World News

Slovenian Leader Quits After Court Blocks Key Rail Project

Posted March 15, 2018 1:36 p.m. EDT

RIJEKA, Croatia — The prime minister of Slovenia, who surged to power as a political novice in 2014 on promises of an economic recovery, has resigned after the country’s highest court stalled an infrastructure project that was a crucial part of his agenda.

Hours after the ruling Wednesday, the prime minister, Miro Cerar, announced that he would step down, and he made it official Thursday in a note to the parliament. He said the decision by the Supreme Court of Slovenia was “a fresh blow” to the center-left government’s flagship development plan, blaming “those who want to halt Slovenia’s economic growth at any cost.”

“I do not want to be part of that story,” Cerar said.

With a history that parallels Emmanuel Macron’s sudden rise in France, Cerar, 54, led his hastily assembled party — now known as the Modern Center Party — to success in the 2014 elections. His party won the largest share of seats, and formed a coalition government with two smaller parties, the Democratic Party of Pensioners and the Social Democrats.

He campaigned on promises to return decency to politics and to curb an economic downturn that had hit hard in Slovenia, a member of the European Union with a population of about 2 million.

Cerar, a lawyer and the son of a revered Olympic champion gymnast, was a fresh face on the political stage. He was untainted by the political scandals and rampant corruption that had marked Slovenia’s governing class since the early 1990s, when the country gained independence in the collapse of communist Yugoslavia, and began the transition to a market economy.

The infrastructure project would add 16 miles of rail track to link the Slovenian port of Koper with the transport hub of Divaca, near the border with Italy. It is intended to bolster Koper’s ability to compete with other ports on the Adriatic Sea, such as Trieste in Italy and Rijeka in Croatia.

Voters approved the project in a referendum in September, but the Supreme Court found that the government’s fierce backing of the plan had breached campaign rules in ways that might have influenced the result of the election. It ordered a new referendum.

Cerar’s resignation comes three months before scheduled elections, set for early June. “It’s important to know what is right and what is wrong,” he said, adding, “I have made a decision any trustworthy politician should make in such a situation.”

In line with the country’s constitution, he is expected to lead the government as a caretaker, until the voting, which could now take place a few weeks earlier than had been planned. But his resignation allows Modern Center Party to choose another standard-bearer for the campaign; the party has not indicated how it will proceed.

Praising his government’s achievements, Cerar said “the economic crisis ended” during his term, and he cited the lowest unemployment figures since 2009. Slovenia’s economy grew by 5 percent in 2017, one of the fastest rates in Europe, according to the European Union.

However, Cerar has been under pressure as his approval rating has been dragged down by a crippling public sector strike and deadlocked negotiations with the unions representing teachers and doctors over austerity measures.

Tanja Staric, a veteran political reporter and news editor of Slovenia’s public broadcasting network, said that Cerar and his party were already struggling for support.

“Life has become a bit easier since he took over, and the economy has recovered, but the continuous strikes by the public sector were a clear indicator that Cerar and his party are headed for a crushing defeat at the elections,” Staric said.

Cerar’s handling of a border dispute with Croatia was another source of criticism, Staric said, prompting censure from his coalition partners as well as from the right-wing nationalist opposition.

So far, populist and far-right parties have not gained much traction in Slovenia, as they have in neighboring Austria and Italy. In contrast to popular views in those two countries, approval of EU membership remains high in Slovenia, which adopted the euro more than a decade ago, and has been able to tap EU funds for regional development.

Voters could again opt for an outsider over a political veteran; the front-runner in opinion polls is the center-left party led by Marjan Sarec, a former actor who came close to unseating the incumbent president, Borut Pahor, last year.

Trailing behind Sarec’s party is the Slovenian Democratic Party, a right-wing nationalist group led by a former prime minister, Janez Jansa. Cerar’s Modern Center Party lags behind both of them.