Ville Miettinen / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0
Ville Miettinen / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Slovenia: A lot of unknowns before this year’s European elections

Matej Klarič

Slovenia is one of the European countries in which the political landscape has changed significantly, after the crisis of capitalism in 2008, although with a slight delay. Some “traditional” political parties, which ruled in the past, simply vanished. Thus, as in other parts of Europe, also in Slovenia there are a lot of “unknowns”.

So far these turbulences did not reflect that much on the elections to the European parliament (EP), as they did on the elections for the Slovenian National Assembly. On all (3) European elections in Slovenia so far, the right-center political parties were victorious. Their victories were also the result of a very low voter turnout. Right-center parties have more loyal voters, then the parties of other political blocks. The voter turnout is much lower than the European average and was only 24% at the last elections. That is quite surprising, because the support of Slovenia’s entrance to EU was one of the highest in the entire Union. At the referendum for entrance the voter turnout was more than 60% and almost 90% voted in favor of EU membership. After the economic crisis the disappointment was huge, primarily because of high expectations and uncritical stance towards the EU before the entrance. Eurostat data shows that the support to EP was 73% back in year 2006 and only 7 years later (in 2013) that number reduces to 30%. When the economic situation started to improve, also the support to the EP started to rise and was at 44% last year (6% more than in year 2017).

After the crisis “the cards” on the liberal left pole changed significantly. Liberal democrats of Slovenia, the most influential party in Slovenia, which ruled in Slovenia in the 90’es and in the beginning of 21st century, failed to reach the limit to enter the National Assembly at the 2011 elections. Turbulent times were cruel to some other political parties to, especially the ones formed after the crisis. Positive Slovenia, formed by Ljubljana’s mayor Zoran Janković, which was victorious at the 2011 elections, failed to reach the parliament at next elections, primarily because of corruption scandals associated with the mayor and the rifts within the party itself. At theirs’s expanse the 2014 elections were won by the Party of Modern Center (SMC, ALDE), led by a lawyer Miro Cerar. They won by a landslide with 34.5%, but quickly lost support and only got 9,8% of the votes on last year’s elections. The party that won the elections campaign for new policies and fight against corruption, the approval ratings now shows around 1% support. This is the result of the corruption scandals associated with the party and the big disappointment of the voters to the politics of new faces which implemented old neoliberal policies. Because the party was formed just after the last European elections, they are not represented in Brussels and most likely it will stay that way.

On the last elections the right-wing parties gained 5 out of 8 member of European Parliament (MEP) from Slovenia. In 2019 they also hope for the same result, but it will be tougher to achieve it. To reach this goal the winner of the last two European elections Slovenian Democratic (SDS, EPP) party aligned themselves with Slovenian’s People’s party (SLS, EPP), which lost its status of national parliaments party member after the 2014 elections and failed to regain it last year. On the last European elections SDS barely won 3 seats, primarily because the votes of the left-center parties were scattered and because the SMC party did not take part in the elections. In coalition with SLS they hope they can repeat the success of 2014. The electoral system usually brings awards to these kind of coalitions cause the threshold for one MEP is from 7% to 9% (depends how the votes are scattered). The proportional system in use, defines Slovenia as the sole voting unit in which it is possible to cast a preferential vote. So far, preferential votes have taken into EP 3 candidates, who were lower on the lists, then the party leaders on the top of it. SLS gained a MEP on the last elections, on the united list of formed together with the Christian-democratic New Slovenia party (NSi – EPP). From all parties in Slovenia, NSi has by far the most neoliberal program (which includes privatization, low taxes, deregulation etc.) and is far from the Christian values, preached by the Pope Francis. This time they have decided to go the elections alone and are counting on at least one representative in EP. Considering they were traditionally successful on the European elections and because in the recent months they are gaining votes as they have distanced themselves from the SDS, it is expected they will achieve their goal. If they will have a strong electoral campaign they might even get two MEPs.

SDS is the party which is one of the most vocal supporters of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orban invested around 2.2 million euros to the media, close to SDS, that are following similar working principles like the media in Hungary. There are as well some other connections between the SDS leader Janez Janša and Orban. Both started to lead their respective parties back in 1993 (unlike Janša, Orban had a 3 year break at the presidency of his party), which is quite a long period in the era of democratic systems and reminds us of some different historical era. In the past both of them were connected with several corruption scandals. Ironically, fight against corruption is one of the main parts of the SDS’s programme for this year’s European elections. Both of them stated that they are true fighters against “communism”, although they are using the worst ruling principles from that era: they lead their parties in an autocratic way and control the media in which any criticism of their party is not allowed. It comes as no surprise that in the beginning of April, the Hungarian embassy in Ljubljana, filed a protest note against the Slovenian government because of the “politically incorrect” cover of the left wing weekly magazine Mladina. In the protest note they also seek help in sanctioning Mladina cause of their critical texts directed against the Hungarian authorities.

On the far right the new Patriotic league has been formed by some former SDS members. The party resembles Salvini’s Lega in Italy. The leader of the list for the European elections and its president Bernard Brščič (formerly a state secretary in the Janez Janša’s government), even filed a law suit against Left party’s coordinator Luka Mesec, as the latter stated he is a fascist. Brščič stated on twitter that the people on the right wing political spectrum should be proud if they would be compared to Hitler’s followers.

Moreover, on the last year’s national elections a new party appeared on the left liberal pole. The most votes (13%) out of all political parties on that specter were won by the List of Marjan Šarec (at that time 2 time mayor of the Slovenian town Kamnik). At the beginning they tried to conclude the government with the neoliberal New Slovenia political party (NSi, EPP). In Slovenia, parties which are considered to be on the left side of political spectrum also follow the neoliberal economic policies. But the List of Marjan Šarec (LMŠ, ALDE) and 4 other parties (Social democrats, Party of Modern Center, DeSUS – pensioners party and the Party of Alenka Bratušek – former Prime Minister), did not make a coalition agreement with NSi. Their leader Matej Tonin, admitted that they thought they will gain more benefits then they have during the first round of negotiations, so they decided to end the negotiations. They thought that the Left party (Levica) would not support the government, what eventually didn’t happen. The Left party is not part of coalition, but is supporting the minority government with the LMŠ party at the helm. Although the SDS won almost two times more votes, because of their radical stance and their leader Janez Janša, who is extremely unpopular with voters of the liberal-left pole, the LMŠ party decided not to enter into the deadly coalition with the SDS.

Slovene situation very much resembles the Portuguese scenario, where the elections were won by a coalition of two right wing parties. The minority government was formed by the Socialist party, with the support of anticapitalistic Left Block. In return for the support, the socialists had to abandon their neoliberal economic principles. Also in Slovenia LMŠ party had to yield to the social related requests by the Left party. Last year the minimum salary was raised from 638 to 667 euros. In 2019 it should again be raised, up to 700 euros. From year 2021 the salary should be calculated on the basis of a formula, which would determine the minimum wage (living wage) – 20% higher than the minimum costs of living.

Moreover, the social benefits for the poorest has been raised and they are now 385 euros per month. The government has also accepted the deal with the syndicates and raised the salaries in the public sector, what was refused by the previous government leader Miro Cerar (SMC). All these is similar to the situation in Portugal, where the approval ratings of Socialist rose significantly. The same happened in Slovenia, where the Prime Minister Marjan Šarec and his party have very high support of the public. The approval rating of the government and its leader are the highest in last 20 years and one of the most important factors for that are the policies which government made in the agreement with the Left party.

In exchange for the support for the annual budget the government committed to fight precariat by accepting the part of Left party’s programme (precariat is one of the biggest problems in Slovenia, especially for the younger, which work with less guaranteed rights than the fully employed and have lower salaries). They also agreed to abolish the additional health insurance, which everybody is paying to the private health insurance companies, no matter how much a person earns. Thus the private insurance companies drain annually more than 50 million euros out of the health fund. These money would come more than handy now, as the queues for the health services are extremely long, but the influential private health insurance companies, with their various ways of operating (high sponsor investments), prevent the changes in favor of public health system. Furthermore, the Left party also demanded the improvement of the housing situation and higher taxation of the capital. Despite different claims by the economic organizations (Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Slovenian Business Club etc.) and the right wing parties, the capital in Slovenia is taxed less than what is the European average and approximately one quarter of the companies even do not pay the taxes (because of tax relief system).

Although the public polls show, that LMŠ will gain 3 to 4 MEPs, that most probably won’t happen. The elections in Slovenia are very “personalized”. (The character of a politician is more important than the political party and its status, especially on the election for EU parliament.) The election results depend very much on the names of the candidates and aren’t the reflection of the elections for the National assembly. LMŠ has unexpectedly put on the top of the list, a young and politically inexperienced journalist from a commercial TV channel – Irena Joveva. A big question is, if LMŠ will achieve good results with this kind of list, which mostly includes unknown names of the candidates.

Especially because of the wish for the good election result, the Left party put on the bottom of the list, their top man Luka Mesec. With that move they are taking a gamble, as with the preferential votes he could be on the way to EP by defeating first on their list and a European Left “spitzenkandidate” Violeta Tomić. With that tactics Borut Pahor (current Slovene president) became MEP. He was last on the list, but as he was a president of Social democrats he gained enough votes. The Left party is the sole political party, out of those represented in the Slovene national assembly, which offers constructive criticism of the European institutions and the functioning of EU. When the candidates were presented, Violeta Tomić stated: “Europe is led by the corporations and multinational firms, which are higher than the European laws. Workers, environmental and social standards are completely neglected.” The Left party top themes in the campaign are: greater transparency of the work of the European institutions, strengthened role of the EP and more righteous distribution of power between the centre and periphery. Public support to the Left party at the moment is at about 9%. Although the predictions are tricky, it is reasonable to expect that the Left can get two MEP for what they would probably need between 16 and 18% of the votes.

The Left could lose a number of votes, because of Igor Šoltes, who was for a while also a possible candidate on their list, but many members of the party were not exactly thrilled by that idea. Šoltes gained his “visibility” and popularity by heading the Slovenian Court of Auditours and his successful election to the EP on the last elections. Later he joined the European greens, but they refused him the support, which they later gave to the list Povežimo se (Let’s join together), which includes parties outside of the National assembly (Party of the Young, Pirates, List of Bicycle Riders and Pedestrians). Šoltes at the end decided, he’ll be a candidate on the Desus’s list (pensioner’s party). Ivo Vajgl (ALDE) who was in 2014 elected from Desus’s list, decided not to run for another mandate. He stated the main reasons is his age (78 years old), but most probably the real reason hides behind the current very low public support of Desus. It will be interesting to see, if Šoltes candidacy will regain Desus status of EP members party. So far, the public polls show Šoltes is around the threshold of support needed for re-election.

There is a chase, that vote fragmentation on the liberal-left pole, could cause, the right wing parties gaining an extra representative in EP (so far analysts predict distribution 4:4). Although ALDE headquarters wished Slovene members of that political group would run the elections together, that did not happen. Most probably cause of the good approval ratings, LMŠ has taken a risk by competing alone. Alenka Bratušek, the head of SAB party, which was formed after the split in Positive Slovenia, decided to compete on the elections alone. Their main candidate also came as somewhat of a surprise. On the top of their list will be Angelika Mlinar, who is already a MEP. Five years ago she was elected in Austria. Until November she was also the vice president of ALDE.

Social democrats (S&D), also hope for the strong result, although on the last elections they suffered a defeat, by getting a single MEP. In recent years (since the formation of the Left party), they were forced to move more on the left side of political spectrum, what resulted in an increase in their popularity. This year they are hoping on two MEPs. Thus, they started campaigning as the first party out of all.

Less than one month before the elections, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. The main are the candidate’s lists, voter turnout, different projections on the distributions of the seats and accurate results of each party. A lot will depend on parties campaigns and “TV confrontations”, which are always extremely important in Slovenian’s elections. Because the European elections are even more “personalized” then national elections, the TV showdowns will be even more important than usual.

Cover showing a caricature of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán doing a Nazi salute published in weekly magazine Mladina. Orbán is surrounded (from left to right) by the national member of parliament Branko Grims, the leader of the SDS Janez Janša and MEP Milan Zver.