Gloomy Slovenians pin little hope on snap election

Bojan KAVCIC
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Slovenian national emblems are displayed during celebrations marking the 23rd anniversary of Independance in Ljubljana on June 24, 2014

Slovenian national emblems are displayed during celebrations marking the 23rd anniversary of Independance in Ljubljana on June 24, 2014 (AFP Photo/Jure Makovec)

Murska Sobota (Slovenia) (AFP) - Jolanka Horvat has watched her home region of Pomurje, in Slovenia's northeast, slide deeper into poverty and joblessness over the past few years.

And the 53-year-old seamstress has little hope of change after Slovenia's snap election this weekend, the third in less than three years.

"Our kids will have to go abroad to make a living," the mother of two told AFP ahead of Sunday's vote.

"I expect nothing from this nor any other government... they just make promises but nothing happens," she said, a refrain echoed around the country.

Once a model member of the European Union which it joined in 2004, Slovenia was hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis and narrowly escaped a bailout last year.

The situation is the worst in Pomurje, near the border with Austria and Hungary, with the country's lowest income per capita and highest unemployment rate at 21 percent, against 13 percent nationwide.

Following the resignation in May of centre-left Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek -- whose EU-driven economic reforms were criticised for bringing little benefit to ordinary people -- a law professor with no political experience, Miro Cerar, looks likely to win the election.

But even this will make little difference, voters fear.

"A simple man does not have a chance in elections, they (political parties) just won't let him try to change things," says Horvat.

In Pomurje, foolhardy privatisation efforts -- as managers tried to acquire their companies thanks to massive bank loans -- coupled with the overall financial crisis led to the closure of the region's two largest companies.

The meat processing plant Pomurka was the first to close in 2009, followed in May this year by the textile factory Mura, which made clothes for high-end brands like Hugo Boss.

Together the closures left over 2,700 workers out of a job, worsening an already-depressed outlook in a region of 120,000 with no industry and an underdeveloped farm sector.

- No future -

Anton Stihec, mayor of the regional capital Murska Sobota, blames Bratusek's government for increasing the public debt to rescue the country's banks instead of investing in the economy.

Pomurje's arable land and natural hot springs would make it ideal for greenhouses and the textile industry could make a comeback if there was an adequate long-term strategy, he insists.

While Murska Sobota's town centre bustles with coffee shops and bars, new cars and market stalls filled with fruit and imported clothing, appearances are deceptive, locals say.

"Business has never been this bad," says 39-year-old Andreja, selling imported T-shirts and trousers for five euros (around $7) apiece at the market.

"We survive because we own our home, but for young people, it's going to be awful."

- Social assistance -

For the mayor Stihec, things are starting to look up. But only because "we've hit rock bottom and I doubt it could get worse".

Seasonal work in nearby Austria -- which goes unrecorded in statistics -- and local farming have helped many in Pomurje cope with the crisis.

But many have had to turn to charity to feed themselves.

Last week, the local Red Cross distributed flour, oil and milk to 800 people, many of them former Mura workers who have had no income since May.

Hundreds have flocked to a soup kitchen that opened two months ago.

"We thought we'd need some time to kickstart our service but almost immediately people in need started coming. We even have a waiting list," says Jozef Kociper, from the local branch of the Caritas humanitarian organisation.

"I lost my job at a construction firm in October. After three months of welfare I was left with nothing, moved to a friend's flat and spent the winter there without electricity, water or heating," 36-year-old Kristjan Kozinc, one of the soup kitchen's clients, told AFP.

But he for one remains optimistic: "It's hard to believe in change, but there are still people ready to help."

In a take-out hamburger bar in Murska Sobota, 18-year-olds Miso and Goran also choose to look on the bright side, as they prepare to vote for the first time.

"Chances of changing things are slim, but you can at least try!"