'Drain the swamp': rightwing leader pulls ahead in Slovenia's polls

He has peppered his campaign with calls to “drain the swamp”, ranted against political foes on Twitter, and driven home his anti-immigration message with populist bombast.

But this is not Donald Trump, or even Viktor Orbán of Hungary. It is Janez Janša, the former Slovenian prime minister, whose rightwing Slovenian Democratic party (SDS) is leading in the polls ahead of Sunday’s general election.

The heated rhetoric, combined with allegations of corruption, is leading to concerns among international observers about the direction of Slovenia, which is generally regarded as a regional success story.

“I am very concerned about the rhetoric coming from the SDS campaign,” said Danilo Türk, a left-leaning independent president of Slovenia between 2007 and 2012.

“We have never had this kind of hate-mongering, xenophobia and plain lies in our electoral campaigns. All this is coming at the time of a general movement of the European electorate to the right – in some countries to [the] far right. The situation is disturbing.”

A recent poll for local newspaper Dnevnik put the SDS on 25.5%, with its nearest challenger, a new centre-left party led by former comedian Marjan Šarec, on 13.7%. The liberal Modern Centre party (SMC) of the incumbent prime minister, Miro Cerar, was languishing on 8.8%, while 40% of the electorate remained undecided.

During the campaign, Janša – regarded by some Slovenians as a hero for his role in the country’s independence – has called for “draining the bureaucratic swamp” and has used social media to attack the “degenerate left”.

Referring to two award-winning female artists whose work included one of the women depicted wrapped in a torn Slovenian flag and the other having her breasts licked by a dog, Jansa attacked “these creatures who desecrate everything that allowed us to stand firm and survive as a nation”.

Slovenia was affected by the 2015 refugee crisis after neighbouring Hungary closed its borders, sending hundreds of thousands of people through the country, although few stayed. Just over 200 asylum seekers were accepted in 2015 and 2016 combined, according to official figures, and Slovenia received 1,476 asylum applications last year.

Nevertheless, migration has played a central role in the campaign. One of the SDS’s posters depicts migrants and refugees behind a Stop sign. In a pre-election debate, a party lawmaker said that “no migrants means a secure Slovenia”.

Since declaring independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, when the country fought a 10-day war against Yugoslav forces, Alpine Slovenia has built a reputation as one of the most affluent and stable countries in the region. It joined the EU in 2004 and the euro in 2007, and in 2013 fought off a banking crisis without needing an international bailout, scotching claims that the “Switzerland of the east” would become “the new Cyprus”.

Milan Brglez, deputy president of the SMC and speaker of parliament, points to stable public finances and recovering economic growth – which reached 5% last year, one of the highest rates in the EU – but admits that post-crisis austerity has hit the middle classes and the poor.

The SDS is benefitting from both the strength of its traditional rightwing base, as well as voters disillusioned with the ruling liberal and leftwing parties in the coalition, and promises to cut taxes, said Aljaž Pengov Bitenc, a Slovenian commentator.

Bitenc also highlighted the left’s struggle with allegations of Iranian money-laundering by a state-owned bank under its watch in 2008-10. Like other leaders in the region, Janša has promised to sweep away remnants of communism regarded as corrupt, while sharing the proceeds of Slovenia’s economic success more widely.

But recently the SDS has been hit by its own scandal over a controversial €450,000 loan which it was forced to return. The SDS was unable to respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.

“Slovenia has achieved a lot in the past 25 years, but often the political class thinks of the state and its resources as their own personal ATM,” Bitenc said.

To bolster his campaign, Janša has enlisted the support of controversial Hungarian prime minister Orbán, an advocate of “illiberal democracy” and opponent of non-European immigration who has been accused of capitalising on xenophobia and antisemitism.

Orban spoke at two SDS election events, wholeheartedly endorsing Janša.

If elected, Janša is likely to look to make common cause with the Eurosceptic Polish and Hungarian governments, while taking a tougher line on the domestic media, says Bitenc. But he may also look to the White House, with its Slovenian first lady, Melania Trump.

“Janša is quite obviously emulating Orbán,” says Luka Oreskovic, a Harvard expert on Central and Eastern Europe, and a partner at consultancy Spitzberg.

“Janša’s shift from conservativism to right-wing populism mirrors the campaign of current US president, Donald Trump. Thus, it would not be far-fetched to say that Janša would be well positioned – in terms of mindset if nothing else – to strengthen bilateral relations with President Trump’s administration.”

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