Slovenia rarely makes headlines in Europe—but its election will say a lot about the future of the EU.
Slovenia’s leaders rarely make the front pages of foreign newspapers. But that is what happened on March 15th, as journalists across Europe and the rest of the world reported on the visit by the prime minister, Janez Janša, to the embattled Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Janša was in the company of his Czech and Polish counterparts, Petr Fiala and Mateusz Morawiecki respectively (along with the real leader of Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński). They caught the attention of the world with their striking—and strikingly dangerous—display of solidarity.
Although representatives of Slovakia (with which Slovenia is often confused) and Hungary were absent, the message was clear: members of the central-European Visegrád group, to which Slovenia does not belong but with which Janša has increasingly aligned himself, were there to support Ukraine on behalf of the European Union. The only problem was that they had no European mandate for their visit—they could hardly be seen as speaking for the EU, given their long-running battles with Brussels.
Janša’s behaviour evoked a whiplash reaction from many in Slovenia: he had dismissed, as ‘imaginary’, the European values for which Zelenskyy is fighting, during Slovenia’s presidency of the Council of the EU last year. Moreover, following his Hungarian ally, Viktor Orbán, until recently Janša’s favourite news organisation, Nova24TV (which is also funded by individuals associated with the Hungarian prime minister), had been parroting Russian propaganda by claiming that Zelenskyy was a puppet on Moscow’s payroll, out to ‘scam’ the Ukrainian people. Perhaps this is why Zelenskyy’s Twitter account has never mentioned Janša by name.
Despite the attention he received abroad, Janša’s trip to Kyiv was primarily designed for domestic consumption. After all, Slovenia has an election coming up on April 24th and acting the statesman would surely play to his advantage. Despite the benefits of incumbency—and the fact that he can point to the gradual normalisation of life after two years of lockdowns and other restrictions—victory for Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party (Slovenska demokratska stanka, SDS) and his allies on the far right is hardly assured: he is polling at around 25 per cent.
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Macro-economically, the same factors affecting the rest of the globe are at play in Slovenia. Pandemic-induced supply-chain problems and rising inflation have led to politically perilous price hikes. Even though the government recently had to reintroduce price controls for petrol and diesel, rising prices have led to queues at those stations still offering fuel at the old rate.
Additionally, the state budget has come under pressure after the large outlays to combat the pandemic. This has made for difficult negotiations with unions seeking better pay—their demands only enhanced by rising inflation. After two years of extra shifts in unimaginably difficult working conditions, doctors won a rise after a brief strike. This spurred similar demands elsewhere, most notably from teachers, who have had to deal too with extremely difficult conditions.
Janša also faces opposition from diverse civil-society movements. The vaccination deniers and lockdown protesters who gathered in Ljubljana on Wednesdays have lost some momentum as the Omicron wave has receded (for the time being, at least). But protests against Janša’s attempts to dismantle Slovenia’s formally independent state institutions, which traditionally take place on Fridays, continue.
That civil society has succeeded in mobilising is itself remarkable, given Janša’s siege on the Slovenia public-service broadcaster, RTVSLO, and his attempts to hobble the Slovenian Press Agency, STA. It is even more noteworthy given that the rest of the media landscape is increasingly dominated by outlets in the hands of his allies, at home and in Hungary.
In light of all this, Janša’s visit to Ukraine was a welcome—and from his perspective hopefully unifying—distraction from his domestic problems.
Normally, elections in Slovenia are of little importance to outsiders, given its size and lack of economic or geopolitical weight. This time, however, the rest of Europe has many reasons to care about the government which will come into office later this year, as it may well determine if Janša is able to consolidate Slovenia’s turn towards the ‘autocratic legalism’ of Hungary and Poland. Much ink has been spilt over the growing gulf between the liberal democracies of western Europe and the increasingly ‘illiberal’ model created by Orbán and Kaczyński, which is defined by strong ‘commitments to territoriality, national politics, deference to executive power, and resistance to comity or international law’.
Slovenia was long considered a poster-child of post-communist transition, due to its rapid (and successful) adoption of western political and economic structures. But Janša has turned the country eastwards, on liberalism, secularism, LGBT+ rights, cosmopolitanism and gender equality, as part of what has been described as the broader ‘nationalist and populist surge in Eastern Europe today’. Following Fidesz’s Hungarian playbook, he has sought to bring the judiciary politically to heel, placed party loyalists into positions of social and political power, attacked the Court of Auditors and handed state contracts to tycoons friendly to the regime.
Externally, Janša has joined his fellow illiberal democrats in opposing attempts by the EU to enforce its standards on the rule of law and democracy. In October 2021, he refused to meet a mission from the Monitoring Group on Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights of the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs.
The group condemned the ‘pressure on public institutions and the media by the government, including by smear campaigns, slander, criminal investigations as well as strategic lawsuits against public participation’ and Janša’s embrace of the ‘practice of ruling by decree’. Janša’s attacks on Sophie in ‘t Veld, the head of the monitoring mission—leading to a spat with the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte—have resulted in an ever-more-confrontational approach to the EU, support for which had previously been a point of consensus among all major Slovenian political parties.
Janša’s attempts to move Slovenia firmly into the illiberal camp of the Visegrád states have however been hampered by so far leading a minority government. Thus, despite his bluster, it is still the case, the mission reported, that ‘public institutions overall work well’.
But if he and his allies on the right were to win the next election, there is little doubt he would seek to entrench his autocratic legal regime for the foreseeable future, by seeking ‘to remove the checks on executive power, limit the challenges to their rule, and undermine the crucial accountability institutions of a democratic state’. While it is unlikely that Janša’s forces will gain a constitutional majority, the history of illiberal democracy in Hungary and Poland shows that these regimes typically manage to consolidate by capturing state institutions after a second consecutive term.
There is thus a lot at stake in Slovenia’s election, for Europe as a whole. Does the opposition have a chance? Current opinion polls suggest so. Yet despite pledges to co-operate, in typical fashion the liberal centre-left is divided among squabbling parties which threaten to cannibalise their shared voter base.
In the past four election cycles, a political outsider with a party formed during the campaign itself won winning sufficient votes to bring the opposition to Janša together in a coalition. This time, it appears this role will be played by Robert Golob and his new Gibanje svoboda (Freedom Movement). Those committed to a social Europe, capable of unified action internally and on the world stage, can only hope the pattern repeats itself this year.
Peter J Verovšek is an assistant professor of politics / international relations at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of Memory and the Future of Europe: Rupture and Integration in the Wake of Total War (Manchester University Press, 2020).