By Marja Novak
LJUBLJANA (Reuters) – An anti-immigrant party looks set to win Slovenian elections on June 3, two years after nearly half a million migrants crossed the country on their way to Western Europe, although a lack of potential coalition partners may keep it out of government.
The Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), one of whose rallies was addressed by Hungary’s nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban this month, is leading in opinion polls after pledging to reject EU migrant quotas and boost spending on security.
A revival in the number of people passing west through the former Yugoslav republic to other European Union countries — 1,226 in January to April, compared with 322 in the same period last year — has pushed migration up the electoral agenda.
“I believe that Slovenia should not be forced to accept migrants. We should first take care of our own poor people,” said Natasa, a 55-year-old saleswoman who was strolling in the centre of the capital Ljubljana.
“I have not decided yet but am considering voting for the SDS.”
The SDS is led by Janez Jansa, who served twice as Slovenia’s prime minister before stepping down in 2013 to face corruption allegations. He denies any wrongdoing.
In a televised pre-election debate, SDS lawmaker Branko Grims emphasised the party’s hardline stance on immigration, saying: “No migrants means a secure Slovenia.”
If the party wins, he said, it will seek to abolish the EU migrant quotas under which Slovenia has committed to take 567 asylum seekers. It will also divert money currently paid to non-governmental organisations to the security forces.
An opinion poll on Sunday gave the SDS 14.9 percent of the vote, suggesting it will emerge as the largest party in Slovenia’s fractured parliament, ahead of centre-left newcomer the List of Marjan Sarec (LMS) on 9.7 percent.
The Social Democrats, a junior partner in the current centre-left coalition, scored 6.5 percent in the poll, with other parties — 25 of which will contest the election — on less than 5 percent.
But even if the SDS wins the election, other parties’ expressed unwillingness to work with it may mean it cannot form a government.
“I expect very long coalition talks. We will certainly not have a new government before September,” Tanja Staric, a political analyst at national broadcaster Radio Slovenia, told Reuters.
Not everyone agrees with the SDS’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and there are other big campaign issues, particularly the state of the national health system.
“I believe Slovenia should help migrants and enable them to contribute to the society,” said Darja, a 24-year-old student. “I will certainly not vote for the SDS as I strongly disagree with their radical opinions.”
While Slovenia’s economy is forecast to grow by a healthy 5.1 percent this year, boosted by exports and investments, waiting lists for medical examinations and operations are long and the system is short of money and staff.
Recently the last three consultants quit Slovenia’s only child surgical cardiology department, at the main UKC hospital, saying a lack of doctors meant they could no longer work there.
The hospital management is now hoping to keep services going using visiting doctors from Croatia and the Czech Republic.
“I will vote for the SDS because we need change,” said 43-year-old electrician Andrej, who was buying groceries in a Ljubljana street market.
“The health system is deteriorating, young people are leaving the country and there is a lot of corruption.”
SDS leader Jansa spent six months in prison in 2014 after being convicted on bribery charges related to a 2006 arms deal but was freed after the Constitutional Court ordered a retrial which did not take place because a 10-year time limit expired.
He previously served as prime minister from 2004 to 2008 and from 2011 to 2012.
In 2013, Slovenia narrowly avoided needing an international bailout after the biggest banking crisis in its history.
It rescued the banks itself but the new government will be obliged to sell a majority stake in NLB, the country’s largest lender, as agreed with the European Commission when it approved the granting of state aid to the bank in 2013.
The pension system also needs reforming in order to ease the burden of a rapidly ageing population on the state budget.
But memories of 2015 and 2016, when over a million people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and beyond arrived in Europe, many via the Balkan route of which Slovenia is part, remain a potent influence on the election.
In one of his first trips abroad after securing a third term as Hungary’s prime minister, Orban told an SDS rally on May 11 that mass migration threatened Europe’s security and culture.
“If Europe surrenders to mass population movement and immigration, our own continent will be lost,” he said. “Unless we watch carefully we could lose our countries.”
(Reporting By Marja Novak; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and Catherine Evans)