LJUBLJANA, Slovenia (AP) — Slovenian voters go to the polls this weekend in a parliamentary election expected to produce no clear winner but which could see strong gains by an anti-immigrant party backed by Hungary’s firebrand prime minister, Viktor Orban.
Sunday’s vote is formally a snap ballot called a few weeks earlier than the regular four-year span following the sudden resignation in March of outgoing Prime Minister Miro Cerar over a failed railway project. Slovenia, once a republic in the former communist-run Yugoslavia, joined the European Union in 2004 and has been using the euro currency since 2007.
The election pits former Prime Minister Janez Jansa’s right-wing opposition Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) against a new party led by an ex-comedian and several moderate groups from the outgoing ruling coalition.
Jansa’s rising popularity is seen as a reflection of a wider surge in right-wing populism in central and eastern Europe amid the influx into Europe of migrants from the Middle East and Africa.
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The latest opinion polls predict Jansa’s SDS could get around 25 percent of the votes, followed by the former satirist Marjan Sarec’s list, the Social Democrats and Cerar’s Modern Center Party.
No party is expected to gain an absolute majority in the 90-member parliament, with negotiations to form a coalition government likely after the balloting.
Jansa, who has twice served as prime minister and spent months in jail on corruption allegations, has been stoking immigration fears. His campaign posters featured a stop sign for immigrants. Orban, Europe’s chief immigration opponent, was a guest at an election rally.
“Security is Slovenia’s biggest challenge,” Jansa declared, insisting it is Slovenia’s job to protect the EU’s border-free Schengen zone from the mass entry of migrants like in 2015, when a million migrants reached Europe.
“Slovenia failed the test once and we are all dealing with consequences of this failure now,” he said, in comments reminiscent of Orban’s anti-immigrant stance. “We will not allow this to happen again.”
Some 500,000 migrants passed through Slovenia on their way to western Europe in 2015. The flow eased in part when countries along the so-called Balkan route beefed up border controls.
In Hungary, Orban put up two rows of razor-wire fences on the country’s southern borders and toughened immigration laws, drawing fierce criticism from EU officials.
Jansa’s hard-line rhetoric and his links to Orban have fueled fears that Slovenia, a traditionally moderate nation, could shift right like Hungary and Poland.
Analysts, however, believe that, despite being the front-runner, Jansa won’t be able to return to power. More likely, other groups will form a coalition and keep him out of government.
Analyst Andraz Zorko said Jansa’s party had made immigration the focus of the campaign, sidelining issues like the economy or living standards which have boomed during Cerar’s term.
“Everybody started to talk about (migrants), although statistically there isn’t even a problem with that in Slovenia,” Zorko explained, adding that the SDS had a strong financial base. “Many say money is coming from Hungary, from their allies there.”
Foreign Minister Karl Erjavec has voiced concerns about attempts to spread Orban’s political model in the country. “Should this happen in Slovenia, it would be a disaster,” Erjavec said.
Cerar also has urged Slovenia to remain an open European democracy. Cerar touted the results of his government, which has averted an economic downturn since coming to power in 2014.
“We have paved the way for a successful Slovenia, we had very good results, we want to do more for people,” Cerar told the Associated Press.
Sarec, whose List of Marjan Sarec is polling at around 15 percent, gave up an acting career to become mayor of the northwestern town of Kamnik and ran for the presidency last year. He has gained popularity as an anti-establishment figure pledging to shake up the mainstream political scene.
A potential kingmaker after the election, Sarec has said he will not team up with Jansa and urged an investigation into the alleged foreign financing of Slovenian parties, apparently alluding to Jansa’s ties with Orban.
This story has been corrected to show that the analyst’s last name is Zorko, not Zovko.