By Alenka Krašovec (University of Ljubljana)
A bit more than three months after the elections in June 2018, a new government in Slovenia was formed on 13 September 2018. Given the PR electoral system and rather low parliamentary threshold (4 %), another coalition government in Slovenia was not a surprise. However, some novelty can be detected – for the first-time a coalition government, at the beginning of its term, has a minority status. In the past, during the course of the legislative term, Slovenian coalition governments had suffered from the ‘dropping out’ strategy of parties, with only one (under PM Janša in the 2004-2008 term) surviving the entire four-year legislative term with its initial party composition. Due to the ‘dropping out’ strategy, some majority coalition governments indeed, gradually evolved into minority coalitions.
Some novelty can also be detected in the election process of the PM since, for the first time, the relative winner of the elections (Slovenian Democratic Party – SDS – with its leader Janez Janša) to whom the President of the Republic Borut Pahor offered the possibility of acquiring a mandate of the PM in the National Assembly, did not want to accept it. Only in the second round of voting could the National Assembly decide about the candidate for the PM position. This candidate was Marjan Šarec, a newcomer on the national level of politics and the leader of the List of Marjan Šarec (LMŠ), which received the second-highest support in the elections. Šarec was proposed by five parties, which decided to form a minority governmental coalition.
Although Janez Drnovšek (Liberal Democracy of Slovenia – LDS) who served as the PM in the 1992-2002 period, signed coalition agreements with the LDS’ main coalition partner(s) (and in addition, a separate one between the LDS and one more governmental party), a new coalition government under PM Šarec made an agreement between all coalition partners (five parties) and the Left, as a support party without a minister. Only the support of the Left guarantees the coalition government majority support, while Drnovšek, with separate agreements, assured additional support to his majority coalition governments.
Elections and Questions over Coalition Partners
Regular parliamentary elections were foreseen to be held in late spring or early summer 2018 and President Pahor had already conducted talks with the parliamentary parties to decide the date of the elections, when, at a press conference on 14 March, PM Miro Cerar (Party of Modern Centre – SMC) announced he would submit his resignation to the National Assembly. This meant that, although regular elections were already anticipated, early elections would now be held for the third time in a row (2011, 2014 and 2018). Cerar offered several reasons for such a step, ranging from the wave of strikes and protests from public sector workers (who demanded wage increases amid positive economic developments), to the obstructions from coalition partners (Social Democrats – SD and Democratic Party of Retired Persons – DeSUS) in dealing with urgent reforms. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was a decision by the Supreme Court to annul the September 2017 referendum on the law governing the financing of a second track between the Port of Koper and the rail hub of Divača, ordering a new referendum on the same question. This was mainly because, as the court argued, of the ‘unacceptable’ government behaviour during the campaign, in which the government highlighted, using budget money, only the positive aspects of the project.
Already in 2011 elections the new List of Zoran Janković – Positive Slovenia, won the elections, while the (also new) List of Gregor Virant – Citizen’s List, entered the National Assembly. This mirrored the 2014 elections, when newly formed SMC won the elections, while two other new parties, United Left coalition and Alliance of Alenka Bratušek, entered the National Assembly as well. Public opinion polls at the beginning of 2018 also predicted a very good electoral result for another newcomer, LMŠ led by Šarec — since 2010 a mayor of a small town close to Ljubljana and former actor and political satirist. However Šarec had ‘tested’ his appeal already in the autumn 2017 presidential elections and had managed to seriously threaten incumbent Pahor (Pahor won with 53.1% in the second round on the general elections). Šarec, in the presidential run, exposed the fact that he is not a new face in politics, but continued to maintain that he would like to inaugurate a new generation of politicians as well as ‘new politics’, and he repeated this message also in the 2018 parliamentary elections. If, in February 2018, Šarec with his List, topped public opinion polls with app. 25 % support, already in April, the old/established SDS, led by Janša, came to the foreground and managed to keep that position until the elections.
In the election campaign, several issues were exposed, but among the most salient were public sector reform (the healthcare system being most prominent), immigration, labour market reform, tax (particularly as a means to assure higher salaries for workers), infrastructure (especially the controversial second rail track), the privatisation of Slovenia’s biggest bank, and the implementation of the recent international tribunal ruling on territory and maritime disputes between Slovenia and neighbouring Croatia. While Šarec offered the electorate an eclectic mix of the values of the centre-left and centre-right, SDS with Janša clearly advocated for more neo-liberal economic policies, and on the other hand following also the strategies of Viktor Orban, including anti-migration rhetoric. Since Janković in 2011 and Cerar in 2014 benefited from an anti-Janša appeal to a certain extent, Šarec also tried to play this card. He was not as successful as both the above-mentioned leaders, however, and managed to get ‘only’ 12.6% of the vote, finishing the electoral race in the second position, while SDS, as a relative winner, attracted 24.9% of voters. Alongside these two parties (LMŠ and SDS), another seven parties entered the National Assembly. However, during the campaign one of the most important questions had already emerged: which party is willing to join the expected winner of the election – Janša – in government formation? All the parliamentary parties and their leaders, except conservative New Slovenia (NSi) and populist Slovenian National Party (SNS), had publicly stated they could not see themselves in coalition with the SDS, especially under Janša’s leadership.
Coalition Formation Process
It has become an unwritten rule after elections, that the leadership candidate of the party that received the greatest share of votes gets the President’s first PM nomination. This unwritten rule on the first formateur was seriously challenged prior to early elections in 2011, when public opinion polls clearly indicated a victory for the SDS, but then-President Danilo Türk publicly stated that the president is not formally bound to propose the winner of the elections for the post of the PM. This statement provoked speculation as to whether the President was going to ‘violate’ the unwritten rule on the formateur, but the question stayed open, since the election results made such speculations irrelevant as SDS was, in the end, not the winner of the 2011 elections. Given that the PM has to be elected by majority of all MPs, that is, at least 46, usually governmental coalitions are agreed-upon before the election of the PM in the National Assembly.
After the elections of 2018, President Pahor, without reservation, followed the unwritten rule and offered the possibility to be elected as the PM in the National Assembly to Janša. Janša and his SDS sent an invitation to (coalition) talks to all parliamentary parties, although LMŠ, SD, SMC, DeSUS, SAB (Party of Alenka Bratušek) and the Left, again, publicly stated that they would not enter into (coalition) talks with Janša. Given such a response, President Pahor even called on parties to talk with Janša and SDS, despite political differences, while Janša stated that he was going to try to form a coalition “for Slovenia” and not against, for example, Šarec, Cerar (SMC leader) or Židan (SD leader), thereby answering these well-known anti-Janša appeals. When it became clear that centre-left parties (at least at the beginning of the process) were determined not to enter a coalition government led by Janša, he explicitly said that he was not the only option for the PM in the SDS. Still, none of the centre-left parties decided to enter the (coalition) talks. In such a situation, Janša saw that he was not going to get enough support in the National Assembly to be elected as the PM, and did not accept the President’s offer. Nonetheless, the question/suspicion as to whether any of these parties would break a “promise for the sake of Slovenia” in the third round of elections of the PM, was in the air. But such a move of rather weak centre-left parties would probably have led to their electoral defeat in the next elections.
Almost simultaneously with these processes, SD, SMC, DeSUS, SAB and NSi were invited to talks with Šarec about the possibility of forming a majority coalition government under his leadership. After some important concessions of the centre-left parties to the conservative NSi, this party in mid-July when new coalition was already on the horizon, decided not to enter the coalition, arguing that it had serious doubts about the stability and duration of such a government, hinting about unresolved disputes among former coalition partners, SMC and SD. Both of these parties, as well as the public, mostly saw such hints as a way to exit the talks, since NSi membership was apparently not very happy with the entrance of a small party into a coalition with centre-left character.
Once these talks failed, and with a formal deadline for the second round of electing the PM approaching, Šarec and the four centre-left parties decided to invite the Left, a more radical left party, to talks. The Council of the Left, after several rounds of negotiations, decided that the differences between it and the five other centre-left parties were still too great and refused to enter the coalition government. The Council of the Left did allow, however, that it was willing to support a minority government composed of these five parties. While LMŠ, indeed, did not have problems with such a solution, SMC and SAB, especially, criticised the Left, arguing that it would like to have a word in governmental policies – but without taking responsibility for its work, and that, moreover, they would re-think participation in a Šarec-led coalition. SD on the other hand, was particularly interested in the Left’s participation in the government and called on it to seize the opportunity to implement promises it had given before the elections. Despite these frictions, and obviously, other alternatives: an SDS-led government or even new elections (which, according to public opinion polls at that time would have benefitted only the SDS), acted as a centripetal force.
An agreement — indeed it can be characterised as a project partnership — reached between five parties and the Left, gives the Left a right to exempt itself from the implementation of governmental policies if the consequences of these policies are, for example, privatisation of state-owned companies, decrease in workers’ rights, increase of inequality, higher expenditure for defence (the Left wanted to hold a referendum on the exit of Slovenia from NATO). On the other hand, after the prior coordination talks were held, the Left had an obligation to support the coalition government, in votes on the PM, speaker of the National Assembly and his/her deputies and on the budget and its rebalance. According to the agreement, every year the Left is going to be in charge to lead two projects, and for 2018 the project is an increase of the minimum wage and the regulation of students’ revenues. The Left held an intra-party referendum on the agreement, and once the Left membership supported it by 85% (turnout was 41%), the agreement was initialled (10th of August, 2018). In the second round of the election of the PM in the National Assembly a week later, Šarec, proposed by five coalition parties, was supported by 55 MPs — five coalition parties and the Left, one vote from the opposition and two representatives of minorities (in October, minority coalition members signed a special agreement on co-operation with these two representatives). Finally, on the 29th of August, a coalition agreement among the five centre-left parties was signed, while a formalisation/signature of the agreement among these parties and the Left was planned for the 18th of September 2018.
The second step in government formation in Slovenia is a vote on the proposal of ministers in the National Assembly. The voting is on ministerial candidates en bloc — on the entire list of candidates. Ministers are appointed if a majority of MPs (if a quorum is assured), vote for them. The list of ministers on the 13th of September, 2018, was supported by 45 MPs (by coalition parties and two representatives of minorities, and not by the Left). On the same day, the new minority coalition government, in its first session, confirmed six new secretaries in the PM’s office. The Left was so upset with the appointment of a new secretary responsible for national security (Damir Črnčec), that the Left decided not to sign the agreement between it and the coalition government. The main complaint was that Črnčec, in presenting his views, used radical right anti-migration rhetoric.
Minority Coalition Government after 100 Days in Office
In the 100 days period after its formation, the minority coalition government had faced several hard tasks. First, it needed to conclude negotiations with the public sector workers trade unions, or else face a huge strike wave. Secondly, in preparation for implementing the budget, publicly exposed divergences had been seen, especially between SAB and DeSUS regarding pensions, both of which claimed they work for the best interests of pensioners. Thirdly, final decisions on the privatisation of the biggest state-owned bank (NLB) needed to be made. Finally, certain important personnel decisions (which in the National Assembly need support of all MPs) also waited to be made, for example, the appointment of the Governor of the National Bank and a Constitutional Court judge, where differences among the coalition parties have been obvious. While a judge was finally appointed, a candidate for Governor, proposed by the President of the Republic in the National Assembly, did not receive enough support and further talks among coalition parties are needed.
Public opinion polls in the beginning of December 2018 revealed that the minority coalition government enjoys rather unexpectedly high support (in December, 29% of the population evaluated the work of the government as positive or very positive, and on a five-point scale it received an average mark of 3, while in September, just 7% thought so, and the average mark was 2.1), while Šarec is the second most popular politician (after President Pahor). Some commentators suggested that this positive evaluation in December happened because expectations at the beginning of Šarec’s term were very low, but also because PM Šarec managed to present himself as a determined leader, who soon made some hard choices and did not allow ministers and party leaders to ‘blackmail’ his government. It must not be forgotten that the two most recent former PMs (Bratušek and Cerar) also hold ministerial positions. On the other hand, despite the fact that the agreement with the Left has not been formally signed (and probably it is not going to be), there have not been problems in co-operation with the supporting party. Even more, just days ago, a decision on the increase of the minimum wage, one of the first “partners” projects (also scheduled for 2018) led by the Left, was passed in the National Assembly.
Photo source: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/no-surprises-expected-from-slovenia-s-new-govt-09-14-2018