By Ivana Sekularac
LJUBLJANA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Janez Jansa hopes his promises to cut Slovenia's reliance on Russian gas imports and his firm pro-Ukraine stance in the war will help propel his ruling centre-right party to victory in Sunday's parliamentary election.
But critics accuse Jansa, a populist who is seeking a fourth stint as premier, of undermining democratic standards in Slovenia, an ex-Yugoslav republic of some two million people that is a member of NATO and the European Union.
The vote is seen as a close race between Jansa's Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) and the environmentalist Freedom Movement, led by Robert Golob, which wants more investment in renewable energy and greater transparency in state institutions.
A poll published by Ninamedia polling agency on Thursday put the Freedom Movement slightly ahead on 26% and the SDS on 25.6%.
Whoever wins will have to secure coalition partners to form a new government. The two main left-leaning parties have ruled out serving in a coalition led by the SDS.
Jansa, 63, is a staunch advocate of EU enlargement, including to Ukraine. He was among the first EU leaders to visit Ukraine after Russia's invasion, travelling by train with the Polish and Czech premiers to Kyiv to demonstrate their solidarity with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
"(The war) is not somewhere far away. It is in our neighbourhood, and we ask how this could have happened," he told an election rally on Tuesday.
Slovenia has so far taken in more than 18,000 Ukrainian refugees and has said it could accept as many as 200,000.
Jansa's government has been in negotiations to help expand Croatia's LNG terminal to reduce the two countries' dependence on Russian gas imports.
Golob's Freedom Movement backs EU sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine but accuses Jansa of seeking to exploit the war for his own political benefit.
Jansa also hopes to benefit from measures implemented to soften the economic impact of the COVID pandemic, including payments of 150 euros to poorer pensioners.
"I expect (him) to win this election.... He is certainly the best," said a man who gave his name as Boris while attending an SDS rally outside the capital Ljubljana.
But Jansa, who previously served as prime minister from 2004 to 2008, from 2012 to 2013 and then again from 2020, faces accusations, including from EU lawmakers, of clamping down on media freedoms.
"(The election) will decide whether we will continue with this more authoritarian style of rule," said Tomaž Deželan, a political science professor at Ljubljana state university.
In a report published this week, the U.S.-based rights organisation Freedom House said democratic standards in Slovenia had declined more in 2021 than in any other country in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Jansa's government "exerted considerable political and financial pressure on civil society organizations, public media services, the judiciary," it said.
Such criticism has found resonance among some voters.
"(The current government) has effectively hijacked the country for their own private interests... They do not care about the average citizen," said Niko Gregorevic, 47.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)