Brussels (Brussels Morning) An overwhelming majority of Slovenes voted on Sunday to reject the government’s plans to amend a water management law in a manner that critics claimed would have jeopardised water quality and benefited private investors.
The referendum was initiated by a group of environmental and civil society NGOs that came together to launch an initiative dubbed “Movement for Drinkable Water”, after Prime Minister Janez Janša’s government had approved the controversial amendments in March.
Their petition succeeded in collecting the requisite number of signatures legally required to force a referendum. Many analysts viewed the public poll as a significant test for Janša’s centre-right government, just as Slovenia took over the rotating presidency of the EU.
Turnout on Sunday was around 45%, a relatively high figure for a referendum in the small Alpine country of 2 million people, showing that many citizens felt strongly about the issue. Famed for its natural vistas, Slovenia’s tourism relies on an image of unsullied nature. Also, the country enshrined access to water as a constitutional right in 2016.
In the referendum, more than 86% of votes sided against Janša’s initiative, effectively annulling the controversial amendments to the law. According to ecological groups, the law would have opened the doors to the privatisation of shorelines along the sea and the country’s lakes, as well as legalising construction in sensitive natural areas, especially near potable water sources.
After the vote was in, Slovenia’s Environmental Protection Minister Andrej Vizjak accused the opposition of having hijacked the referendum for its own purposes, maintaining that it had falsely represented the matter as an ecological issue.
Slovenia’s opposition called on Janša to step down, claiming the result showed that the voters no longer trusted his government. Responding on Twitter, Janša called for “less drama”, and, with a touch of irony, asked the opposition whether any left-wing government had ever resigned on losing a referendum.