Predictably Unpredictable: The 2014 parliamentary elections in Slovenia

Parliamentary elections and party politics in Slovenia are becoming predictable in their unpredictability. For the first two decades of the country’s independence party politics was largely stable. True, in the second decade the once mighty force of Slovene politics, Liberal Democracy, saw its support drop, the Social Democrats emerged as a powerful force, but only really for one election in 2008, and there were a stream of new parties. Nonetheless, in a region marked by high levels of electoral volatility, Slovenia appeared to be more stable than most. All that changed in December 2011 when early elections (provoked by the disintegration of a coalition) witnessed two parties formed just weeks before the polls garner 37% of the vote. Three-and-a-half years on, another early election provoked by a battle over the leadership in the biggest governmental party, Positive Slovenia, and the disintegration of the governing coalition, saw one new party formed just over a month before the polls scoop nearly 35% of the vote.

Central to explaining the outcome of the 2014 elections and the twists and turns of party politics in Slovenia during the preceding parliamentary term are novelty, corruption and expertise.

Table 1: Results of the 2014 Parliamentary Elections in Slovenia (%)

Miro Cerar’s Party (SMC) 34.6
Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) 20.7
Democratic Party of Retired Persons of Slovenia (DeSUS) 10.2
United Left (ZL) 5.9
Social Democrats (SD) 5.9
New Slovenia-Christian Democrats (NSi -KD) 5.5
Alliance of Alenka Bratušek (ZaAB) 4.3
Slovene People’s Party (SLS) 3.9
Positive Slovenia (PS) 2.9
Civic List (DL) 0.6

Source: Electoral Commission (http://www.dvk-rs.si/index.php/si/)

Of the 17 parties which contested the election, seven entered parliament. At the time of writing, it remains unclear whether the Slovene People’s Party (SLS) (with a pedigree stretching back to 1988 before the break-up of Yugoslavia), will cross the 4% electoral threshold. When the results were announced on election night, the party had garnered 3.97% of the vote. Definitive results, however, will be published later in the month once all of the postal ballots have been counted. Given past experiences, the chances of the Slovene People’s Party crossing the threshold looks slim.

 

Three and a Half Years of Political Turmoil

Although winning a plurality of the vote in the 2011 elections, Positive Slovenia (PS) and its colourful leader founder, Zoran Janković, who had built a reputation as a ‘man who gets things done’ as the boss of Slovenia’s dominant retailer Mercator, was unable to form a government. Thwarted ultimately by the decision of the other new entrant in 2011, Gregor Virant’s Civic List, to join forces with Janez Janša’s centre-right Slovene Democratic Party, Mr Janša returned to the prime minister’s office he had held from 2004-2008.

Mr Janša’s government, however, did not survive the parliamentary term, due to a constructive vote of no-confidence in February 2013 linked to an anti-corruption watchdog’s revelations involving Mr Janša himself. Mr Janša was replaced as prime minister by Alenka Bratušek, who had become acting leader of Positive Slovenia after Mr Janković had stepped back from the leadership of his party the previous year due to the findings of the anti-corruption commission which had pointed the finger of suspicion in his direction. Ms Bratušek’s new coalition government, however, survived for little more than a year. Just prior to the European Parliament (EP) elections this year, Ms Bratušek submitted her resignation (and thereby the resignation of her government) ushering in a period of uncertainty. Slovenia’s first female premier had been successfully challenged for the leadership of Positive Slovenia, by none other than Mr Janković himself. His desire to take back the party leadership not only engendered a split in the party, but provoked the governing coalition to collapse as the smaller parties in the government refused to work alongside Positive Slovenia with the charismatic but controversial Mr Janković at the helm, thanks mainly to revelations by the same anti-corruption commission in January 2013 which had implicated Mr Janša.

 

The Secrets of Success: Novelty and the Rule of Law

The winner of the July 2014 election, Miro Cerar, savoured victory just six weeks after founding his eponymously named party (Stranka Mira Cerarja: SMC). Although, as Allan Sikk has argued, ‘the appeal of newness’ has been a potent mobilizing narrative in party politics in Central and Eastern Europe in recent years, Mr Cerar’s success is not just a product of his political novelty. Indeed, the law professor was not an unknown figure a month-and-a-half before the poll. He was a respected expert particularly on constitutional matters (he had been involved in drafting the new Slovene constitution at the time of independence) and had been a regular guest on television offering expert commentary. As much of the international press coverage of the elections was keen to stress, Mr Cerar’s name had resonance. His father was a gold medal winning Olympic gymnast, but rather than any dexterity inherited from the master of the pommel horse, Mr Cerar junior’s appeal lay in his expert knowledge of the law.

Law and novelty were at the heart of his appeal. Not only did Mr Cerar claim a vote for his party would give a chance to new faces, but he also called for the re-establishment of the rule of law in Slovenia and a change in the country’s political culture, particularly for more co-operative and respectful conduct between political opponents. Mr Cerar’s appeal resonated with large sections of the Slovene electorate who had lost faith with their politicians and political system.

 

Protests and Party Politics

Slovenia has undergone a tumultuous few years. Not only has the country experienced tough austerity measures, the shenanigans of party politics (outlined above) and the controversial incarceration of a former prime minister (Mr Janša), but there were widespread demonstrations. Initially sparked off by disputes over a ‘disproportionately large network of speed cameras’ around Slovenia’s second largest city Maribor, a series of demonstrations, dubbed the ‘Maribor Uprising’, took place over the winter of 2012-3 with some of these turning violent.

Some of the protestors formed the core of Solidarity which forged an electoral coalition with the Social Democrats (SD). Solidarity, however, contributed little to the Social Democrats’ electoral success. Indeed, the electoral coalition may rather have contributed to the biggest defeat in Social Democrats’ history with the party garnering just 5.9% of the vote. Another part of the protestors formed the Initiative for Democratic Socialism which became part of the United Left (ZL) coalition. The Initiative was seeking to change fundamental thinking in politics. Among its most radical proposals was the idea to cap the highest salaries at no more than five times higher than the lowest paid worker. In contrast to Solidarity’s impact on the Social Democrats, the Initiative and its young leader’s impact on the United Left was positive, probably contributing to its unexpected success in winning just under 6% of the vote. Having said that, a year-and-a-half on from those huge demonstrations, it is fair to say that the Maribor Uprising – and a later, more general protest wave – did not translate into significant changes in party politics, thanks in no small part to the difficult of organizing political parties from a diverse movement.

 

Potent Appeals: Corruption and the Rule of Law

If there is one word which encapsulates what fuelled the fires of discontent shown in the Maribor demonstrations and acted as a motor of politics it is ‘corruption’. There was a widespread feeling in Slovenia that politics, politicians and indeed the entire system was bedeviled by corruption. Although few front-line politicians and parties were tarred by the brush of corruption, the focal point for many of the accusations and counter-accusations was Mr Janša. The former prime minister was found guilty in 2013 of taking payments from a Finnish defence contractor during his 2004-2008 spell as Slovenia’s premier. In April 2014 the verdict was upheld by the Court of Appeal and Mr Janša was sent to prison. As we have written elsewhere, Mr Janša is a controversial figure akin to a Richard III style villain to his opponents, but to his party faithful he is a heroic leader like Henry V. The supporters of Mr Janša and his Slovene Democratic Party (SDS) saw the court’s verdict as politically motivated. The party’s poor showing in the election (20.7%) provoked it to claim the elections were not free and fair – and, therefore, also not legitimate – the first time any Slovenian party had made such a claim in twenty years of independence.

 

European Themes: Secondary and Largely Absent

Central to the campaign was the debate about how the different parties would tackle the country’s economic difficulties. This theme was linked to EU politics, particularly the European Commission’s recommendations to Slovenia (together with deadlines to achieve them) to tackle the country’s debt and economic woes. Prior to the election, the Commission had recommended the consolidation of public finances, further privatization and a fight against corruption. Apart from this indirect impact, however, European issues and themes were notable for their absence in the national electoral campaign; perhaps no surprise after the EP elections in May, when we might have expected European issues to be more prominent, were also dominated by domestic themes.

 

More than Just Riding the Wave

Winning an election for a new party riding on a wave of discontent with the existing menu of parties is not the hard part. The poetry of campaigning is now replaced by the prose of governing. Mr Cerar’s main initial task is to form a governing coalition. Thanks to the Slovenian Democratic Party’s stance on the elections and Mr Cerar’s moderate left-leaning economic agenda, the latter’s party looks certain to form a coalition with some of the smaller groupings on the left. He has expressed a desire to form a broader-based coalition with the inclusion of the New Slovenia-Christian Democrats party, but the latter’s preference for neo-liberal economic policies makes a government combining forces of the left and right unlikely. Almost certainly the pensioners’ party (DeSUS), which has been part of most coalition governments in the past two decades, will be included in the coalition. Thanks to its more loyal, older voter base in an election with a lower than usual turnout (51 %), the pensioners’ won 10.2% of the votes.

Slovenia faces tough economic choices, especially in dealing with its public debt. The country looked to be on the brink of needing a Eurozone bailout on several occasions in the past few years. Mr Cerar and his party of experts (and new faces) will need to deploy all their expertise to ensure the country does not fall into that trap.

The problem with appeals based on novelty is that they don’t remain new for long. Playing the anti-corruption and rule of law card is easy in an election campaign, but much harder in government. As Gregor Virant and Zoran Janković, whose parties entered both parliament and government after the 2011 elections, discovered new parties can be difficult to manage and have less of a sense of cohesion once the tough challenges of governing begin. Mr Cerar’s new cohort of parliamentarians was attracted by the party leader’s expertise, novelty, rule of law and anti-corruption appeal. His challenge is to convert that attraction into deeper-rooted attachments to ensure the party remains coherent and cohesive whilst taking the difficult, and probably unpopular, decisions needed to tackle Slovenia’s economic woes.

 

Alenka Krašovec and Tim Haughton

Alenka Krašovec (alenka.krasovec@fdv.uni-lj.si) is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science and Centre for Political Science Research, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana.

Tim Haughton (T.J.Haughton@bham.ac.uk) is Reader (Associate Professor) in European Politics at the University of Birmingham and is currently writing a book on political parties in Central and Eastern Europe.

 

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Angry Young Europeans? Croatian attitudes towards the EU in comparative perspective

‘Is something wrong with the Croats?’ was the question addressed in a 2011 contribution to Balkanalysis in 2011 commenting upon low levels of trust towards national and EU institutions in that country. As it approached EU accession only 7% of Croats had ‘a lot of confidence’ in EU institutions, with similarly low levels of trust in political parties (5%) and the national parliament (9%). Despite the fact that support for the EU remained quite stable between 2000 and 2002, with 77-78% of Croats willing to vote in favour of EU accession, increasing levels of opposition worried the government to the extent that it launched a new information campaign in 2006, after the limited success of the first 2001 campaign.

The 2004 enlargement showed that the long waiting period for EU membership and the perceived lack of relevant information could impact on levels of public support. The main aim of these strategies was to provide information on the different stages and policies of the European integration process, and update citizens on the progress towards it, involving so-called ‘multipliers of public opinion, civil society organizations, social and economic institutions, bodies and associations’ (Ministarstvo Vanjskih Poslova i Europskih Integracija: MVPEI, Croatian Minister of Foreign Affairs). Specifically, the government sought to ‘(enhance) the level and quality of discussion…satisfying the information needs of the Croatian public…rebutting any misunderstandings on EU-related matters’ (MVPEI). In 2005 the main concerns dealt with the ‘impact of Croatia’s EU membership on the economy’ (87%), the ‘impact of EU membership on everyday life’ (84%), the ‘rights and obligations stemming from Croatia’s EU membership’ (84%), and the ‘impact of the EU membership on sovereignty’ (84%) (MVPEI). Both national and European surveys indicated increasing levels of interest in the consequences of European integration and concerns about the costs of membership.

The January 2012 EU accession referendum in January 2012 did not boost levels of enthusiasm: the ‘Yes’ vote won (66.67%) on a low turnout (43.51%), which was valid after a 2010 constitutional amendment. While, as Table 1 below turnout in European Parliament (EP) elections is low in post-communist states, this is not unique to the region (see also Paul Lewis’ and Seán Hanley’s  posts) and has decreased steadily from 61.99% at the first elections in 1979 to 43% in 2009, with a meagre increase in 2014 to 43.09%. There was, however, a clear ‘turnout gap’ between ‘old’ EU member states (plus Malta and Cyprus) and new post-communist members (54.01% compared to 22.93%). Indeed, at the first Croatian EP election in April 2013, turnout remained at a record low with 20.84%, with only a small increase in 2014 to 25.06%.

Table 1: EP elections in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe

Table

A = National parliamentary election prior to 2004 EP election (2007 EP election in Bulgaria and Romania).

B = National parliamentary election after 2004 EP election (2007 EP election in Bulgaria and Romania).

C = 2003 EU accession referendum (2012 in Croatia).

D = 2004 EP election (2007 EP elections for Bulgaria and Romania).

E = 2009 EP election (2013 in Croatia).

F = 2014 EP elections.

Source: Guerra, S. (2013) Central and Eastern European Attitudes in the Face of Union, Basingstoke: Palgrave, p. 89 (updated).

The Croatian case can be seen as both similar to and distinctive from other post-communist states and may be evident of a new pattern developing across the EU. Croats are generally very positive towards democracy in principle, but have a bad opinion of democracy in their country; and young people were the ones who were less mobilised to vote in the country’s 2012 accession referendum (see Andrea Čović). Support for the EU increased with age and, in the run up to accession, 41% among those aged 15-24 supported the EU, but this went up to 55% among 29-39 year-olds, 56% among 40-54 year-olds, and 71% among those over 55 (Eurobarometer data). This can be explained by the low mobilisation of voters at the referendum where, as in the case of the 2003 referenda held in other Central and East European post-communist states, those opposing EU accession may have prefer not to vote, but it may also signal a new socio-demographic characteristic of Euroscepticism.

The socio-demographic characteristics of attitudes towards the EU show that support generally correlates with youth, living in an urban centre and higher levels of education. However, 41% of Croats expect to benefit personally from EU membership (EB data) and when discussing the positive benefits of accession generally refer to economic ones; although Croats also expected price increases and negative consequences for the country’s agriculture sector (EB data). This sums dissatisfaction at the domestic level and explain the Euroscepticism evident among young Croats. The context of the 2014 EP elections was a five-year long economic recession, corruption scandals, a ban on same-sex marriage, after a referendum held in December 2013 just five months after joining the EU (65.9% in favour of a ban on a low turnout) and high levels of unemployment (19%-21% between October 2013 and April 2014). The economic problems faced by Europe have hit young people the most: between 2007 and 2012 Greece, Ireland and Portugal lost 1.6 million jobs, mostly among the young age group (15-34 years) (International Labour Organisation, Brussels). When Croatia was debating the monthly salary of its MEPs at the domestic level (€ 6,700 plus daily expenses), an average of 476 people in the country were losing their jobs every day (2014 data, see ‘Croatian politicians chase coveted seats‘). Unemployment among young people was quite worrying, as job losses were more pronounced, job protection generally higher among older workers, and young people were not included in re-training schemes (International Labour Organisation, Brussels).

Previous research has found that for many in the post-communist states, the EU was viewed in primarily economic terms during their first years of membership. But high levels of expectations in terms of economic benefits can clash with a negative economic situation, as happened in the case of Croatia’s EU accession. The EU has not delivered the expected advantages of EU integration for some citizens and if young people are the ones suffering the most from high rates of unemployment (the most important challenge in Croatia, according to the latest available Eurobarometer), Euroscepticism and disengagement with the EU can become widespread among this segment of the population. The supposed EU membership benefits have not materialised and the ‘Generation Y’ protest vote can be channelled towards non-voting and/or a protest party as in France (with the Front National), Italy (with the MoVimento 5 Stelle). Writing about the Irish referendum on the European Fiscal Compact in 2012, John FitzGibbon found a similar phenomenon of increasing opposition to European integration among young rural voters.

The novelty of the 2014 EP elections in Croatia was the election of the first Green MEP, the former Social Democrat environment minister Mirela Holy, now leader of ORaH (Croatian Sustainable Development), a socially liberal party on the centre-left of the spectrum. ORaH has steadily increased its support (9%-11%) and polled better in traditionally left-leaning cities and counties such as Zagreb and Istria; and now, at the national level, the demand is for reforms towards the 2016 Croatian general elections. At the EU level these elections have shown that young voters do not necessarily represent a Euroenthusiast category. When high expectations meet low delivery and the costs of long-term recession leave behind young citizens, young Europeans can become critical, un-interested and the new Eurosceptics.

Simona Guerra

Simona Guerra (gs219@leicester.ac.uk) is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Leicester, a co-editor of the Journal of Contemporary European Research and a member of the Universities Association for Contemporary European Studies (UACES) Collaborative Research Network on Euroscepticism.