Regardless of official outcome, today’s election in Slovenia promises more of the same, as the country’s political scene continues its shift to the right — mirroring a pattern seen elsewhere in the EU
Slovenians are heading to the polls today to vote for the 90 MPs that will represent them in the National Assembly. The current governing coalition collapsed in mid-March with the resignation of Prime Minister Miro Cerar, though elections were already scheduled to be held this year.
Suffice to say there is not much optimism in the air. The economic downturn that followed the 2008 financial crisis, coupled with austerity measures, have taken their toll on an increasingly discontented electorate.
Cerar, a prominent lawyer, took the helm four years ago with his eponymously named Miro Cerar Party (later renamed Party of Modern Centre, retaining the same SMC initials), in a convincing victory. The nature of the electoral system is such that Cerar’s center-left party had to form a coalition with the Pensioners’ party and the Social Democrats (SD). Despite some signs of economic recovery in recent years, there is widespread sentiment that the government has failed to deliver on its lofty promises of meaningful reform. While profits have gone up, less than promised has trickled down. Fear-mongering about another looming financial crisis, always just around the corner, has been an effective tool that has allowed the government to keep some austerity measures in place while boasting about record GDP increases.
If you ask Cerar, he’ll tell you it’s the “old guard” — personified by his coalition partners — that’s holding progress back, in order to retain their privileges. The electorate, if the opinion polls are anything to go by, doesn’t see it this way, as SMC appears destined to hemorrhage seats in parliament.
The “old guard” argument is one that Cerar brought up in his resignation speech following a procedural hiccup with a referendum on a law governing the Divača-Koper rail upgrade. Cerar is not the first to blame the country’s ills on the anonymous hegemons of the “old guard”. Former Prime Minsiter Janez Janša and his right-wing Slovenian Democratic Party, (SDS), have been invoking something similar for well over a decade: Instead of “old guard”, SDS prefers the phrase “uncles from the background” or simply the “elites”, which have ruled Slovenia since its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
Janša is currently the president of the biggest opposition party and the boogeyman of Slovenian politics. The international press took a page from the mainstream Slovenian media’s playbook with headlines like “’Drain the swamp’: right-wing leader pulls ahead in Slovenia’s polls” and “Slovenian survivor targets victory à la Orbán” in the Guardian and Politico, respectively.
Janša, who served as prime minister between 2004 and 2008, and for another year from 2013 and 2014, is stoking fears in Brussels about the possibility of another right-wing takeover of an EU member state. His heated rhetoric and support for Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban have led some to believe that the bad boys of Višegrad 4 are about to get an ally in Ljubljana. There is some truth in this, but it’s also a bit of an oversimplification: a win for SDS means nothing if there aren’t enough allies in parliament to form a majority.
In addition, Janša’s social and economic policies are not as extreme as those of his Hungarian buddy, his fear-mongering is not as sharp and if anything, his party is considerably more pro-EU and pro-NATO than some analysts would have you believe. The party’s lurch to the right is certainly concerning, but it also follows an existing pattern of the rightward re-orienation of Slovenia’s entire political scene, one that arguably mirrors a shift of the political center to the right elsewhere in the EU. Yes, Janša is staunchly anti-migration, but he’s not the one who erected a razor-wire fence along the Slovenian border with Croatia.
For those unaware, razor-wire fences were erected along the riverbanks, hills, and valleys of Southern Slovenia, along the Slovenian-Croatian border, in 2015. The barrier was put in place not by the far right but by the centrist Miro Cerar and his “center-left” government. The fences, or “technical barriers” as Cerar likes to call them, are there to stop refugees from using Slovenia as a transit country or applying for asylum. In this campaign, migration is the issue on everybody’s mind.
Janša may be Slovenia’s Orban-in-chief, but on the question of migration, not much of substance differs between the 20 or so parties on the ballot and SDS other than tone. SDS has been at the forefront of spreading virulent anti-migrant rhetoric and has called for Slovenia to exclude itself from the refugee quota system, countering the current government’s stance. However, with the exception of the Left and the Pirates, everyone agrees that a stricter migration policy is needed, along with more rigid enforcement of policing the border because — and I’m paraphrasing both politicians and public opinion here — ‘Croatia can’t be trusted’ and ‘if we don’t, the Austrians will close their borders’.
What bothers Slovenia’s mainstream parties is not that there is now a razor-wire fence along an internal EU border, but rather that the fence’s purchase was “non-transparent”; that it’s not “effective enough”, and that it’s a hazard to wildlife.
Regardless of who wins today, the “technical border barriers” are there to stay, as the rhetoric surrounding migration grows more extreme, spilling over into other issues in Slovenian society, like welfare, education, and culture.
Janez Janša and the SDS are the favorite to win the election, but it’s unlikely they will be able to form a coalition. The parties that will are more likely to come from Slovenia’s centre-left — the new eponymously named Marjan Šarec party, led by a former comedian, the Social Democrats, the Pensioners’ party — perhaps even Cerar’s SMC again. Either way: more of the same.
Cover photo: Ljubljana, 2017. Credit: Balkanist