Election preview: Slovenia

Slovenia goes to the polls tonight in its second successive early election (although also only the second early election in its history, a sign of how stable the country has generally been). The two largest parties from the last parliament both go into the election with leaders popularly regarded as corrupt: one under investigation and one already convicted.

First some background. As was common in central Europe, democratic Slovenia at first developed a three-party system: the Social Democrats, descended from the former Communists; the Liberals, who governed for most of the 1990s; and the centre-right, which was divided among two or three different parties, of which the Democratic Party (SDS) came to predominate.

Seats in parliament are distributed proportionally, with a 4% threshold. (There is also one representative each for the Italian and Hungarian minorities.) At the 2008 election the incumbent centre-right coalition under SDS leader Janez Janša was defeated by the Social Democrats. They and the SDS had almost a third of the seats each (29 and 28 respectively), but the Social Democrats were able to compile a majority with the Liberals, a new centrist party called Zares, and the pensioners party, DeSUS. Social Democrat leader Borut Pahor was sworn in as prime minister.

Unfortunately for the Social Democrats, the financial crisis was a good deal more severe than anyone had expected. Janša’s SDS harried the government, rallying opposition to economic reforms; a referendum on increasing the pension age was decisively defeated in 2011. Austerity measures led to ballooning unemployment, and the government’s internal diversity made it unable to withstand the strain. DeSUS walked out in April 2011, soon followed by Zares, and in September 2011 Pahor was defeated in a vote of confidence.

No-one else was willing to try forming a government, so an election was called for that December. The Social Democrat vote collapsed, falling to 10.5%. SDS also fell slightly, to 26.2%. Its main rival now became the new left-liberal party Positive Slovenia, led by the mayor of Ljubljana, Zoran Janković. Positive Slovenia swept up the support formerly held by the Liberals and Zares, both of which dropped below the 4% threshold, and topped the poll with 28.5% and 28 seats. A more free-market liberal party, Civic List, debuted in fourth place with 8.4%.

But Janković was unable to put together a majority coalition. Support from the Social Democrats and DeSUS gave him 44 seats, two short of a majority. Civic List refused to come to the party, instead backing Janša and the SDS to return to power. The pensioners obligingly switched sides again, and in February 2012 Janša won a vote of confidence and took office for the second time as prime minister. As might have been expected, he proceeded to implement many of the austerity measures that he had previously opposed.

There were already clouds over Janša’s head; in 2008 he had been accused of corruption in the Patria case, involving bribery by a Finnish defence contractor. At the beginning of 2013 Slovenia’s anti-corruption commission named both him and Janković in relation to misappropriation of government funds. The junior coalition partners demanded that SDS find itself another leader; when it failed to do so they deserted it and in February the government fell on a vote of confidence.

Alenka Bratušek, who had succeed Janković as leader of Positive Slovenia, took over and became the country’s first female prime minister. By now the worst of the crisis seemed to be over. Slovenia avoided having to request a bailout of its banking sector, economic growth started to return and by April last year Die Welt rated it as the third-soundest economy in the eurozone (behind Estonia and Germany).

But there were widespread protests and popular discontent against the corruption of the country’s governing class. And they seemed justified earlier this year when the party congress of Positive Slovenia thumbed its nose at public opinion by deposing Bratušek and re-electing Janković as leader. Bratušek resigned the prime ministership the following week, triggering another early election.

In the meantime, Janša had been put on trial over the Patria scandal, although of course he dismissed the charges as politically motivated. In June last year he was sentenced to two years in prison, a sentence that was confirmed by an appeal court in April. A further appeal was mounted to the supreme court, but this did not stay execution of the sentence and Janša went to jail on 20 June, when the election campaign was already under way. (It was not his first experience of prison; he had been jailed for dissident activities back in Communist times.)

In the circumstances it’s not surprising that a new reformist party would gain traction. Miro Cerar, a widely respected law professor and son of a Slovenian Olympic gymnast, announced the formation of just such a new force, called simply Miro Cerar’s Party, which has quickly shot to the top of the opinion polls.

Positive Slovenia seems to have dwindled to irrelevance. Bratušek has formed her own breakaway party, which may be able to garner a few seats. The SDS retains a remarkably stable core of support, probably ensuring it will be the second largest party. Assuming he comes out on top, Cerar will be looking for allies among the Social Democrats (now led by former agriculture minister Dejan Židan), Bratušek’s group and – yet again – DeSUS, the pensioners party, who contrive to be in every government.

Perhaps one shouldn’t try to draw too much in the way of general lessons from such a distinctive story, but it looks as if Slovenia has a natural centrist majority that’s had considerable difficulty settling on a suitable vehicle through which to express itself. Whether or not Cerar will do any better than his predecessors remains to be seen, but it looks as if he’ll get the chance.

For all its recent instability, Slovenia remains one of the great success stories of post-communist Europe. It joined the European Union in 2004 and was the first of the ex-communist countries to adopt the euro. Of all the Slavic countries, probably only the Czech Republic has more emphatically joined the western developed world.

Results should be available by breakfast time in eastern Australia – try the official website here.


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