Between EU-phoria and EU-phobia – Populism in Slovenia

Marko Lovec, University of Ljubljana

What makes Slovenia different from most of the other Central and East European new member states is its strong commitment to the Project of European Integration shared by both political elites and the electorate. However, what makes it different from the old EU member states is its still ongoing transition into fully functional liberal democracy. This tension between pro-European thought and a premature democratic culture leads to a unique situation: populism takes the forms of both EUphoria and EUphobia with the two of them often being inextricably linked.

Going West with Luggage from the East

In opposition to the situation in countries that were part of the Communist Bloc, the political regime in Yugoslavia, though being authoritarian in a sense of political power concentrated in the hands of a single party, was less oppressive, allowing some personal and economic freedom, and was also more diplomatically open towards the West. Nevertheless, limited political competition and the relatively high involvement of the state within the economy and society shaped political culture.

After the disintegration of Yugoslavia, which due to an ethnically mixed population and the struggle for scarce resources ended in violent conflict, Slovenia, lucky for being ethnically homogenous, quickly turned away from its past, seeing Europe as a ‘home to which it must return’. Slovenia adopted liberal democratic institutions and the party, which, apart from one short period, ruled the country throughout the transition, even named itself “Liberal Democracy of Slovenia” (LDS).

The journey West, however, did not proceed without luggage from the East. In contrast to some other transition countries, Slovenia did not break with the legacy of the former regime. The political elites were the same as in previous times, the state was only gradually releasing its dominant position over the economy and the media and civil society were still under the influence of old interest networks and practices. The opposition to the ‘communists in the new clothing’, facing narrow space, was itself a mixture of former dissidents and converted communists. It sought support within the Catholic Church, suburban and rural areas, and those pressured or left behind by the former regime. The opposition had built on historical distrust towards the members of the communist party, but also used similar methods to concentrate what was left of the political power.

The only genuinely nationalist and populist party at the time was Slovene National Party (SNS). It had built on the common ethnocentrism and xenophobia in terms of rivalry with the neighbouring Croatia and attitudes towards the Roma population. It was, however, not taken seriously but was rather a valve for the level of chauvinism present in the former regime. Other more radical groups existed but were truly marginal, with no media space, which was another sign of how effective the former regime was in producing a ‘socialist man’. At the referendum on entering the EU, share of Slovenians supporting the EU membership was close to the historically high share of those voting for an independent state back in 1990.

The Great Disillusionment

In 2004 Slovenia entered the EU and the Liberal Democrats lost the elections to the opposition, which led to gradual break-up of the party. The new centre-right coalition led by the Slovene Democratic Party (SDS) tried to implement liberal-conservative reforms but, after being faced with a number of blockades, had partly given up on the idea and rather tried to use the central role of the state to create an own class of elites.

The accession to the European Common Market and the policy of tying the Slovene currency to the Euro, which Slovenia adopted in 2007, as the first of the new member states brought inflation and growing economic disparities. These were however not real issues since the country was experiencing strong economic growth and was about to catch up with the EU’s average development level. Commitment to the EU also remained strong: in 2008, Slovenia was the first of the new member states to preside the European Council, which was considered a reward for being an ‘excellent student’ and to serve as an example to the others. Public support for the EU in Slovenia was constantly amongst top five in the EU.

The global financial and economic crisis of 2008 had burst financial bubbles, revealing that much of the economic growth was inflated. At the 2008 parliamentary elections, centre-left parties, going through only minor renovation since the 1990s, again took over. The new government, being unaware of the situation it was about to face, continued to spend to get the economy through what was considered a short crisis, thus increasing public deficit and debt. In the meantime, another, much deeper crisis, specific to the Euro zone, unfolded. It turned out that for years, structural disparities between the north and the south were covered by underpriced loans in hard currency, traveling from north to south subsidizing the public spending and the living standard in the south. Going back to what was affordable was painful, especially since high interest rates and cuts in public spending came amidst of the economic downturn, creating secondary recession.

Euroscepticism now started to grow and the government, seeking for fresh capital, reinvented economic diplomacy and dusted off the connections it had to undemocratic regimes of the Eastern Europe and North Africa, some of which dated to the partnerships forged by the former regime. The strategy was not particularly successful since by the time, the economic and political crisis had spilled to these regions, triggering Arab Spring in 2011 and crisis in Ukraine some years after.

The centre-left government did not wait to see the end of the mandate. At the early elections of 2011, an interesting thing happened: the Slovene people, realizing that the Brussels will not supplement for the accountability of domestic elites, sent ‘overt populists’, such as the SNS out of the parliament. At the same time, they gave majority of votes to Zoran Janković, a businessman whose career was linked to the former LDS and mayor of Slovene capital Ljubljana, and to the SDS led by Janez Janša. The electorate did not seem to mind the murky businesses of Janković nor the autocratic gestures of Janša; on the opposite, it sought these as reassurance of ‘father figures’ being capable of ‘taking care of their owns’.

After Janković was unable to put together a coalition, Janša took over. He engaged in savings measures and socio-economic reconstruction, which, now taking place in the context of scarce resources, triggered general revolt. As history often showcases, the revolt started in an unexpected place: in Maribor, second largest city and former industrial centre of Slovenia, people went to streets to protest against the mayor, who had ordered to install radars to sanction those responsible for overspending. The protest evolved into a nationwide revolt against corrupt political elites, forcing the mayor to resign. In 2013, after the publishing of the report by Commission for Prevention of Corruption, which found risk of corruption with both Janša and Janković, Janša’s coalition fell apart. Power was taken over by a new temporary government whose mission was to stabilize public finances ahead of the new elections in order to enable a fresh start. Slovenia was again lucky: changes in the European Central Bank’s policy and within the macroeconomic environment came in just the right time to save the country from interventions by the Troika.

Slippery Terrain of Post-Truth

The contemporary political period in Slovenia had a rocky start since the opposition leader Janez Janša was, after being convicted for corruption, imprisoned amidst the elections campaign of 2014. In response, his party mobilized its supporters to establish a quasi-civil society movement to free Janša, organizing regular manifestations in front of courts, national television and some other public buildings. The elections were won by Miro Cerar, law professor, regarded as an ‘ethical person’ and his party (later renamed “Party of the Modern Centre – SMC”) was considered to be made of largely unknown and politically inexperienced individuals. The centre-right parties achieved one of the lowest scores in the history of the state. The Slovene People’s Party, representing rural voices and sympathizing with populist nationalism, for the first time failed to reach the threshold. In contrast, the “United left”, a multi-party coalition similar to Syriza of Greece or Podemos of Spain, made of young generation of radicals, socialists and progressives, entered the parliament. This development reflected growing problems such as precarious low paid jobs, lack of affordable housing and an overall declining social standard.

The SDS argued that the elections and the new centre-left government (made of the SMC, the Social Democrats and the Pensioners’ Party) were illegitimate for imprisonment of their leader. After being found innocent by the Constitutional court, Janša was released from prison. However, he became unacceptable as a leader for the electorate and potential coalition partners. This has put SDS, which had been building its politics entirely on the personality of Janez Janša, now the only party leader remaining from the transition period, in a difficult position. In order to keep a grip on the power, SDS radicalized its rhetoric of the fight against communism, labelling everyone as communists that was not with them, including the rest of the opposition.

Meanwhile, the political inexperience of SMC and the naïve pre-modern thinking that one honest man could make things different started to show. The real shock, demonstrating that the ‘emperor was naked’, however came from the outside, in the form of the migrant and refugee crisis. When the migrants started to enter Slovenia in large numbers in October 2015, the government panicked. Faced with growing public criticism for failing to control the situation, prime minister sent dramatic messages to his European colleagues, arguing that the EU will collapse, and ordered the military to start setting up a razor wire fence on the border with Croatia. Panic spread through the society, which, although most of the people had not seen a single migrant and although no more than a hundred of migrants actually asked for asylum in Slovenia, in just one months’ time went from 80% being against the fence to 80% supporting its construction.

The crisis of the ‘modern politics’ strengthened neo-conservativism in Slovenia. Thus, in December, quasi-civil society movements (used by centre-right parties and Catholic Church to circumvent the growing public distrust for existing political parties) went on a referendum to reject equal family rights for gay people. As a response to terrorist attacks and attacks on women in Cologne and strengthening negative attitudes towards migrants all over Europe, the Muslim community in Slovenia (having nothing to do with current migrant flows, mostly representing nationals of former Yugoslav republics that have been here for a long time) faced individual attacks and the quasi-civil society and centre-right parties started to prepare for huge public manifestations to ‘protect Slovenia’. Once again, the government was luckily saved by closure of Western Balkans migrant route in March 2016.

The crises that followed did not add much to the existing trends. Prime minister Cerar said that the Brexit was an opportunity for the EU to step closer together, but at the same time repeated the arguments used by those supporting the ‘vote to leave’ such as de-bureaucratization, national sovereignty and business-friendly reforms. During Putin’s visit in Slovenia in July, the government stood aside not knowing whether to feel ashamed or capitalize on that. The people, on the other hand, applauded the powerful leader visiting ‘small’ Slovenia. The pro-US centre-right opposition, which was supposed to go against the visit was quiet since polls showed that their voters fancied strong personalities. During the US elections campaign Slovenes were ashamed of the fact that Trump’s wife Melania actually comes from Slovenia. When Trump won the elections, attitudes changed, seeming as if Slovenia now wanted to become a 51st US state.

Love, die or hate?

Due to underdeveloped political culture, Slovenian politics is trapped in love-hate imaginary, which mixes half-truths with emotions triggered by unresolved issues that exist on a deeper revel yet untouched by political rationale. A number of attempts to overcome this ‘Manichean division’ resulted in political extinction. The EU is not just another subject matter where pre-modern citizenship manifests itself; it is ‘the issue’ since for long Slovenians have hoped that the EU will provide a functional version of the old communist understanding of politics – with no need to manage diverging views and take individual responsibility. However, due to its own inability to balance divergences and enforce accountability, EU became a source of crises and thus a source of fear. With ideas of ‘love for the EU’ in crisis and limited space for the rationalist ‘third way’, there is a real danger of Slovenian politics sliding into the waters of hate towards the EU.

Dr. Marko Lovec is Assistant Professor and Research Fellow at the Centre of International Relations at the University of Ljubljana, and Associate Researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations.