of an elaborate leftist smear plot. In order to polish his image before the election, Jansa has distanced himself from Orban and adopted a tough stance toward Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.