The Slovenian government secured support for the €1bn project to expand the rail link between the port of Koper and the inland hub of Divaca in a referendum on September 24.
The Koper-Divaca railway connects the capital Ljubljana with the country’s sole Adriatic port, Koper, and the expansion will slash travel time as well as expanding capacity. This is important for Slovenia, as the port is also the main maritime gateway for Hungary, handling over three-quarters of its container trans-shipments. However, the project faces significant opposition, which may intensify in the run-up to the 2018 general election.
According to data from the State Election Commission published at 21:20 on September 24, 53.46% of those who cast votes were in favour of the project and 46.54% voted no. This is based on 99.66% of votes counted.
Turnout was just 20.5%, among the lowest in the 20-year history of Slovenian referendum voting. Of Slovenia’s population of just over 2mn, 349,701 citizens supported the project, while 347,110 did not want to see it going ahead, and 2,591 ballots were invalid.
The extremely low turnout means that even if the opponents of the project had been ahead, the law on the Koper-Divaca expansion would still have survived the challenge due to legislation stipulating that at least 20% of the electorate must vote against a law to invalidate it.
Government officials claimed the outcome was a vindication of their efforts and the low turnout a sign voters were tired of political gamesmanship. The referendum was seen partly as an acid test of Prime Minister Miro Cerar's popularity ahead of the 2018 election.
“By not attending the referendum, the voters had shown that they wanted the government to do its job as it was planned, not to stop or turn back but to go forward and build this track," Cerar said, according to a government statement.
He claimed the low turnout was an implied criticism of the initiators of the referendum, while those who voted in favour of the project “said loudly that they had enough political games on such important projects … Citizens want progress, they want economic development, new jobs, safer motorways,” the prime minister added.
However, opponents of the project say they will not give up even though the referendum didn’t go as they hoped. Vili Kovacic, a pensioner and the head of the group that initiated the referendum, announced that the next step will be to challenge the law on the second track through the Constitutional Court since he believes the entire project is unconstitutional, STA reported.
Both Kovacic’s Taxpayers Standing Our Ground lobby group and the main opposition Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) were vocal against the project, claiming it would be too expensive for Slovenian taxpayers. On the other hand, the government argued it would bring extra money to the budget, initially from EU funds and later thanks to Slovenia’s improved infrastructure.
Like the population, Slovenia’s politicians are divided on the project to expand the line to the port. The upper chamber of parliament vetoed the railway expansion, but its veto was later overturned by the National Assembly, which confirmed the act on the second track between Koper and Divaca on April 20.
According to the government, the project will reduce the length of cargo travel on the Divaca-Koper section from 44.3 km to 27 km and the time of travel from about 45 minutes to between 15 and 21 minutes. The speed of trains would increase to 100 kilometres an hour and capacity to about 220 trains a day, enabling trans-shipment capacity of more than 41m tonnes net per year.
Preparations for the largest project launched by Cerar’s government have been ongoing for more than a year despite the opposition. The Slovenian ministry of infrastructure announced in April 2016 that 2TDK had been set up to manage the construction. The second rail track will be built under a 45-year concession agreement between the state and 2TDK. 2TDK will build the second track and own the infrastructure for the duration of the concession, while the land underneath will remain state-owned.