News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Southeastern Europe - Europe2024 Slovenia’s Political Pendulum Swings Back

Despite legislative successes, voters are likely to punish the left-liberal government this June



Matej Klarič,

Slovenian Foreign Minister Tanja Fajon sitting in the crowd at a commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of Slovenia’s EU accession in Ljubljana, 9 May 2024.
Slovenian Foreign Minister Tanja Fajon sitting in the crowd at a commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of Slovenia’s EU accession in Ljubljana, 9 May 2024. Photo: IMAGO / Nik Erik Neubauer

Since joining the European Union in 2004, Slovenia has consistently exhibited one of the lowest voter turnouts in European elections. Indeed, statistics reveal that in 2019, only the Czech Republic (28.72 percent) and Slovakia (24.74 percent) recorded lower turnouts than Slovenia’s 28.89 percent.

Matej Klarič is a political scientist with expertise in the Slovenian transition and world systems theory. He currently works at the Slovenian Ministry of Solidarity-Based Future. 

Remarkably, voter participation in Slovenia has never surpassed one-third of eligible voters, meaning that a sizable portion of the populace — nearly 1.2 million individuals in a nation with 1.7 million registered voters — consistently abstain from casting a ballot. This stands in stark contrast to the largely positive perception of the EU and the Slovenian people’s desire for a stronger and more independent Europe.

In this year’s elections, Slovenians will vote for an additional MEP. The country will be allocated an extra seat in addition to the current eight, which is likely to slightly lower the electoral threshold for election. A recent Eurobarometer poll showed that 62 percent of voters intend to go to the polls this year, an increase of ten percentage points over five years ago. But if previous elections are any indication, actual turnout will likely be much lower than this estimate, and still among the lowest in the EU.

According to a recent survey, Slovenians feel that public health, agriculture, supporting the economy, and job creation ought to be the main topics of the election campaign. It is noteworthy, however, that political campaigns in Slovenia traditionally focus more on domestic issues rather than EU-related matters, making developments on the Slovenian political scene particularly relevant.

Making Change from Within?

The Slovenian electorate consistently demonstrates a preference for new, “untainted” parties. Indeed, almost every parliamentary election results in at least one newly formed party entering the National Assembly.

Slovenia has been governed by a left-liberal coalition since the parliamentary elections in April 2022, when the so-called Freedom Movement achieved unprecedented success, securing 34.45 percent of the vote and 41 of 90 seats. This landslide victory was the result of two years of rule by the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), led by Janez Janša since 1993. His party rose to power just as the pandemic broke out in March 2020. Following the example of Hungary, it used its two years in power to fight the media and the opposition, which took to the streets in large numbers. The authorities fought the pandemic by repressing protesters, sometimes in the most brutal ways — deploying water cannons and tear gas against protesters. At the same time, Slovenia was one of the countries with the longest-lasting travel bans, curfews, and school closures, and yet was among the countries that managed the pandemic the worst.

This led to a massive backlash against the government and a surge in its unpopularity, as reflected in the election results. To avoid a new SDS-led government, voters tactically voted for the party with the best chances at ending SDS rule. The Freedom Movement secured a landslide victory amidst a notable increase in voter turnout, rising from 53 to 71 percent compared to previous elections.

Similar voting behaviour was exhibited in four previous elections, first in 2008 following four years of an SDS-led government. This time around, however, the political realignment also had ramifications for existing left-liberal parties, with notable losses for parties led by former prime ministers Marjan Šarec and Alenka Bratušek, who both lost their seats in parliament. The Left Party, Levica, also barely secured parliamentary representation, experiencing a decline from 9.33 percent of the vote in 2018 to 4.46 percent, just above the 4 percent electoral threshold.

The Freedom Movement, the Social Democrats, and Levica subsequently formed a government in May 2022. Expectations were high. After eight years in opposition, Levica also entered government for the first time, winning three ministerial posts and finding itself in a completely new role. The new position has meant a major change in the party’s long-standing modus operandi, which had previously been based on an extremely critical stance. In its newfound role, Levica has expectedly faced a multitude of challenges, difficulties, and the never fully resolved question of its political identity as an anti-systemic force. It has been forced to make a number of compromises and take into account the fact that it only has five MPs. At the same time, the electorate still expects the party to deliver on many of its promises.

The party’s long-time coordinator, Luka Mesec, who stepped down from his post last summer, became Minister for Labour, Family, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, as well as Deputy Prime Minister. The party was also entrusted with the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Solidarity-Based Future, which was established on Levica’s initiative. The latter ministry tackles challenging issues such as long-term care, economic democracy, and housing policy, which have long been neglected in Slovenia.

Paradoxically, despite the overall progressive shift in Slovenia’s political landscape, Levica’s political influence has waned.

As in many countries, housing is a major issue in Slovenia. Little has been done to intervene in the housing market since the privatization wave of the 1990s. The issue of long-term care has suffered a similar fate. However, the government recently passed a law which, after 20 years, finally established a basis for regulating the sector and will ensure it has a permanent, systemic source of funding by mid-2025. The party is also gradually advancing towards substantial investments in affordable public housing. Yet its ambitions to build more dwellings, to regulate Airbnb and rental housing, and to increase property taxes (Slovenia has one of the lowest in the EU) often clash with the powerful interests of capital.

At the same time, Levica faces the challenge of negotiating with its coalition partners, who tend to lean towards neoliberal policies. For example, it was compelled to agree to arms purchases, which it always strongly opposed in opposition. These concessions, coupled with the party’s relative inexperience in government and its transition to a new role, have triggered dissatisfaction among some of its more left-leaning members, prompting their departure from the party due to perceived deviations from its founding principles. Furthermore, Levica has failed to build a strong grassroots network and remains trapped at roughly the same levels of support it had in the last election. To secure an MEP, Levica must exceed the 6.43 percent it received in 2019 — a challenging task in the current situation.

During its eight-year tenure in opposition, Levica played an important and at first glance largely invisible role, pushing the discourse in a more social and left-wing direction and challenging the dominant neoliberal narrative that had long prevailed in Slovenian politics. This was particularly evident around the minimum wage. Levica faced opposition from all parliamentary parties — including the Social Democrats, who then held the Ministry of Labour — when it proposed raising the minimum wage in 2016. Yet, Levica’s persistence bore fruit only two years later, when a law was passed mandating regular annual adjustments to the minimum wage, ensuring it remains at least 20 percent above the cost of living — one of the most progressive minimum wage laws in the EU. Levica managed to impose the law in exchange for its support of the then-minority government of Marjan Šarec. At the time, no party dared to oppose the proposal in the National Assembly, as they knew it was widely popular. Last year, the Minister of Labour invoked this legislation to implement the highest increase in the minimum wage in over a decade.

Paradoxically, despite the overall progressive shift in Slovenia’s political landscape, Levica’s political influence has waned. This trend is exemplified by the ruling coalition’s recent accomplishments, including the abolition of complementary health insurance — a reform long obstructed by the formidable influence of three powerful insurance companies. These entities, representing the interests of private capital, had long shaped the media narrative and stifled any progress on the matter. The victory represents yet another longstanding demand of Levica that has finally materialized — but without Levica getting the credit.

Veering to the Right

Meanwhile, voters are once again disillusioned with the government, as electoral support for the ruling newcomer, the Freedom Movement, has nearly halved. The party is currently expected to win at least two seats. Conversely, voters’ disillusionment has benefitted Janez Janša, the seasoned politician and long-serving president of SDS. Despite significant public disapproval, Janša’s party continues to lead in opinion polls and is poised to form the next government. Despite its contentious reputation, the party is expected to secure at least three, if not four MEPs in the upcoming elections.

SDS maintains a close relationship with Viktor Orbán, whose influence extends to controlling the party’s media outlets. In anticipation of this year’s elections, SDS veered further towards the far-right end of the political spectrum. Notably, its candidate list now includes MPs known for hate speech against migrants and open sympathies for far-right groups like Generation Identity. On their media platforms, unsubstantiated claims such as allegations of sexual violence committed by migrants are not uncommon.

That said, SDS is the best-organized and most strategic party in Slovenia. While other parties only recently finalized their electoral lists, SDS has already been actively campaigning for months, mainly opposing migration and the construction of asylum centres. After this year’s elections, SDS may align itself with the more far-right European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, rather than the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP). The party’s future trajectory may also hinge on its relationship with Orbán and the terms of any potential deal between them.

The lower voter turnout in European elections tends to favour right-wing parties, particularly SDS.

MP and National Assembly Vice-President Nataša Sukič will lead Levica’s list, accompanied by Luka Mesec in a supporting role. However, the party faces a challenge: as a member of the government, it must strike a balance between maintaining its critical stance and fulfilling its governance responsibilities. Additionally, the departure of Violeta Tomić, the (unsuccessful) lead candidate for the European Left in 2019, could reduce Levica’s result. Now running independently as part of the None of This (NOT) list, Tomić aims to capture voters’ attention with a satirical, anti-political approach, inspired by groups like the Five Star Movement in Italy.

According to polls, the extra-parliamentary green party Vesna also has a shot at one seat. Vladimir Prebilič, mayor of the medium-sized municipality of Kočevje in southern Slovenia, is set to contest the elections under Vesna’s banner, following his impressive 10.6 percent in the October 2022 presidential elections.

Another surprise may be the Resnica party, which came close to entering the National Assembly in the last national elections with its anti-vaccination stance. The party appeals to voters with nationalist, anti-systemic, and pro-Russian sympathies, while also advocating for measures such as a flat tax. The governing Social Democrats, who currently have two MEPs, are expected to win one seat, as is neoliberal opposition party New Slovenia. Both have maintained representation in the European Parliament since Slovenia joined the EU some 20 years ago.

The lower voter turnout in European elections tends to favour right-wing parties, particularly SDS. That is why, on the initiative of the Freedom Movement, referendums will be held parallel to the European election on the right to assisted suicide, marijuana legalization, as well as preferential voting in parliamentary elections. A higher voter turnout could potentially benefit the left-liberal bloc, but ultimately, the distribution of mandates will hinge on the effectiveness of campaign strategies and pre-election outreach. As things currently stand, the majority of votes will go to the right-wing opposition.

Translation by Jana Klinkon.