Slovenia water law referendum seen as test for government

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia — Slovenians were voting Sunday in a referendum on changes to the country’s water management law, in a test for the government of right-wing Prime Minister Janez Jansa.

Jansa’s government approved the amendments in March but ecologists have pushed through the referendum, saying the changes threaten the environment and water quality.

The issue has sparked a heated debate in the small European Union nation of 2 million people known for stunningly beautiful Alpine scenery and as nature-lovers. The right to water was enshrined in the country’s constitution in 2016.

At the center of the dispute is a provision regulating construction of buildings, including hotels, shops and restaurants, close to the sea, rivers or lakes.

While the government insists it has actually tightened the rules and enabled more water and flood protection funds, opponents claim the regulations favor the interests of private investors and would limit public access to water and jeopardize its quality.

The water dispute has reflected heightened political tensions in Slovenia where Jansa’s government has faced accusations of curbing democratic and media freedoms in the traditionally liberal nation.

Jansa also has faced EU scrutiny over his populist ways as Slovenia took over the bloc’s six-month rotating presidency earlier this month.

For the referendum to succeed, a majority of those who voted and at least one fifth of around 1.7 million eligible voters — around 340,000 — must reject the water law amendments. Early voting in care homes and several polling stations has drawn a record number of more than 84,000 citizens, suggesting high public interest in the topic.

The referendum was forced by a cluster of environmental organizations and other civil society groups joined in a “Movement for Drinkable Water” who collected more than 50,000 signatures.