Slovenes look to the West as polls open

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The Independent Online
War is a distant memory in Slovenia this weekend, as voters go to the polls in the country's second general elections since declaring independence from former Yugoslavia in 1991.

While Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and rump Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) have all experienced political violence or full-scale war in the last five years, Slovenia has been fortunate enough to escape such convulsions since fighting a brief but bitter battle in June and July 1991 to evict the Serbian-led Yugoslav army.

For the first time since 1918, when Slovenia was incorporated into the first of this century's three Yugoslav states, the little Alpine country of 2 million people has slipped free from its Balkan moorings. Slovenia now has every chance of joining the Western economic and security institutions - above all the European Union and Nato - to which it feels it belongs by virtue of its culture, geography and present high standards of democracy and civil rights.

The outgoing US Defense Secretary, William Perry, was full of praise when he visited Ljubljana last year, and compared Slovenia with other former Communist countries applying to join Nato. "Of all these countries, I believe that Slovenia has made perhaps the greatest progress in the transition to democracy, the transition to a market economy, and the smooth turnover of the military to civilian control."

The main contenders in the election are the centre-left Liberal Democrats, who are the largest party in the coalition government, and an opposition alliance known as Slovenian Spring. This includes the People's Party, a rightist party with strong support among farmers, the conservative Christian Democrats and the centre-right Social Democrats.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Janez Drnovsek, who was president of Communist Yugoslavia in its dying years, has been Slovenia's prime minister since 1992. He has campaigned on a platform of completing Slovenia's integration into Europe and restructuring the economy.

He argues that, if Slovenian Spring came to power, the three-party coalition would offer nothing but "experimentation and preoccupation with the past". This refers in part to the Christian Democrats' campaign promise to seek the restoration of land and property to the Roman Catholic church, which was dispossessed after the Communist takeover in 1945.

The opposition contends that, despite economic growth of 3.5 per cent last year, the economy is not as healthy as Mr Drnovsek likes to suggest. Public spending has risen substantially as public sector strikes have forced higher wages, and annual inflation edged up last month to 9.7 per cent, well above the EU average.

Polls suggest the likeliest outcome is a qualified victory for the Liberal Democrats, who would then need to forge a coalition with one or two of the rightist parties.