By Alenka Krašovec (University of Ljubljana)
On 24 April 2022, after a decade of elections being called early, regular elections were again held in Slovenia. The country has had a PR electoral system in place since the democratic transition with quite a low threshold (4% since 2000) and so coalition governments are indeed normal. This also applies to the new government that after the elections in April was formed on 1 June 2022. However, for the first time an individual party has seen as many as 41 MPs being elected (45.5% of National Assembly seats) and just 5 parties managed to enter it – the smallest number since 1990 (before, the figure had ranged between 7 and 9 parties). Given the pre-election developments and a parliament with only 5 parties present, with one of them having nearly half of the seats, somewhat expectedly a very short time was needed to form a majority coalition government – 37 days. Yet, despite these novelties, an almost tradition has continued with the governments formed after elections in Slovenia – the PM is the leader of a new political party.
In late January 2020, Slovenia was in turmoil after PM Marjan Šarec (List of Marjan Šarec – LMŠ) resigned at the end of the month. Šarec had led a five-party, centre-left minority coalition government supported following the 2018 elections by the more radical The Left, while a new four-party, centre-right majority government coalition had been formed by Janez Janša (Slovenian Democratic Party – SDS) whose term in office began (on 13 March 2020) literally one day after an epidemic due to COVID-19 had been declared in Slovenia. Janša had managed to convince New Slovenia (NSi) and two parties from the LMŠ-led government to join forces together with an SDS-led government – Party of Modern Centre (SMC) and Democratic Party of Retired Persons of Slovenia (DeSUS), which both saw changes in their party leadership shortly before the turmoil; the former in September 2019, the latter in January 2020. This was the third government Janša had led (he was first PM between 2004 and 2008, and then between 2012 and 2013).
The Janša-led government was able to deal with the many consequences of COVID-19, mainly by adopting ten generally welcomed anti-COVID-19 legislative packages to support different sectors of the economy and several vulnerable groups. Yet, a number of provisions included in the legislation had little to do with the COVID-19 situation but were more systemic in nature, with such packages holding important consequences for the growing budget deficit and rising public debt. Alongside the COVID-19 situation, other developments were underway, leading several democracy and other watchdog institutions (e.g. Freedom House, Bertelsmann Transformation Index, IDEA) to start reporting worrying trends in democratic backsliding in the country. Several areas were in the spotlight and also attracted attention at the EU and/or international level: the undermining of the media, especially the Slovenian Press Agency and the public broadcaster RTV, and also some other more critical media, by both the government and its officials (a text on the war against the media written by PM Janša in spring 2020 and published on the government’s website meant this was not a big surprise), certain independent oversight bodies (e.g. Commission for the Prevention of Corruption, Court of Audit) were under pressure as were the judicial branch and state prosecutors. In addition, a number of cases of corruption(-risk) activities involving the PM or government members were investigated by both the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption and the Court of Audit, including cases related to the 2020 procurement of protective and medical equipment to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
While in spring 2020 Slovenia was one of the countries to have quite successfully dealt with COVID-19, by autumn the situation had changed, leading the government to introduce a series of measures, with it nearly exclusively ruling by way of decree despite warnings by legal experts. In fact, in a few cases the Constitutional Court called on the government to choose acts rather than decrees, especially for decisions that would limit the citizens’ rights. Many people were disappointed with the measures, the way they had been approved, or the inadequate communication about them, and later also with the vaccination strategy.
Amid these developments, the Janša government faced constant protest activities in various forms, from issue-oriented (e.g. environmental and cultural) protests to more general anti-governmental ones (with the occasional organisation of smaller-scale pro-governmental protests) that while mostly peaceful were in any case met with different forms of harsh state response, as well as anti-COVID protests, some of which turned violent in autumn 2021 when the police also responded heavily with large amounts of tear gas and water cannons. Not surprisingly, a huge drop was visible in the share of people seeing the government’s work as (very) positive– while in April 2020 the share was 44%, from the end of the year and throughout 2021 the figure was around 20% and by the start of 2021 close to 30%.
In these circumstances, in the autumn of 2020 four opposition parties previously partners under PM Šarec (LMŠ, Social Democrats – SD, The Left, and Party of Alenka Bratušek – SAB) formed the Constitutional Arch Coalition (KUL), initially proposed by several intellectuals, aimed at stopping Slovenia slipping into an illiberal democracy by the formation of a new government or by holding early elections. The opposition Slovenian National Party (SNS) did not join KUL because in 2020 it had signed a co-operation agreement (along with the 2 representatives of the minorities) with Janša’s government. KUL pressured the government coalition by commencing interpellations against individual ministers, but without success since several disputes within the governmental DeSUS and SMC due to the course of politics meant the outcomes were also clear. However, just several months after the change in the DeSUS leadership position its new leader Aleksandra Pivec was involved in an affair involving a risk of corruption and the DeSUS MPs called for her to resign. In December 2020, former leader Karl Erjavec was re-elected as party leader and DeSUS left the government, formally turning the government into minority status, supported KUL and Erjavec also agreed to be a candidate for PM in a motion of a constructive vote of no confidence to be issued by KUL. Yet, the party’s PPG did not agree with this course, creating a huge schism in the party. Erjavec was not elected PM, but the KUL pressures in the form of interpellations against individual ministers escalated, even a proposal to impeach the PM surfaced, but all ministers and the PM stayed in their positions, albeit several MPs left governmental SMC. The government was indeed safe due to above-mentioned co-operation agreement with SNS and the 2 minority representatives as well as the de facto support of the DeSUS MPs.
A clear sign that society was unhappy with many of the government’s developments and modus operandi came with the results of a referendum concerning the Law on Changes and Amendments to the Waters Act, which in March 2021 the National Assembly had passed despite warnings issued by experts and environmental NGOs. Moreover, the Act was passed in a shortened procedure that excluded any more general debate. An alliance of NGOs quickly gathered the signatures needed to call a referendum. Even though the coalition parties managed to set the referendum date for 11 July, in the peak of the summer holidays, the turnout was 46% – close to the turnout at the 2014 and 2018 parliamentary elections and the highest for a nationwide referendum since 2007. The result: 86% of those casting a vote were against the law – representing up to 40% of all eligible voters. In November 2021, these developments together with opposition and civil society pressure led the President of the Republic Borut Pahor to announce that he would call elections for 24 April 2022, the first possible date for a regular parliamentary election.
Despite low public support for the government, several months before the elections public opinion polls showed that SDS as the biggest governmental party would still receive the biggest support. The four KUL parties joined forces more strongly in September 2021 and signed an agreement on post-election cooperation, in lieu of the fact they could not agree on a common challenger to Janša. Yet, it was obvious the public did not completely believe they would be able to co-operate, especially given the fiasco with co-operating in the Šarec-led government. In addition, political opponents played this card when persuading the public the KUL was not a good alternative. However, the polls also showed there was again enough room for a new political party, a ‘new face’ despite the disappointments with very successful new parties and/or new faces in national politics in the last decade.
Among others, the government led by PM Janša made a huge number of changes to the top positions in different institutions and (partly) state-owned companies. Still, what was most problematic was when these new people often even did not possess enough knowledge or experience to run big companies, or when successful managers had been replaced without good reason. In November 2021, Robert Golob, the long-term and successful CEO of the state-owned energy trader, without any explanation was not given another term. This (in)directly led to him to express that the government’s expectations meant that a change was needed, and in December he decided to actively enter politics. Still, he is not a completely new face in politics since for a while he served as deputy leader of Positive Slovenia as well as the Alliance of Alenka Bratušek, and for 1 year also as a state secretary at one ministry under PM Janez Drnovšek.
At the end of January 2022, the non-parliamentary green party Z.Dej held a party congress at which the party’s leader decided to resign. The party delegates, as it was agreed prior, elected Golob as the new leader and the party was renamed the Freedom Movement (GS). In a speech, Golob stated that climate policy, healthcare and measures against the health crisis as well as intergenerational challenges were the most important. However, Golob also clearly declared the partytocracy in Slovenia as the biggest problem and hoped that the civil society movements would join forces via a common platform to create a broad movement aimed at changing the political culture in the country and establishing a normal state with normal politics. In ideological terms, he announced that GS will be slightly on the left and slightly on the right.
Elections and the Campaign
Golob was immediately described and perceived as Janša’s biggest challenger, as also reflected in public opinion polls where GS was almost constantly receiving most support in the polls since February, while the KUL members were generally losing it. Yet, according to the polls newcomers on the centre-right, Our Country, established by the short-run leader of DeSUS Pivec and Let’s Connect Slovenia, a joint list of five parties, including the former SMC and long-term parliamentary Slovene People’s Party (SLS), were winning support from potential SDS and NSi voters. With the elections approaching, it was clear that alongside the competition for victory between GS and SDS a competition among smaller parties to cross the threshold would be important as the winner would also be needing coalition partners. One could therefore soon observe in the campaign the GS and the KUL members starting to co-operate closely while mentioning they would form a coalition government together, whereas members of the government were also clearly not attacking each other. Governmental parties were additionally offering co-operation with other parties, including KUL members, while the latter clearly opted out the coalition with current governmental parties. Only The Left was by the government parties not perceived as a potential partner due to its supposedly radical stances. Namely, already in June 2021 SDS and NSi had commenced a delegitimisation campaign claiming The Left wanted to introduce the socio-political system of socialist Yugoslavia. SDS further asserted The Left’s programme was in collision with the Constitution. In January 2022, a citizen allegedly close to SDS submitted a petition to the Constitutional Court calling for an examination of whether The Left and the Social Democrats (SD) were functioning in breach of the Constitution and whether their programmes were unconstitutional. In March, the Court deemed the petition was without merit. On the other hand, the SDS campaign exposed experiences of SDS and its leader Janša, and warned against yet more experiments, referring to the past bad experiences with new parties.
Civil society organisations played a very active role in the campaign – based on the referendum’s success with the mobilisation of voters, they importantly contributed to the high electoral turnout – 71% – the highest since mid-1990s, but mostly also campaigned against the modus operandi of the current government and the backsliding of democracy.
Many topics were debated in the campaign, although the government generally played the economy card due to the favourable hard economic data in Slovenia. Its main challengers, on the other hand, warned about future developments, among others noting the warnings issued by the Fiscal Council and especially about the structural deficit. KUL with GS were opening up debate on the democratic backsliding, while COVID-19 was hardly discussed. The same was true with the war in Ukraine. At first, the issue boosted SDS’s support, but Janša’s visit to Kyiv and President Zelensky along with the Polish and Czech PMs was seen as a clear campaign move. All the major parties supported Ukraine, except SNS, and the ‘Ukraine effect’ subsided. In the case of COVID-19, it seems the parties did not want to raise a topic that clearly divides the electorate and the parties and is not clear-cut either within parties, and not to blow any wind into the sails of a party formed on anti-virus measures; its leader also mobilised people with respect to the autumn protest that had turned violent.
As public opinion polls indicated a close race in the circumstances of low party identification in Slovenia and that in the previous decade up to one-third of voters had decided in the last week before the elections, a big share of strategic voting was expected. The winner of this strategic voting was GS (with 34.6% of votes), followed by SDS (23.5%), while others lost out from this voting. Two aspects were usually presented in the public about the losers: a) the parties in government lost; b) and the KUL parties lost; when talking about percentages of votes, both are true. However, due to the small number of parliamentary parties, the governmental SDS and NSi despite their somewhat lower election support slightly increased the number of their MPs, while Let’s Connect Slovenia, also containing the former governmental SMC, did not cross the threshold. Among the KUL parties, SD and The Left managed to enter the National Assembly but with less election support and a smaller number of MPs than after the 2018 elections. The parties led by former prime ministers Šarec (LMŠ) and Bratušek (SAB) did not enter the Assembly. After bitter conflicts among the party in the central office, also primarily supported by the party on the ground, and its PPG, as expected DeSUS, which in the last 20 years has several times played a pivotal role in the forming of a governmental coalition, did not manage to enter the Assembly and neither did SNS.
Coalition Forming Process
After the elections, it has become an unwritten rule that the candidate of the party that received the biggest share of votes is given the President’s first PM nomination. When in February 2022 President Pahor officially called the April elections, he also publicly announced the first nomination for PM would be granted to the candidate able to show him 46 signatures of MPs (i.e. the majority of all), the number needed to be elected PM. This move was a deviation from the practice in Slovenia. As GS had 41 MPs elected, it could form a coalition only with one of the KUL parties to have majority status. Despite several calls from employers’ and business organisations to GS and Golob to include NSi instead of The Left in the coalition, he complied with the pre-electoral agreement with the KUL members. The coalition agreement was quickly negotiated between GS (41 MPs), SD (7 MPs) and The Left (5 MPs). In addition to the agreement, a protocol on co-operation was signed, dealing with conflict-prevention and conflict-resolution mechanisms as well as coordination procedures among the partners. Although the partners are formally equal in dealing with coordination activities, it is also clear that the PM will have the decisive word. On 25 May, Golob was elected PM with 54 votes for and 30 against.
The second step in government formation in Slovenia is a vote in the National Assembly on the proposed list of ministers. Voting is typically on ministerial candidates en bloc for the entire list of candidates. Ministers are appointed if a majority of MPs, once a quorum is assured, vote for them. On 1 June, the list of ministers was supported by 53 MPs, with 28 MPs against.
However, the government was formed using a structure known under PM Janša. Indeed, it was agreed by the partners that certain changes would be made in the areas covered by some ministries, and instead of 17 ministries there should be 20 ministries. However, SDS proposed a consultative referendum on the Amendments to the Law on Government that would bring changes to number of ministries and their areas. The government coalition decided to form a government under the current legislation and to make changes after the procedural deadlines for the referendum proposal had expired. In the government, SD has 4 ministers, The Left 2 ministers, while the others (11) belong to GS. Golob decided to also include in the government (within the GS quota) two former prime ministers (Šarec and Bratušek), leaders of the KUL parties that have “fallen for F(f)reedom” as Šarec commented. Šarec is currently a minister while Bratušek is serving as a state secretary at one ministry and waiting for the new organisation of ministries to be put in place to become a minister. This also means that two former ‘new faces’ have in fact not completely disappeared from the political arena. When the agreed reorganisation of the government is implemented, The Left will be given another ministry and GS two. The dominance of GS in the centre-left ideological space led to speculation about a merger of LMŠ and SAB with GS after the elections. This process will indeed soon to be concluded as in LMŠ and SAB merge with GS was already confirmed.
Photo source: https://www.euronews.com/2022/06/02/new-centre-left-government-takes-the-reins-in-slovenia