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Slovenia voted against an illiberal leader and for an untested party

Why did a brand-new party win the parliamentary election?

- April 25, 2022

Novelty has a strong appeal in politics. In Sunday’s parliamentary election in Slovenia, a party established just a few months ago won more than a third of the vote — a plurality that puts it in position to form a new government. The Freedom Movement is led by Robert Golob, the manager of an energy company. It defeated incumbent Prime Minister Janez Jansa.

New party success is nothing new in Slovenia. In 2011 and 2014, new parties formed a few weeks before elections won a third of the vote. And in 2018, a new party won enough votes to propel its leader to the helm of a coalition government.

Much of Golob’s success comes straight out of what one of us has described as the “new party playbook.” The recipe for new party success often lies in a combination of newness, anti-corruption appeals and the party leader’s perceived competence. In Slovenia, Golob added another key ingredient: He was especially well placed to defeat Jansa.

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Turning out to defeat Jansa

Jansa is a fan of Donald Trump and an ally of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and he is the love-me-or-hate-me figure in Slovenian politics. He has been prime minister three times since 2004, becoming premier for the third time in 2020 after the governing coalition collapsed.

In the past two years, his government has been widely criticized for democratic backsliding. It has curtailed press freedoms, interfered in judicial affairs, and eroded civil liberties. Critics have called his leadership the Orbanization of Slovenian politics.

Concerns over the country’s direction helped mobilize Slovenes to turn out to vote in high numbers, encouraged by opposition parties and civil society groups: Fully 70 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, a level not seen since the early days of democracy in the mid-1990s. Golob was the main beneficiary, as voters rallied behind the Freedom Movement as the party most likely to defeat Jansa, increasingly so as the election grew near. That bandwagon effect is familiar from other recent elections in Slovenia and elsewhere across Central and Eastern Europe. On election day, Golob significantly outperformed the polls, winning 35 percent of the vote, perhaps as more voters went in his direction after pre-election surveys showed the Freedom Movement with 25 percent support.

Jansa’s Slovene Democratic Party (SDS) tried to challenge Golob’s appeal with billboards warning against “experiments.” SDS’s campaign instead touted the party’s and leader’s experience and the results they had delivered for Slovenia, such as high levels of economic growth and employment, investment in infrastructure, and measures to deal with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. SDS counted on a core and stable partisan vote, which its social media campaign sought to mobilize. High turnout threatened its chances, since voters’ views on Jansa going into the election were already clear and fixed. Few could be persuaded to change their minds.

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All established parties lost vote share

Golob’s success came in part at the expense of other opposition parties. Four parties formed an anti-Jansa pact in the run-up to the election, but all four saw their vote share drop. Two of those parties, led by former prime ministers, failed to win seats. Only the Social Democrats and the Left party won more than 4 percent of the vote, the electoral threshold needed to gain parliamentary seats. The Left party did so barely, taking just five seats — a disappointing result that has already prompted its leadership to tender its resignation to the party’s council.

The other established parties that lost support included some that had been in parliament for more than two decades, a long time in Slovenia’s relatively short history. One of Jansa’s coalition partners failed to win any seats, the other, New Slovenia, lost some support. But overall, its mix of socially conservative values, neoliberal economic policies and a mobilization campaign designed to project a fresh, modern and clean image helped shore up its base.

Slovenia’s new parliament will have just five parties, the fewest number since the country’s independence in 1991. Freedom Movement, which took 41 seats, won more than any single party since the country’s independence. Nevertheless, Golob will need to form a coalition, as 41 still remains short of a majority in the 90-seat parliament.

It’s about economics and governance, not covid or Ukraine

The pandemic played little part in the campaign. A small party formed to protest virus measures, but it won only 2.9 percent. And Golob tested positive a week before the election, so appeared by video link in the last debates. Neither of these appeared to influence the outcome.

Jansa touted the fact that he openly supported Ukraine, traveling by train with his Polish and Czech counterparts to Kyiv to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky. But the major parties fundamentally agreed on supporting Ukraine. All indications suggest a Golob-led government would be in line with the E.U. mainstream.

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The challenges of governing

Golob’s election win comes with major challenges. Thanks in part to the war in Ukraine and the economic consequences of the pandemic, European economies and households are heading for difficult times. For small, trade-dependent economies like Slovenia, these difficulties are likely to be heightened.

Golob’s background in the energy sector will be an asset as he strives to support his country’s effort to reduce dependence on Russian gas. But his limited experience in politics may be a liability. Success in business doesn’t always translate so easily into politics.

He will need to manage a new party and keep the support of his coalition partners, likely the Social Democrats and the Left party. A coalition government headed by a new party ran Slovenia from 2018 to 2020, and Golob may wish to study that and the experience of other new parties for lessons. New parties struggle to maintain cohesion and discipline once faced with the harsh realities and choices of government. And coalitions can fracture when tough, unpopular measures are introduced. When the coalition formed in 2018 disintegrated, Jansa was able to return to power. Golob and those who voted for him will not want to see a repeat.

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Tim Haughton is an associate professor of European politics at the University of Birmingham.

Alenka Krasovec is a professor of political science at the University of Ljubljana.