Sunday’s vote in Slovenia was billed as a referendum on the small Alpine nation’s future, and it would seem now that that future is both liberal and green. Coming on the same day that French voters rejected the far-right vision of Marine Le Pen, the Freedom Movement’s victory has led some to wonder if the populist tide in Europe is turning.
But such a conclusion might be rash, notably because Slovenia never actually voted for this incarnation of prime minister Janez Janša – he got the top job in 2020 without going to the polls after the previous liberal premier stepped down – while more than 40% of French voters DID cast their ballots for Le Pen, which is anything but a far-right retreat in a country that likes to see itself as a beacon of enlightenment.
Nonetheless, many Slovenians rejoiced at the ousting of a man who definitely pushed his country to the right during his two years in power – and his third term in office. The 63-year-old, who is an ally of right-wing Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán, clashed with the European Union over media freedoms and has been accused by opponents of undermining democratic standards.
Since he took office, tens of thousands of people have held regular anti-government rallies and he earned himself the nickname “Marshal Tweeto” – a reference to Josip Broz Tito, the former dictator of Yugoslavia, of which Slovenia was once part – for his tirades against journalists on social media.
On Sunday, Irena Joveva, a Slovenian member of the European Parliament, tweeted: “The people have spoken. On this day, after two years, Slovenia begins to reverse its devastating drift toward illiberal autocracy. Never again!”
The Freedom Movement – a small Green party taken over and renamed in January by US-educated energy executive Robert Golob – won nearly 34% of the vote while Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) won around 24%. That gives Golob’s party, which campaigned on a transition to green energy, an open society and the rule of law, 40 seats in the 90-seat Državni zbor (lower house of parliament) where it is expected to form a coalition with the Social Democrats and Left parties.
For many Slovenians, the nightmarish aberration of the last two years is now over. Miha Kovač, a professor at the University of Ljubljana’s School of Arts, says this was a vote for change insofar as change meant a return to the previous status quo.
“Simply put this was a kind of referendum on whether Slovenia wants to follow the road of illiberal democracy, with Hungary and Poland as role models, and I would say almost 65% of voters said no to this,” he said.
“There is a significant part of the Slovenian voting body that doesn’t care much about politics. They want to be left alone to live their normal lives. They saw this Janša government as a kind of attack on the normality they are used to and that’s why they wanted to vote.”
During his two years in office, Janša had clashed with Brussels over his moves to suspend funding to the national news agency, and to drag out the appointment of prosecutors to the EU’s new anti-graft body. A report released by research institute Freedom House last week said democratic standards in Slovenia declined more in 2021 than in any other country in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, although political rights and civil liberties are generally respected.
“No country’s scores fell further than those of Slovenia,” the report said, adding that Janša’s government had sidelined the parliament and put political and financial pressure on civil society groups, public media services, the judiciary, and the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.
What worries Kovač now is how little is known about Golob’s broader policies, the lack of experience among his MPs, and the absence of a strong party structure. He’s concerned that in the future splits could emerge that could lead to the kind of loyalty-switching that brought Janša to power in 2020. He notes that Slovenian MPs are traditionally loathe to have early polls, preferring instead to create new alliances to stay in jobs that are generally more lucrative than the occupations these individuals could have elsewhere.
The challenge for 55-year-old Golob, whose last name translates as ‘pigeon’ and who Kovač says would never have entered this race if he had not been removed from his post as head of a state-owned energy company last year, will be to manage his potentially fickle MPs.
“For many, this is the best job they ever had … that’s why these kinds of strange turnarounds happen and that’s why I’m quite sceptical about Golob’s movement. I hope he will succeed but I have my worries… If he fails then it’s likely his movement will disintegrate then his MPs might support someone else like Janša. “
As for Golob’s environmental platform, this resonated with voters because they desperately want an alternative energy source to Russian gas – Kovač notes ruefully that every time he switches on the heating he is supporting the Russian invasion. Former energy executive Golob has expertise in this area, notably with solar power.
Golob, who has worked in government before and been politically active for many years, told his supporters on Sunday that a new day was dawning. And that’s precisely what some commentators were hailing after the weekend’s election results.
Afterall, the defeats in France and Slovenia follow the resignation of populist Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz over corruption allegations last October and the defeat of autocratic Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš in elections that same month. And while Orbán was re-elected in Hungary earlier this month, some commentators say the war in Ukraine is punishing populist allies of Putin across Europe – people like Marine Le Pen whose team allegedly binned millions of campaign leaflets featuring a photo of her with the Russian leader – and straining bonds between populist-led states, like Hungary and Poland.
But Kovač urges caution. For those looking for signs of a more general populist rout across Europe, Slovenia may not be the canary in the coalmine.
“It’s too early to talk yet and let’s not forget, this populist politics didn’t previously win the election. (Janša) came to power because of a strange twist in parliament, heavily connected with the pandemic. The majority of the Slovenian electoral body never voted for right-wing populism.”