Elections in Slovenia: Landslide for the Liberal Centre and a Slip for the Left

The newly founded party Movement for Freedom (MFP), led by Robert Golob, won a record victory in the Slovenian parliamentary elections, winning almost half of the parliamentary seats. The wave of anti-janšism brought a convincing victory for the liberal centre, but almost washed the Left out of parliament.

In a showdown with the right-wing Janez Janša government – which took Orban as a model for "cultural issues" but otherwise more or less followed the course of the core EU countries – there was a huge mobilisation of the electorate, with a turnout reaching 70 %, compared to around 52 % in the previous elections in 2014 and 2018. The MFP won an unprecedented record number of votes and the most seats in the parliament; Only five parties made it into the national assembly, the fewest ever. The parliamentary political space in Slovenia has consolidated: there are now two smaller parties on the left, one larger and one smaller on the right, and a huge centre.

Tactical voting played a big role in this election – especially given that opinion polls up to the last days showed a significant tie between Golob’s MFP and Janša’s SDS (Slovenian Democratic Party) – but even more important was the positioning of the parties in the prolonged election campaign. The parties of the KUL coalition (coalition of the constitutional arc) – made up of the Social Democrats, the Left and the centre parties of former prime ministers Alenka Bratušek and Marjan Šarec – the biggest losers of the elections, have positioned themselves as an anti-janšist bloc, without emphasising their differences and without criticising each other. They were subsequently joined in the bloc by Golob as the immediate favourite. Quite understandably, among indistinguishable parties, the voter chooses the one with the best chance to win.

As a negation of Janša, anti-janšism has a contradictory character. It is at once a passion, an affect which mobilises the masses into politics, and an absence of politics, because it depoliticises and demobilises, it establishes a dominance by passivizing the masses. In this way, it creates the conditions for the right to return to power again and again. Since popular ideology in Slovenia is extremely favourable to egalitarianism, while at the same time containing socialist elements (a strong welfare state, high workers’ standards, opposition to militarisation, to NATO and to the US role in the world), the jargon of anti-janšist politics tends to lean to the left, but all centre-left governments in the last decade have pursued policies that have been in line with the positions of the international organisations of capital.

Managerial Populism

What can we say about the MFP today, after just a few months of campaigning? The name itself – Movement for Freedom – can give us a clue. It combines the seemingly incompatible, the party and the movement. It draws its legitimacy from anti-politics, promising a "coalition with civil society". Moreover, Golob points out that he had no desire to enter politics and it was only the government’s interference in his position in state-owned enterprise that had brought him into electoral arena.

At the same time, the MFP has appropriated "freedom", the central category of modern politics, for which a battle of interpretations is always raging. In this case it has at least a double specific meaning: freedom from Janša and the most fashionable version of freedom, freedom from masks, vaccinations and all the measures taken against Covid, thus succeeding in attracting many sections of the population, who have borne the brunt of the fight against the pandemic. Given Golob’s origins in Primorska, which was annexed to fascist Italy, the choice of the word “freedom” also alludes to the liberation struggle during WW2 which still has an important place in the collective memory of the nation.

An overview of the party’s personnel reads like a list of the profession categories of the petty-bourgeoisie: lawyers, small entrepreneurs, journalists, civil servants and managers. The latter have a crucial role, as they are the political leaders of the project. Robert Golob, having been director of a large electricity and natural gas trading company for almost 15 years, has enlisted the support of a number of his colleagues: the energy bureaucracy.

In the run-up to the elections, Golob successfully combined all these elements. He articulated the various wishes of the masses, while promising to renew the country with his innovative managerial approaches: raising value added to €100,000 per employee (it was just over €47,000 last year), building tens of thousands of apartments, greening the energy sector, preserving and reorganising the public health care system and preventing the cost of living rising to unmanageable heights due to the energy crisis and inflation. At the same time, his party has added "movement" to their name, which is, of course, a trick, a mimicry, because a movement is something that grows organically, from below. To sum up: The MPF seems like a perfect example of the logic of techno-populism.

Golob’s party is an updated version of the centrist parties that have emerged in Slovenia before every election in the last decade with the goal to defeat Janša. All of them managed to win (although Šarec was not the winner, he managed to form a government after the last elections in 2018), but all of their governments also managed to collapse. Golob is the latest in a line of "new faces", although he personally is far from being a newcomer to party politics. He was a secretary in a liberal government 25 years ago, and then vice-president of two liberal parties. The fact that he was not an MP or a minister was enough for him to become the new chosen one of the liberal establishment, which labelled him the as a “new face” and made him the first rival of Janša in the headlines and the polls.

The right and some political funerals

Although the government parties were defeated, they were still relatively successful. The right-wing SDS, despite the high death toll of the pandemic and its mismanagement, and in the face of loud – and justified – criticism, managed to increase their number of seats. They mobilised 55 000 more supporters than in the previous elections. With their well spread media network they are a stronger party than in the last elections. The other right-wing party, neoliberal christian democrats New Slovenia, also improved its result and moved into third place, despite being a subordinate partner to SDS but with fewer public excesses and much more politeness than SDS.

The tactics of the SDS’ satellite parties, which portrayed themselves as the unifying centre-right choices, did not work for the right: the coalition “Let’s connect Slovenia”, formed around the former liberal party SMC (mainly thanks to its huge financial resources), remained below the parliamentary threshold by a few thousand votes. Even worse was the result of a party formed around a former minister in the Janša government Aleksandra Pivec, who seems to have a greater penchant for attracting scandals than for attracting voters.

Four parties that defined themselves as "sovereigntist" ran in the elections: from the extreme right to the lunatic populists. Of particular note is the right-wing populist party Resni.ca, which emerged during the pandemic and played a central role in the protests against covid measures. It has by far the largest social media presence of all the parties in Slovenia. Fortunately, it recorded a lower result than expected given its potential; however, despite winning a meagre 3 % of the vote they still managed to secure quite ample and stable funding for the next four years.

These "sovereigntist" parties are a bigger potential threat than they seem at first sight, because – in the absence of a clear left alternative – they are the mouthpiece of quasi anti-systemic politics. The "sovereigntist" parties combined, if we add the votes of the Slovenian National Party, would come third among the parties, with seven or eight MPs.

The elections also buried some political veterans. The pensioner party DeSUS, which had been a member of almost all governments, is finished. After the change of its long-standing president, Karel Erjavec, the new president led the party into the embrace of the right, including the Janša government.  Then Alenka Bratušek, who bet on the simple fact that pensioners are the most loyal voters, took some local committees away from the party, and finally, all the elected MPs left DeSUS. The party did not even reach the 1 % that would have brought it regular budget funding.

Alenka Bratušek lost the bet. She achieved a very low result, with most of the votes going to the MFP. The party of another former Prime Minister, Marjan Šarec, shares a similar fate, but was much closer to the parliamentary threshold. Also saying goodbye to parliamentary politics is nationalist loudmouth Zmago Jelinčič, who, with a seven-year hiatus, has been a member of the national assembly almost since Slovenia’s formation.

A Slip for the left

The Left is both the victim and the creator of anti-janšism. It crossed the parliamentary threshold by a narrow margin, almost halving its result compared to the previous elections. It lost around 40 % of the votes in absolute terms from their last election result, but the scale of the slip was even larger due to the much higher turnout. It received almost the same number of votes than in 2014, when – as a coalition of three smaller parties under the name of United left and with virtually no financial resources – wangled its way into the Parliament.

Eight years ago, it succeeded with an anti-systemic programme: a critique of parliamentarism, European integration and capitalism in general. Since then, the Left has slowly moved towards the political centre, but much more intensively in the last two years, under the third Janša government. The Left triggered the muddle that led to the fall of the Šarec government just before the Covid pandemic began, by withdrawing its support as an extra-coalition partner (similar to the Portuguese scenario) because its partners refused to implement its proposals.

In order to regain the support of their electorate after the collapse of the Šarec government and the accompanying mutual quarrels and to create the conditions for an electoral victory over the right, the parties – with the exception of the two centrist parties that defected to the right-wing government – came together to form the anti-janšist KUL coalition. It was the Left, and in particular its coordinator Luka Mesec, that took the KUL coalition the most seriously, promoting KUL’s interests at the expense of their own. This has accelerated the party’s drive towards the political centre. The only critical axis it still had and which separated them from all of the political parties – opposition to NATO and militarisation – was weakened at the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, when the party’s leadership wanted to soften its previous positions, which had been based on the party’s programme.

The denial of the programme was already seen earlier, when the media and the right found in the party’s programme – which was already a few years old – a proposal to nationalise or even socialise private companies. The party leadership backpedalled and denied this idea even more vehemently than Peter denied Christ, later replacing it with the idea of workers’ co-ownership. This idea was supported in the campaign with the example of a high-tech company owned by one of the richest Slovenes, where a few dozen highly qualified engineers own a few percent or a fraction of a percent of the company’s shares. Apart from this, the main themes of the Left’s campaign were: building 30 000 public housing units in eight years (an almost impossible promise, as things can go wrong at many levels, from land acquisition to planning, construction or financing), establishing a serious green policy, preserving public health care and avoiding the impact of raising prices of food and energy. Sounds familiar?

The Left came into the elections with the same cues as the centre, but the voters preferred the real centre. But the reasons for the Left’s downward slide are deeper. Already after the 2018 elections, opinion polls showed that its voter base had changed: compared to the first elections, a significant share of abstentionist voters left the party, while it gained former voters of the liberal parties and the Social democrats. However, these voters are not loyal, but quickly move to a more attractive centrist party. After current elections, opinion polls estimated that the Left lost up to one percentage point of voters who did not choose another party but moved to the abstentionists.

The party’s leadership has failed to build a solid organisation, a network of local committees or even additional support institutions in the eight years, and especially in the last four, when the party has received large sums from the budget. News of conflicts with local committees, problems with internal democracy and opportunism in the leadership have regularly been reported about the party. The composition of the membership has also changed, with the socialist wing leaving after internal struggles already when the Left merged into a single party. Over the years they built their support among urban professionals and artistic and cultural circles. This is also reflected in the electoral results, where the Left achieved solid results in the cities of central Slovenia and on the coast, while elsewhere, especially in the countryside, it was barely able to carry out its campaigning activities and had a subpar result.

The Left finds itself in an unfavourable position. It already performed badly in the last elections to the European Parliament, but this time the slip is of greater consequence. During the campaign it made firm promises to enter government, which is very likely to happen, but this could lead it into a bigger mess. The Left lacks adequate staff, as the ministries require whole teams, not just a few individuals, it lacks a convincing and operational reform programme. Above all, it will be difficult to act as a left corrective in government, as they have no levers of power against the Golob Centre. It would pay dearly for potentially leaving the government (again). A significant part of the membership and voter base is demanding entry into government.

But joining the government provides compensation for the lost functions, jobs and finances that were taken away by the low percentage of the votes polled. For the future of the Left it will be crucial how much of its policies are successfully implemented in the coming years but even more determining will be the general direction of the government.

What to expect from the new government?

All centre-left governments since the first Janša government (2004-2008) have ended their mandate prematurely, and the leading parties (with the exception of the Social Democrats) have collapsed. Smaller partner parties, especially those without a solid organisational structure, suffered a similar fate. "Normalisation" after Janša, promised by the Golob government, is clearly a difficult task. Golob is already rapidly forming a coalition with the Social Democrats and the Left.

How Golob’s government will function can only be guessed at the moment. It is difficult to predict how much influence the two left partners will have, especially as the social situation escalates. The new government will certainly be more susceptible to pressures from below, which will have a significant impact on the government’s direction.

Many readers will by now have the words "extreme centre" in their minds. The party’s programme, which Golob very cleverly presented and corrected to the left before the elections, may also lead to this conclusion. The MFP is in favour of additional tax reliefs – for which they also have the support of the Social Democrats –, it intends to privatise newly built public housing, and wants to significantly   reorganise the public health care, with the ministerial candidate being a doctor with hard-line neoliberal views. The future government will have to face a (temporarily called off) strike by education workers and a cracked wage system in the public sector in the autumn. Golob promises he is going to ensure social peace, but the question is whether the conditions to do so will exist.

From a political economy point of view, the Janša government was actually very generous with subsidies to capital, craftsmen and self-employed entrepreneurs, as well as to households. This has contributed to a precarious fiscal situation, as Slovenia is expected to have the largest structural budget deficit in the euro area this year and the next. The EU’s position on fiscal rules, which were loosened in the covid crisis, will be crucial for the next government. It is not impossible that the new government will have to enforce at least some austerity measures.

Is there an element of the new government that we can be optimistic about? All three parties are strongly committed to green transition, but even more importantly we can expect that the energy bureaucracy – which gave us Robert Golob – will have an important part to play in government, so we can anticipate a shift from the current passivity in the transition from fossil fuels.

But who will pay the price of this green transition? Will it also benefit the working people or exclusively the capital? The Fiscal Council predicts that to meet current climate targets (which will be further increased under the Fitfor55 package), Slovenia would need three times the annual volume of investment funding than we currently have. Despite very optimistic estimates of private investment, the Fiscal Council estimates an investment gap of almost 9 billion EUR by 2030, the equivalent of almost the yearly national budget. The first test of the government’s orientation will come in the autumn, with the energy crisis, high inflation, a potential new wave of covid and the announced activities of the public sector unions.

For the liberal centre, the elections were a complete success. Golob has already announced that he is considering merging the parties of Alenka Bratušek and Marjan Šarec. Barring any complications, Slovenia will see the emergence of solid liberal bloc after two decades of its crisis. But this new Liberal Democracy of Slovenia will bear little resemblance to the governments of Janez Drnovšek, who led Slovenia’s gradualist post-socialist transition and integration into NATO and the EU. The conditions are completely different after twenty years, especially regarding Slovenia’s international position and the balance of forces between labour and capital. In the best-case scenario, their project will be the green modernisation of national capital, but this will not be possible without aggravating the situation of the working people.