France got most of the media attention, but last Sunday’s other election, although smaller, was just as interesting. Slovenia elected a new parliament, replacing the one that in its four-year term had sustained two very different governments in power.
As I’ve pointed out before, Slovenian electoral behavior is very consistent, but that consistency is masked by the fact that the identity of the main centre-to-centre-left party keeps changing. In 2018 it was another newcomer, the Marjan Šarec List, that filled that role, winning 12.6% of the vote and 13 of the 90 seats (see official results here). After a period of bargaining it formed a coalition with four other parties and the support of a fifth, and Šarec became prime minister.
The reason such an unwieldy combination was required was in order to keep out the largest party in parliament, the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), led by Janez Janša. The SDS was originally a centre-right party, but by 2018 it had drifted towards the far right in something like the fashion of Viktor Orbán’s FIDESz in neighboring Hungary. Janša had already been to jail once for corruption, but his party still won 24.9% of the vote and 21 seats.
The project of excluding it from power turned out to be unsustainable in the long run. Šarec’s coalition fell apart, and in January 2020 he announced his resignation. Janša then put together a government with the support of the Christian Democrats and two of the parties that had previously supported Šarec, the Modern Centre Party and the Pensioners Party (DeSUS). That gave him the narrowest possible majority, but he could also rely on the far-right Slovenian National Party with four seats.
Janša as prime minister proceeded to embarrass the country in various ways, notably by his strong support of Donald Trump. But because he depended on more moderate coalition partners, he was unable to do much to emulate Orbán in building an authoritarian regime, and he backed away more firmly from Vladimir Putin’s embrace after this year’s invasion of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, in keeping with precedent, a new centrist opposition force had appeared – the Freedom Movement, a Green-liberal party led by businessman Robert Golob. It quickly became the main challenger to the Janša government, and on Sunday it scored a stunning victory, winning 34.5% of the vote and 41 seats.
Janša’s SDS retained most of its strength, with 23.5% and 27 seats, but voters cut a swathe through the other parties. Five of the nine parties represented in the old parliament fell below the 4% threshold (including the Marjan Šarec List, the Modern Centre Party, DeSUS and the far right), leaving in addition to the big two only the Christian Democrats (6.9% and eight seats), the centre-left Social Democrats (6.7% and seven seats) and the far-left Left party (4.4% and five seats). Two representatives of ethnic minorities make up the balance.
So the pattern of a new powerful centrist force has repeated, but stronger than before and with perhaps more of a lean to the left. Golob will only need either the Social Democrats or the Left to give him a majority; talks are to begin soon to that effect, with the new government expected to be in place within the next month.
The contrast with earlier this month in Hungary could hardly be more striking. There, crisis seems to have led voters to stick with the authoritarian that they know, while Slovenia’s gave theirs the boot. No doubt there are many things in the two countries’ histories and situation that could account for the difference, but probably the most obvious thing is Janša’s inability to achieve the sort of control over the media and electoral system that Orbán has.
Democracy works, but it has to be allowed to.