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Will Janez Janša take Slovenia down the same populist road as Hungary?

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Janez Jansa speaks during the European Peoples Party (EPP) congress in Zagreb, Croatia
Janez Jansa speaks during the European Peoples Party (EPP) congress in Zagreb, Croatia   -   Copyright  AP Photos
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Janez Janša is the rising populist leader you have likely never heard of.

While his counterparts in countries such as Hungary or Poland are renowned internationally as bogeymen threatening liberal democracy in Europe, the Slovenian prime minister’s recent overtures rarely make headline news.

Janša came to power in the small EU member state in March while the continent and his country were in the throes of the ongoing pandemic. Immediately, he introduced pandemic measures without consulting the public health institute, provoking protest from epidemiologists.

Critics say that a move like this could be unconstitutional. The lack of attention from outside the country seems to have only helped embolden him further.

“At a time when everybody was dealing with the pandemic, he was able to change legislation that he would not have been able to do otherwise,” said Goran Forbici, director of Slovenia’s most prominent NGO umbrella organisation.

“Janša was able to attack many of the critical voices, not only the NGOs and the media but also from the independent state agencies, claiming that they were preventing the government from coping with the pandemic.”

Janša has been a fixture of Slovenian politics since before the former socialist republic broke away from the Yugoslav federation. A driven young member of the communist party, he was prominent in its youth wing and worked for its paper, Mladina.

He shifted ideological gears at the onset of the wars in the region when he was arrested and put on trial for his paper’s alleged disclosure of military secrets, as crackdowns on dissident voices from the central communist party grew and Mladina became increasingly independent.

Janša’s 18-month prison sentence in 1988 caused outrage in Slovenia and inspired the largest grassroots civil society movement in what was still a socialist republic. It continues to be seen by many as the first step towards the country’s subsequent independence in 1991, something Janša uses to his advantage to this day.

Yet since then, Janša has changed his parties and talking points many times over. From a young communist to a pacifist, to a wartime defence minister, to an avowed liberal, Janša is now widely considered a right-wing hardliner and compared to populist leaders across the continent.

“From the start of the millennium, he was also addressing a rather substantial number of those that feel disappointed by the transition, that have not gained much by the introduction of liberalism and market economy,” Forbici said.

“We have a number of people from the working class that were actually left with nothing during the initial economic transition and the shutting down of factories back in the 90s.”

Like Hungary PM Viktor Orban or the Law and Justice party in Poland, voters seem to respond to his populism out of disappointment with the post-communist transition.

In the handful of months since he became prime minister for the third time, following stints in 2004 and 2012, attacks on independent journalists, anti-corruption activists as well as the promotion of anti-migrant and climate-sceptic views have risen in the country to unprecedented levels.

Izak Košir, the online editor of Janša’s former paper, Mladina, sees Janša’s political career as a quintessential missed opportunity.

“As Mladina's creative director and former editor Robert Botteri said in a recent interview for the Slovenian national television, over 30 years ago Janez Janša had a good chance of becoming Slovenia's Vaclav Havel, but he chose to become Slovenia's Viktor Orban.“

Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party or SDS have an approval rating that ranges from 15 to 20 per cent, while gaining 24.92 per cent of votes in the last general elections in 2018. When he became prime minister in March, it was due to a government shakeup caused by a precarious minority government coalition and PM Marjan Šarec’s resignation.

Košir highlights just how contradictory Janša’s past and current beliefs are.

“Janša used to fight the regime that put him in jail," he said. "The people then went on the streets to protest for his freedom. And they succeeded.

“Now he has become the regime and the people are on the streets protesting again. This time not for his freedom but for his resignation.”

The third-time prime minister is now being dogged by accusations of corruption, with the prosecutor’s office formally raising charges related to illegal profiteering through an overpriced property sale back in 2005 after a six-year investigation.

This is not Janša’s first encounter with courts in his native country. The Patria Scandal in 2013 saw the Finnish public broadcaster accuse Janša and others of accepting bribes to clinch an arms sales deal. The case went all the way up to the Constitutional Court, with Janša serving the second prison sentence of his lifetime in 2014. Eight months later he was released while the top court reviewed the case and ultimately it was overturned.

At the time Janša claimed that the court case was a leftist witch hunt, drawing on his experiences in the past to portray himself as the victim of biased courts and even going so far as to claim he was a political prisoner. Thousands of supporters gathered to accompany him being escorted to Slovenia’s Dob prison.

Janša continues to defend himself from corruption allegations by claiming that he accrued his wealth by authoring several bestselling books.

Forbici thinks the newest case will follow the same pattern as the one seven years ago.

“At the moment, the thing is under the radar," he said. "As for his defence, he will definitely claim the prosecutor’s office is connected to the leftist forces of the old regime.”

Instead of addressing the latest accusations, Janša is solidifying his control over the country. Eight government agencies dealing with widely different issues, such as postal and electronic services on one hand and energy or public transportation on the other, are being merged together into so-called “mega-agencies”.

Officially, this is being done to whittle down inefficient spending. Yet fears exist that melding eight agencies into two all-encompassing ones will make it easier to control these sources of significant government revenue.

The government will outline the rules that the new agencies will adhere to, while the ministries are being granted the power to issue guidelines for their work.

Unlike the other European populist leaders he is compared to, Janša spends a significant amount of time on his personal Twitter account attacking his critics. Journalists and media outlets are his favourite target.

One of his recent outbursts on Twitter led him to complain about the public Slovenian press agency, STA, devoting more words to an article about Zlatko, a popular rapper in the country, than to works on a new power line with Hungary, attended by Orban.

“It is a wet dream of any non-democratic politician to control the media. Janša's government currently wants to pass a new media law which -- among other things -- would take a lot of state funding away from the national TV and radio broadcaster, RTV Slovenija, and revert the funds to private, pro-Janša outlets like Nova24TV,” said Košir.

Nova24TV, which was founded by SDS and with financial backing from Hungarian businessmen related to Orban, launching personal attacks against other Slovenian journalists.

Janša’s thorny relationship with the press came to fore in 2016, when as an opposition politician he called RTV Slovenija journalists Eugenija Carl and Mojca Šetinc Pašek "outdated prostitutes". The journalists sued him and the case is ongoing, but far-right supporters of the prime minister have adopted the term and today refer to female journalists as "presstitutes".

For Nika Kovač, director of the March 8th Institute in Ljubljana, Janša’s attacks on women forms part of a broader strategy of attacking vulnerable groups in Slovenian society: “Just this past week we had a second pro-life march in seven years and a politician from Janša’s party was there. So basically, the party gave institutional support to people who are against abortion in Slovenia.”

The end goal of Janša’s political strategy is more than just maintaining power. As Forbici puts it, his public stunts are “smoke bombs” meant to distract from any financial gains made along the way. “In all of what we have been seeing for the past half a year here in Slovenia or under his previous governments, the answer to solving the puzzle is just follow the money.”

Euronews contacted the office of Janša to comment on this article but had not received a response by the publication.

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