Fresh hope for civil society: right-wing populist defeated in Slovenia
Right-wing populist Prime Minister Janez Janša lost Slovenia’s National Assembly election in April. He was defeated by a new party led by someone with little recent involvement in politics, Robert Golob, who promised to respect the rule of law, uphold civic freedoms and lead the transition to a greener society. The result shows that an opposition promising a progressive fresh start can win public support and right-wing populists can be defeated. Now the incoming Slovenian government should immediately cease all attacks on civil society and the media, and instead enable and work with civil society.
Slovenia’s voters handed right-wing populism a defeat in the 24 April National Assembly election. Prime Minister Janez Janša went into the vote looking for a second successive term, and his fourth in all. But he fell to an upstart party only formed last year. The result offers hope that, despite Janša’s extensive efforts to undermine civic freedoms, democracy remains alive and well in Slovenia.
Two competing visions
The choice on offer was stark. On the one side there was Janša, the great survivor of Czech politics, offering the promise of ‘stability’. This presumably meant a continuation of his practice of stifling dissent by attacking media freedoms and civil society.
Since Janša became prime minister for the third time in March 2020, when the former minority government collapsed, his government had consistently interfered in public media, criticised journalists, vilified civil society and cut funding to civil society organisations (CSOs): the last national budget, agreed in December 2021, cut support under the government’s Climate Fund by 70 per cent and almost halved support for CSOs in the field of culture. The government was particularly hostile towards environmental groups and weakened environmental regulations.
Janša’s administration faced constant protests, including over issues of corruption, judicial independence and environmental rights. In response, protesters experienced police violence and criminalisation.
Offering an alternative was Robert Golob and his new Freedom Movement party. It’s not entirely accurate to characterise Golob as the newcomer he positioned himself as: he was a minister under a former government and had previously been involved in the centre-left Positive Slovenia party and a breakaway party, along with spells in municipal politics. But he’d been away from the national political arena since 2014, during which time Slovenia’s politics were marked by the spread of Janša’s toxic discourse and the further fragmentation of the political centre, on which Janša capitalised. Most recently Golob was chair of a state-owned electricity company before being forced out in 2021.
Golob emphasised that voters faced a big decision. He consistently characterised the election as a ‘referendum on democracy’. The Freedom Movement campaigned on a commitment to renewable energy and transition to a greener economy, offering a stark contrast to Janša’s attacks on environmentalists. It also promised investments in education and healthcare, adherence to the rule of law and an open society, and the rebuilding of relations with the European Union (EU), promising to reverse Janša’s hostile approach.
Turnout was significantly up, standing at over 70 per cent compared to a mere 52.6 per cent in the 2018 election, with many young people reportedly voting. Slovenians clearly felt that something important was at stake.
Another break in the chain?
The result has broader significance within the EU. Janša has cultivated close relationships with Hungary’s authoritarian hardman Viktor Orbán. They expressed their support for each other and formed a wider network with the likeminded leaders of the Czech Republic and Poland. In grim news for civil society, Orbán triumphed in his election earlier in April, confirming his dominance over a generation of his country’s politics and continuing to cast a long shadow over Europe.
But some of the links in the chain have been broken. Last October Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš was defeated when several opposition parties put their differences aside to run in two coalition groups that subsequently formed a government, on the basis of a shared mission to restore the democratic freedoms and checks and balances Babiš had eroded. While a similar approach failed in Hungary, Slovenia’s election seems to offer further evidence that a broad-based opposition, particularly when perceived as fresh and untainted by discredited establishment politics, can offer an appealing alternative to right-wing populism.
Russia’s war on Ukraine may also have placed a strain on the normally solid Hungary-Poland axis, given Orbán’s strong historic links to Vladimir Putin and his opposition to EU energy sanctions compared to the Polish leadership’s support for Ukraine. The expected change of government in Slovenia could leave Orbán all-powerful at home but much more isolated than before in Europe.
Need to work with civil society
Golob still remains something of an unknown quantity, perhaps hard to place on the political spectrum and with a career path that may suggest an inclination towards technocratic rather than participatory approaches. Votes for Golob’s party may represent less an enthusiastic endorsement of him than opposition to Janša.
Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party only saw its vote decline a little, by 1.4 percentage points, and even gained two seats on its 2018 result. What changed was that the Freedom Movement captured much of the formerly scattered anti-Janša vote. As it made gains, all liberal, centre and left opposition parties lost seats, to the extent that the List of Marjan Šarec party, which in 2018 came second and led the formation of a government, dropped out of parliament. Golob’s party came from nowhere to provide the appealing opposition choice existing parties had been unable to offer.
The Freedom Movement won 41 seats, which leaves it only a little short of the 46 needed to form a majority. With the once-fragmented landscape of the National Assembly now simplified – there are now five parties rather than the nine before – an alliance with one or more of the parties of the left seems inevitable. In contrast, there is no possible coalition that could keep Janša in power.
Janša is defeated this time, but he’s based his political career on comebacks. He held the role of prime minister from 2004 to 2008 and again in 2012 to 2013. He’s unlikely to go gracefully into retirement, and will likely try to keep dominating the political conversation and exploit any fragmentation of the hastily assembled winning party and inexperience of those taking government roles.
The likely incoming government could be called inexperienced, but it could also be described as untainted by Janša’s toxic politics. Either way, it would be well advised to open itself up to working with and listening to civil society. To signal that it truly intends to break with the past, the new government must uphold its promise to abide by the rule of law, restore media freedoms and respect environmental activism. Slovenia’s civil society is the natural partner for such an agenda.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The new government must reverse attacks on civil society, including by restoring cuts in funding for civil society.
The new government must guarantee media freedom and end state interference in public media.
Slovenian civil society should work together to develop a shared advocacy agenda and engage in dialogue with the new government.
Cover photo by REUTERS/Borut Zivulovic