Slovenia’s populist PM faces close election race against environmentalist party

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LJUBLJANA, April 24 (Reuters) – Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa hopes to shake off criticism of his record on democracy and media freedoms to win a fourth term in a parliamentary election in the tiny Alpine state on Sunday.

The 63-year-old populist has campaigned on promises to improve the economy and provide energy security in the former Yugoslav republic of about 2 million people that is now a member of the European Union and the NATO military alliance.

But Jansa, an admirer of former U.S. President Donald Trump and an ally of nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has clashed with Brussels over media freedoms and opponents accuse him of undermining democratic standards.

Jansa denies the accusations but a close race is likely between his centre-right Slovenian Democratic Party and the environmentalist Freedom Movement, which wants more investment in renewable energy and more transparency in state institutions.

A poll published by Ninamedia polling agency on Friday put the Freedom Movement on 27.7% and Jansa’s SDS on 24%.

Whoever wins will have to secure coalition partners to form a new government. The two main left-leaning parties have ruled out serving in a coalition led by the SDS.

“Every vote is important and precious,” President Borut Pahor said after voting early. “The situation in Europe and around the world in the wake of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine means that we will not face only the usual daily problems in the coming years.”

Some 1.7 million voters are eligible to vote from 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and polling stations will close at 7 p.m. Exit polls are expected to be published soon afterwards.

KYIV VISIT

Jansa, who served as prime minister from 2004 to 2008, from 2012 to 2013 and from 2020 until now, is a staunch advocate of EU enlargement, including membership for Ukraine.

He was among the first EU leaders to visit Ukraine and show solidarity with Kyiv after Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, and has promised to reduce Slovenia’s reliance on Russian gas imports.

Jansa says he has managed the economy well and hopes to benefit from measures implemented to soften the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, including payments to poorer pensioners.

The Freedom Movement is led by Robert Golob, a former executive of a state-owned energy company. It backs EU sanctions on Russia over the war in Ukraine but accuses Jansa of seeking to exploit the war for his own political benefit, a charge that Jansa dismisses.

(Reporting by Katja Lihtenvalner, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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