An opposition liberal party convincingly won Sunday's parliamentary election in Slovenia, in a major defeat for populist Prime Minister Janez Janša, who has been accused of pushing the small European Union country to the right.
With almost all the votes counted, the Freedom Movement won 34.5% of the vote, compared with 23.6% for Janša’s Slovenian Democratic party.
Trailing behind the top two contenders were the New Slovenia party with 7%, followed by the Social Democrats with more than 6% and the Left party with 4%.
Around 67% of Slovenia's 1.7 million voters cast their ballot, compared with 52% in the previous election in 2018.
The result means that the Freedom Movement, a newcomer in the election, stands likely to form the next government in a coalition with smaller centre-left groups. The party leader addressed supporters via a video message from his home because he has COVID-19.
“Tonight people dance,” Robert Golob told the cheering crowd at the party headquarters. “Tomorrow is a new day and serious work lies ahead.”
Janša, an ally of right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, congratulated the “relative winner” of the election in a speech.
“The results are as they are,” Janša said, praising his government's work. “Many challenges lie ahead for the new government, whatever it may look like, but the foundations are solid.”
Janša became prime minister a little over two years ago, after the previous liberal premier resigned. An open admirer of former US President Donald Trump and a close ally of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, he has pushed the country to the right since taking over at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Janša has faced accusations of sliding toward authoritarian rule in the style of Orban. He came under EU scrutiny amid reports that he pressured opponents and public media, launched attacks against journalists, and installed loyalists in key positions for control over state institutions.
Freedom Movement only launched in January, building on growing anger over the direction the country was taking under Janša’s leadership. In his campaigning Golob, a former power company manager, promised to restore “normality”.
Liberals have described Sunday's election as a referendum on Slovenia's future, arguing that Janša, if reelected, would push the traditionally moderate nation further away from "core" EU democratic values and toward other populist regimes.
The 63-year-old political veteran, Janša has denied this, portraying himself as a victim of an elaborate leftist smear plot.