‘Not a good role model’: Hungary ties weigh on Slovenian leader’s re-election bid

Janez Jansa filled the role of European statesman when he took time out of Slovenia’s election campaign to take a long train journey to Kyiv last month – one of three EU leaders to show off its support for Ukraine and to show Western unity.

In his third term, however, the Slovenian prime minister was more often seen as an antagonist of EU allies with his rhetorical attacks on immigrants, non-governmental organizations and the media, which even tainted Ljubljana’s control over the rotating presidency of the EU last year. .

Jansa faces a general election on Sunday with his conservative SDS party trailing in the latest polls against a new centre-left party. He still hopes he can form another ruling coalition: his campaign message, reflected on billboards across the EU member state, focuses on a proven political record, promising a leader “with no experiences”.

But his close relationship with Viktor Orban, his fellow conservative leader from neighboring Hungary, is alienating a growing number of voters and raising concerns about the “Hungarianization” of Slovenia – a reference to Jansa’s tendency to ignore criticism and independent media.

“Jansa would be fine, but I hate how he acts like a bully in a schoolyard,” said Svjetlana Radosavljevic, a pensioner who enjoys fried fish at the market below Ljubljana Castle. “It’s like his friend Orban in Hungary. It’s not a good model. »

Robert Golob on stage at his party’s pre-election convention in Ljubljana last month. The former energy chief wants to implement ambitious green measures © Jure Makovec/AFP/Getty Images

Orban won a fourth straight election with a landslide victory in Hungary earlier this month, a feat Jansa is unlikely to repeat in Slovenia’s fractured political system, where coalitions involving multiple smaller parties are more typical.

Voters in the country of 2.1 million people are more concerned about corruption and the relationship with its neighbor than the economy. Growth rates and the labor market have rebounded as the Covid-19 crisis subsided, and analysts say Slovenia’s high deficit and public debt levels are risky but under control.

“In economic terms, you can’t really criticize the government,” said Mojmir Mrak, an economics professor at the University of Ljubljana. “Non-economic issues will determine the elections. . . ‘Hungarianization’ is a definitive problem.

Jansa, Slovenia’s best-known politician, served as prime minister in 2004. In 2013 he was convicted of corruption and sentenced to two years in prison. Having always denied the charges, he was released after six months, his sentence quashed and his conviction overturned. He returned to power in 2020 after the previous prime minister tried to call a snap election, but Jansa soon formed a replacement coalition instead.

His main opponent on Sunday is a new party called Svoboda, or Freedom, led by Robert Golob, a charismatic former executive of the state energy company Gen-I. Golob wants to end the alleged oppression and cronyism of the Jansa regime and execute an ambitious green transition.

“The party’s new social contract will leave no one behind,” Golob said when he unveiled his platform last month. It advocates an inclusive and open society based on the rule of law.

Last year, the Speaker of Parliament, Igor Zorcic, left the ruling coalition, citing “Jansa’s organization”. Critics such as Zorcic worry about Jansa’s self-proclaimed “war with the media” – an ideology the prime minister laid out two years ago in an essay – and his preference for communicating directly with voters and circumventing the Critical coverage in the style of former US President Donald Trump.

A loyal media empire is a key part of the Orban plan emulated by Jansa. A Slovenian media group owned by Hungarian businessmen echoes the Prime Minister’s Trump-like attacks on social media. These include the news channel Nova24TV, Planet TV and the weekly Demokracija and its regional online outlets. They are part of a growing network of media organizations in central European and Balkan countries that are owned by companies closely tied to Hungary’s ruling party, according to a report by the International Press Institute.

Opposition politician Jani Möderndorfer of the established center-left LMS party said last week he would press charges against the SDS, which he said illegally tried to establish a model like Orban’s.

SDS and government officials did not respond to questions from the FT about media ownership. Several interview requests from Jansa were turned down.

“This [media] question is big speculation,” Jansa told a commission investigating media influence in March. “This commission was set up because the international left feared that its outstanding media monopoly in Slovenia was at least slightly endangered.”

Although the Hungarian media currently have a limited audience, media analysts believe that their influence on Slovenian politics could increase.

“If the SDS wins a new mandate, the Slovenian media landscape could look a lot like that of Hungary today,” said Uros Esih, a journalist with the national daily Delo. “In five years it could make a difference politically.”

Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s election, Slovenia is likely to honor its Western security and business alliances, experts say. The country imports most of its gas from Russia, but economists say it is better placed than some EU countries to withstand a drop in trade with Moscow.

Svoboda’s Golob, however, has a stronger commitment to EU values ​​than Jansa.

“We will design and pursue a foreign policy committed to core EU values ​​and support a strong and united EU,” the party program said. “Slovenia will be among the leading EU countries.”

This difference is seen as fundamental, and a new government could leave Hungary’s Orban with one less ally as he battles Brussels on rule of law issues.

“With a change,” said Zorcic, the speaker of parliament, “Slovenia may take a stronger stance on the rule of law.”

Rebecca R. Santistevan