In our continuing series of election reports, we welcome Tim Haughton, a 2011-12 Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation Fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham, and Alenka Krasovec, an Associate Professor at the University of Ljubljana, with the following report on the December 2011 Slovene parliamentary elections.
You have to feel slightly sorry for Slovenia. Famously confused with Slovakia by George W. Bush and often rather neglected by political scientists covering the post-communist world.
Indeed, on the evening of December 4th as the first exit polls pointed to a mold breaking election, the attention of most analysts and journalists, even those who follow Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) was elsewhere. True, given Russia’s size and geographical position, the Duma elections have wider reaching ramifications and the Croatian elections took place as the country mired in war in the early 1990s stands on the threshold of entry into the European Union. Nonetheless, with party births, once dominant parties falling out of parliament and the whiff of financial malpractice Slovenia’s elections were arguably more interesting and illustrative of broader trends in party politics across CEE.
It is almost a cliché for political scientists to refer to earthquake elections, but on December 4th the electoral tectonic plates moved in Slovenia. The election was unexpectedly won by the left-leaning Positive Slovenia party led by Zoran Jankovic, the mayor of the capital city Ljubljana. The likely next prime minister had formed his party less than two months before Slovenes cast their ballots and yet managed to garner no fewer than 28.5% of the vote. Another new party formed around the same time led by the former minister Gregor Virant won 8.4% of the vote. No fewer than 40% of the new parliamentarians represent parties which did not exist a few months ago in a country where new parties have rarely enjoyed success at the ballot box. Moreover, the once mighty machine of Slovene politics, Liberal Democracy, which had dominated the country’s politics in the 1990s, fell well below the 4% threshold. The big loser of the election, however, was the Slovene Democratic Party (SDS) led by a former Prime Minister Janez Jansa. Although SDS party saw its support drop just three points from 29.3% to 26.2%, opinion polls in the run-up to the election seemed to suggest Jansa was on his way back to the premiership which he held from 2004-8.
The key to understanding the election results lies more with the limited appeal and mistakes on the part of Jansa than with any strong positive vote for Jankovic. The former prime minister is a man who sharply divides opinion not just because of his party’s centre-right appeal, but also due to his style of politics. Whilst supporters see Jansa as a man offering Slovenia much needed leadership, opponents see him as arrogant. The Slovene media’s confident prediction of a victory for SDS helped galvanize support for his opponents. Furthermore, the former premier’s decision to snub the last leaders’ debate on public TV, appearing instead on a private TV channel only added grist to the mill of those who claim Jansa is disdainful of his opponents.
The main beneficiary of the anti-Jansa vote was Jankovic. A colourful character, Jankovic was the boss of Slovenia’s dominant retailer Mercator. Under his stewardship the business flourished, but he was forced out in 2005 by Jansa’s government. With Borut Pahor’s Social Democrats which led the 2008-11 government languishing in the polls (although it managed 10.5% in the final vote), a large slice of the anti-Jansa vote began to gravitate towards Ljubljana’s mayor. Jankovic’s successful stewardship of the Slovene capital helped him win endorsements from former president Milan Kucan and the leaders of the veterans’ and retired persons’ organizations. The success of Positive Slovenia, however, was not just built on its leader’s appeal, but also on the party’s agenda for more limited reforms of the welfare state.
Unsurprisingly in a time of economic challenges facing Europe, economic issues were at the forefront of the campaign, although the euro (which Slovenia joined in 2005) was surprisingly marginal to much of the debate. Values-based appeals were of tertiary importance behind economic issues and the questions of leadership, but opposition to a new family law granting more rights to homosexual couples helped New Slovenia return to parliament after a four year absence. National themes were peripheral to the campaign. The far-right Slovene National Party failed to cross the threshold, ending its near two decade representation in the parliament.
Potent ingredients in so many elections in CEE are corruption allegations and stories of financial irregularities. Slovenia was no exception. Early in the campaign Jansa appeared to be the main beneficiary as support for Gregor Virant – who had served as a minister under Jansa – saw his poll ratings slump after he had to admit to receiving unemployment payments even though he was working as a lecturer and consultant. Knowing that Jankovic is not a man who sits with angels Jansa demanded all candidates including Ljubljana’s mayor make full disclosure of their financial dealings. But in boomerang fashion Jansa’s weapon returned to hit him hard as he struggled to explain all of his own financial activities.
Elections in CEE over the past two decades have demonstrated the appeal of the new, but frequently that such new parties tend to struggle if thrust immediately into government. Whether Positive Slovenia conforms to what Kevin Deegan-Krause dubbed the ‘live fast die young’ trend remains an open question. Jankovic is a seasoned politician who has never claimed to be whiter than white, but his party (like Virant’s) is a shell, lacking the robust organization needed for longevity. Jankovic will also have the unenviable task of building and maintaining a coalition knowing in all likelihood that Jansa will be waiting in the wings ready to pounce on his mistakes.