Scholars have often categorized elections to the European Parliament as “second order” elections and as opportunities for voters to vent their frustrations with the ruling government or the political elite. This weekend’s European Parliament elections in Slovenia, however, offer a variation on the theme: They are a dress rehearsal for the forthcoming parliamentary elections. The stage is set, parties are donning their costumes and new actors are frantically learning their lines, albeit no-one is quite sure when the performance will begin.
Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek submitted her resignation (and thereby the resignation of her government) earlier this month ushering in a period of uncertainty. Slovenia’s first female premier was successfully challenged for the leadership of her party, Positive Slovenia (PS), by the party’s founder and first leader, Zoran Jankovic. The desire of the charismatic but controversial mayor of the capital, Ljubljana, to take back the leadership not only engendered a split in the party, but it provoked the governing coalition to collapse as the smaller parties in the government refused to work with PS with Jankovic at the helm, thanks to revelations by an anti-corruption commission in January 2013.
Early elections are now on the cards, although it is unclear when exactly they will take place. They could be as early as July, but they may not take place until September. The majority of parliamentary parties together with the Slovenian President Borut Pahor, are calling for elections as soon as possible, but two newly established non-parliamentary parties, Solidarity and United Left, argued publicly it would be strange to hold elections during the summer holidays. A date has not yet been set, but when one is announced, the Constitutional Court is likely to be asked to pass judgment.
Slovenian party politics was once seen to be stable, but the 2011 parliamentary elections were striking for the emergence and success of new parties. Jankovic’s Positive Slovenia along with another new party formed around a well-known public figure, the Civic List of Gregor Virant, scooped no fewer than 37 percent of the vote despite being formed just weeks before the elections. In a phenomenon observed by Kevin Deegan-Krause and one of the authors of this post, new parties in Central and Eastern Europe based around the appeals of novelty and expertise tend to lose their popularity quickly, especially if they enter government, thereby opening up space for yet more new parties. Indeed, new contenders in Slovenia such as Verjamem (‘I believe’) led by the former President of the Court of Auditors, Igor Soltes, are preparing themselves for the forthcoming parliamentary elections. Playing on a novelty and anti-corruption ticket, Verjamem is running at 10.4 percent and looks set to win at least one of Slovenia’s eight seats in the European Parliament. The EP elections are therefore a useful test for the party and a means of building momentum for the forthcoming general election.
In contrast to many other European Union member states, where continental issues seem to be much more prominent in the campaigns for these EP elections than in previous votes, European issues have been marginal in the campaign. Politicians such as Igor Luksic of the center-left Social Democrats and Violeta Tomic of the less moderate United Left have criticized some developments in the E.U., but their fire is directed more at the policies of austerity than the E.U. as such. Even the leader of the Slovene Nationalist Party, Zmago Jelincic Plemeniti, did not attack the E.U. in his party political broadcast, but rather castigated Slovene representatives in Brussels for not doing anything for their country. However, two of the prominent candidates running for other parties — Jelko Kacin of the eponymously named list and Lojze Peterle from the Christian conservative New Slovenia Party — are running in part on what they see as their record of achievement in Brussels over the past decade as MEPs.
Two themes have dominated political debate in Slovenia in recent months: one linked to the EP elections, the other not.
First, prior to the elections, the various liberal parties debated whether to run or not on a common list or on separate candidate lists. Three Slovene parties — the country’s once dominant Liberal Democracy of Slovenia, Zares and Virant’s Civic List — are members of the transnational Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group. Moreover, Positive Slovenia has requested full membership of this group.
ALDE’s candidate for the president of the European Commission, Guy Verhoftstadt, tried to use his powers of persuasion to forge a deal when he visited Ljubljana in April, but to no avail. It appeared that the key to any agreement on a common list was European Commissioner Janez Potocnik, who is one of the most popular Slovenian politicians. Once he indicated he would not run, the chances of a common list receded rapidly. Nonetheless, the possible co-operation of liberal forces spurred on two center-right parties, New Slovenia and the Slovene Peoples Party, to agree a joint list which looks set to deliver them at least one, if not two seats. If this proves successful it may encourage them to maintain a common list for the parliamentary elections as well. If opinion polls are to be believed, however, it is the left which may need to learn the lesson of solidarity if it wants to perform well in the general election.
Secondly, the dominant right-wing party of the past decade, the Slovene Democratic Party (SDS) launched a campaign for a referendum on the opening of the secret service archives from the communist era in response to changes passed by Bratusek’s government in January. These changes, claim SDS, restrict access to information because the process of obtaining documents is now much more complicated. Critics retort, however, that SDS and its embattled leader Janez Jansa, who has been embroiled in corruption allegations, have been motivated less by a desire to achieve transparency and access and more to help mobilize their supporters. Jansa’s desire to hold the referendum on the same day as the EP elections seemed calculated to boost turnout for his party. The parliament first agreed an earlier date for the referendum in May which was then repealed by the Constitutional Court. The storm of publicity has suited SDS well, mobilizing the faithful to a noisy rally in the capital, Ljubljana, on Sunday.
And yet as the polls for the EP elections show, the success of individual parties is dwarfed by the size of respondents declaring “I will not vote.” This level is not a product of the distance or perceived limited relevance of the EP, but rather highlights the deep dislike of existing political parties and politicians thanks in no small part to corruption scandals and politicians’ powerful financial backers (known as the “uncles”). This discontent provoked major demonstrations across the country and in 2012-13 was a factor in the emergence of some of the new parties, particularly the left-leaning Solidarity and United Left. But as mentioned above, the desire for something new is also at the heart of Verjamem’s appeal.
Jansa has played a starring role in recent elections in Slovenia. Indeed, a central theme in the 2011 poll was whether he should return to the premiership or not. To the left, he is a Richard III style villain, but to the right he is heroic leader like Henry V. Although he looks set to beat the Social Democrats and a divided PS (even if Bratusek does form a new party), his fate may yet again be dependent on the new actors preparing their lines and about to step onto the Slovene political stage. In acting they often say, poor rehearsal means a great performance, but in politics it pays to perform well in dress rehearsals. You might even be offered a better part in the real drama.