Nachricht | Europe - Western Europe - Southeastern Europe - Political Parties / Election Analyses - State / Democracy Democratic Socialists Advance in Slovenia

Slovenia's recent parliamentary elections brought polarization on both the right and left.

Levica's 2018 parliamentary results by district. Image courtesy of Iskra.

The Slovenian parliamentary elections held on 3 June 2018 delivered an unprecedented level of diversity to the country’s parliamentary landscape. It was no surprise that the right-wing party of Slovenian political patriarch Janez Janša, SDS (Slovenian Democratic Party), won the highest share of votes and deputies, specifically 24.92 percent and 25 deputies. Levica (The Left Party), the party of democratic socialists and eco-socialists, increased their number of deputies by half, from six to nine, and won 9.33 percent of the vote. Between these two, three different centre-left parties occupied the middle: the newly-emerged List of Marijan Šarec (LMŠ) with 12.65 percent and 13 deputies, the Social Democrats (SD) with 9.93 percent and 10 deputies, and the Party of the Modern Centre (SMC) led by incumbent prime minister Miro Cerar with 9.75 percent and 10 deputies. The sixth-place finisher was the centre-right New Slovenia – Christian Democrats (NSi) with 7.16 percent and seven deputies, followed by the Party of Alenka Bratušek (SAM) with 5.11 percent and five deputies, the pensioners’ party DeSUS with 4.93 percent and five deputies, and, finally, the national-chauvinist Slovenian National Party (SNS) with 4.17 percent of the vote and four deputies. Two of those parties, LMŠ and SNS, gained parliamentary status in these elections. For SNS it marked the first time since 2008, while for LMŠ it was the first time ever. This analysis focuses on two aspects of the Slovenian political situation – the “invincible” Janez Janša and the emergent challenger from the left, Levica – intertwining them with potential post-election scenarios. The conclusion summarizes several lessons and poses strategic questions.

Levica’s election results, which brought the party three additional deputies compared to the 2014 general election, is one of the more pleasant election surprises. Levica emerged from a previous left-wing parliamentary coalition, Združena Levica (The United Left). After one of three member parties broke off and appropriated the coalition name for itself, the other– the democratic socialist IDS (Initiative for Democratic Socialism) and eco-socialist TRS (Party of Ecosocialism and Sustainable Development of Slovenia) – merged into a single democratic, eco-socialist party, Levica. As an aside, the third party (DSD-ZL; Democratic Labour Party-United Left) won less than one percent of the popular vote.

As Sašo Furlan et al. demonstrate in their study on the Slovenian new left, the three parties of the Združena Levica coalition were all formed in opposition to the neoliberal agenda in the second decade of the 2000s. The DSD and TRS were founded in 2011, opposing stabilization measures by the Social Democratic government led by 2nd term president, Borut Pahor. IDS emerged as a result of a process of articulation of democratic socialist politics among Ljubljana students, organised in Delavsko-punkerska univerza (“Workers’n’Punks University”) and the students’ movement Mi smo univerza (“We are the University”; which later developed into Iskra, a socialist student organisation). But the decisive moment for both the formation of IDS and later electoral successes were the protests in 2012-13, which hit both centre-left and centre-right hard with corruption scandals. This context allowed a youthful formation campaigning for social justice and tying it to democratic means of governance to gain visibility and public support.

Levica’s electoral campaign revolved around their manifesto, titled “Blaginja za sve, ne le za peščico”, which means “Welfare for all, not just for the few” – a clear reference to the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto. The focus of the opposition is illustrated by the title of the manifesto’s introduction, which states “Stop the ongoing underdevelopment” and draws a clear demarcation between the interests of the popular masses and the outcomes of austerity policies. In line with this demarcation, Levica proposes socially progressive policies and formulates possible answers to political challenges in further chapters. Following the introduction, the programme contains eight chapters focusing on: “economics on a human scale”, “investment in the future”, fighting social exclusion, just taxation, environment protection, re-democratization, peaceful coexistence between nations and, finally, a Europe for the people, not capital.

Another important point of the elections is Janez Janša’s success, which must be contextualised as part of the rise of the right wing across Europe. When googling the phrase “Slovenian elections”, a number of search results are reports about the “anti-immigrant” party of former PM Janez Janša winning by a big margin. This did not surprise informed observers, as Janša’s SDS is known to have a stable electoral base that provides it with between a quarter and a third of parliamentary seats. At its lowest point in the 2014 elections following Janša’s resignation over a corruption scandal, SDS won a bit less than 180,000 votes (26.19 percent), or 21 seats. In the elections last June, it won almost 220,000 votes (24.92 percent), or 25 seats. In both of those elections, voter turnout was around 52 percent.

Janša’s presence in Slovenian politics reaches deep into the 1980s, when he was tried before a military court as a dissident publicist for exposing military secrets, for which he was convicted and imprisoned. After his release from prison he rose to prominence on the oppositional scene, was elected to the first Slovenian multi-party parliament and served as Minister of Defence from 1990 to 1994. Following those years in government, Janša profiled himself as the leader of the opposition to Slovenia’s long-serving PM Janez Drnovšek (from 1992 to 2002, subsequently President of the Republic from 2002 to 2007, died in 2008). In contrast to Drnovšek’s strategy of creating a broad, bi-partisan consensus to support his policies – which, among others, included a gradualist post-socialist transformation of Slovenia’s economy, thus minimizing economic shock – Janša is a highly divisive, authoritarian and nationalist leader. Bearing that in mind, it is not surprising that some of the elected parties have commented on the results by stating that there is no scenario in which they would support an SDS Government, at least with Janša as party leader and PM candidate.

On the other hand, the first impression was that SDS won these elections overwhelmingly. Not only because SDS fell just short of winning twice as many votes than the first runner-up, Lista Marijana Šarca, but also because it won in all eight electoral districts. But the liberal weekly Mladina disagrees with the notion that the majority of Slovenians voted for the centre-right or right-wing. In the week following the election, they totalled the votes of the centre-left and left and compared them to the votes for the centre-right and right, reaching the conclusion that the centre-left/left parties won in all electoral districts by a margin ranging from 2.2 percent in Ptuj to 20% in Postojna and the nation’s capital, Ljubljana. Although this kind of comparison can be used to confront possible populist tendencies which advocate a discursive shift that would, supposedly, resonate better with the right-leaning “average” voter, it is underpinned by a logic of “lesser-evilism” that works towards enforcing an anti-Janša centre-left/left coalition.

Such a coalition was one of four possible post-election scenarios. The other three were new elections due to neither Janša nor Šarec being able to assemble a parliamentary majority, Janša’s unstable government in coalition with SNS, NSi and deserters from centrist parties, or, finally, an unstable Šarec government in a cross-centre coalition with SMC, SD, SAM, DeSUS and NSi. The latter seems to be the most probable outcome, as those parties have formed a parliamentary majority and elected the centre-right NSi leader Matej Tonin as the Speaker of the Parliament.

For Janša, who has presented himself as a proper statesman compared to a lot of inexperienced and questionable politicians, all possible constellations would be win-win scenarios to a greater or lesser extent. In the case of repeated elections and a lower voter turnout, the turnout of his voters declines at a smaller rate than that of centrist parties. Also, due to alleged financial support from Viktor Orbán’s circle, he would be the only figure with sufficient funds to run another full-scale election campaign. Other scenarios, including the one in which he manages to assemble a governing coalition, are also convenient for Janša as he would be able to place the blame for the coalition’s collapse on inexperienced junior partners or on centrist politicians.

However the coalition government is formed, it is likely to face instability. Janša’s government would be unstable due to the necessary co-optation of centrist MPs (probably ones elected on Šarec’s or Cerar’s list), while both possible governments formed around centrist parties would face instability due to a high number of coalition members fighting for the same voters. Šarec, Cerar, Bratušek and the Social Democrats are all parties of a similar political profile competing for the same voting base. Also, in the probable cross-centre coalition, both parties left and right of the centre will participate, which will inevitably cause disagreement and frictions.

Such a scenario ought to prove beneficial for Levica. Immediately after the election of Christian Democrat Matej Tonin as speaker of parliament, Levica began articulating their opposition to the newly-formed centrist coalition. This articulation represents an extension of their campaign messaging focused on raising the minimum wage and pensions, as well as on fighting new waves of privatisation. Those messages, especially regarding the minimum wage, were instrumental in boosting electoral support. Another important point was the way Levica used televised debates, in which its leading candidate, Luka Mesec, uncompromisingly confronted his political opponents. Bearing in mind the scarce funds available to run the electoral campaign, as well as the uneven distribution  of Levica’s votes across Slovenia, this might have been the crucial tactic which increased their vote share and won over former centre-left voters. The basis for the successful outcome of the televised debates was undoubtedly the aforementioned manifesto, which was, as should be remembered, an outcome of Levica’s focus on parliamentary work during the last parliamentary term.

Levica has been criticised by extra-parliamentary left actors as well as former members who left the Initiative for Democratic Socialism due to disagreements over unification with the eco-socialists of TRS for prioritizing parliamentary work over other forms of activism. Although the voter distribution map shows that this kind of criticism is justified, as the party’s strongholds are in the urban centres of Ljubljana, Maribor and Koper and it received less votes in roughly two-thirds of electoral districts than on the national level, in light of the rise of both the vote share and number of deputies the criticism can be countered from a strategic perspective. The counter-argument to a radical critique would be that approaching potential new voters is easier and more efficient from a position of an accomplished party of the parliamentary opposition growing in terms of vote share, than from a position of a marginal party easily dismissed as “too radical”.

To support that kind of a counter-argument we may draw on two sources: Levica’s manifesto, and contemporary left practices in the field of parliamentary politics. To begin with the latter, if we take a closer look at the manifestos and political messaging of left-wing candidates in the UK and US, we could hardly say that they pursue revolutionary socialist policies. On the contrary, they largely focus on the question of social welfare. the most recent example being Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in the Democratic Party primaries for Congress run in New York’s 14th district. Ocasio focused on issues of communal welfare such as public infrastructure, housing and medical care, and also on federal issues concerning her primarily Latino constituency, such as immigration, criminal justice and a federal jobs guarantee.

The aforementioned Labour 2017 Manifesto, “For the Many, not the Few”, also revolved around similar themes. Of course, all of these similar manifestos can be dismissed from the left by stating that they constitute some sort of minimalist programme. In response, a strategic perspective that takes into account the socialist left’s total marginalization and banishment from mainstream politics and Social Democracy’s hard turn to the right and aims to re-establish a socialist alternative, can view these manifestos as setting achievable goals. The “small victories” that improve the social position of the Left’s electorate are, in this sense, an investment in the future that broadens the Left’s social and electoral base. The latter will come through cooperation with extra-parliamentary and civil society actors. In this context, it must be noted that Goran Lukić of Delavska svetovalnica (“Workers’ Counselling Office”), the most prominent left-wing labour organisation, was a Levica candidate in the June elections. On the other hand, there is a lot of room to improve cooperation between the party, trade unions and national trade union confederations.

Levica’s post-election approach to parties of the centre-(left) suggests that they favour this strategy, as subsequently confirmed by the party’s coordinator Luka Mesec in interviews for the left-wing media. In short, they offered centrist parties the “Portuguese scenario”, in which Levica would not take part in the coalition, but would support government measures on a parity principle as long as the government would adopt some of Levica’s policies – primarily those concerning wages and pensions. The decision of the centre-left parties to join a coalition with the centre-right thus presents Levica with an opportunity to function as a proactive opposition in two ways: firstly, by continuing its parliamentary work and pushing the measures contained in its manifesto; secondly, through extra-parliamentary work focused on the regions in which it remains underrepresented.

To conclude, although the Slovenian elections did not bring the first socialist party of the “new left” into the government of an ex-Yugoslav republic, it did confirm the consolidation of that party as a parliamentary power with potential for further growth. That potential will probably be tested again in a few-years in another snap election, due to the questionable stability of the cross-centre coalition that currently forms the parliamentary majority. In the meantime, Levica will face the parliamentary challenge of pushing the topics of their election manifesto into parliamentary debate and operationalising their goals through legislative procedures. Beyond that, they will face also the extra-parliamentary challenge of building a broader social coalition with civil society actors ranging from civic initiatives to trade unions. Lastly, it will have a chance to test its strength in the two elections coming up in the next year – the local elections in November 2018, and the elections to the European Parliament elections in May 2019.

Luka Matić is a Project Manager & Political Analyst at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Office for Southeast Europe. He is a PhD candidate at University of Zagreb, writing a thesis on the topic of philosophy of socialist self-management. Before being employed by the RLS, he edited the critical-theory web portal Slobodni Filozofski and contributed to a number of regional leftist media outlets on topics of historical revisionism and social reproduction.