The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The biggest win for liberal democracy this week wasn’t France’s election

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša attends a television debate in Ljubljana on April 22. (Jure Makovec/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

Elections in Europe this past weekend provided an important stress test for the strength of democratic institutions and ideals. The resounding reelection of Emmanuel Macron as president of France over perennial far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is rightfully garnering headlines around the world. But the election result in Slovenia is actually the best thing that’s happened for liberal democracy in a long time.

In a surprising turn of events, three-term Prime Minister Janez Jansa, leader of the right-wing populist Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), lost to the environmentally-focused Freedom Movement party, which campaigned on moving to green energy, rule of law and an open society.

Robert Golob, the incoming prime minister, promises a departure from Jansa’s third term, which has mirrored many of the tendencies of former president Donald Trump and other would-be strongmen who try to seize authoritarian control over working democracies by attacking media critical of their leadership.

The outcome marks an important shift.

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Just last week, Washington-based think tank Freedom House issued its annual “Nations in Transit” report, which tracks the health of civil society and democratic norms in 29 central European and central Asian countries. According to its metrics, no country saw a sharper decline in its democracy than Slovenia.

The report says Jansa’s government “sidelined the parliament and exerted considerable political and financial pressure on civil society organizations, public media services, the judiciary, and the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.” It added: “Janša’s combative political style serves in part to distract citizens from suspected graft within SDS circles, but it also betrays an illiberal intolerance of any and all criticism.”

Now, as Hungary and Poland slip deeper into an authoritarian abyss, tiny Slovenia provides a reason for hope.

Don’t know much about Slovenia? You can be forgiven for that. With a population of just over 2 million, it is one of the European Union’s smallest countries, but one with a proud history. It was the first republic to claim sovereignty from communist Yugoslavia in 1991. Sharing borders with Croatia, Hungary, Austria and Italy, its lush and mountainous and has a short but spectacular coast on the Adriatic Sea.

It’s very common for Slovenes to speak several languages in addition to their native one, including Italian, English, German and Serbo-Croatian. Many of the older generations speak Russian as well, though Yugoslavia was not part of the Soviet Union.

This is all relevant now, because Sunday’s election could have gone very differently in a country that marches to its own drum.

I know some of this because of my own experience with the country. My maternal grandmother’s family emigrated from Slovenia to the United States in 1910, but they — and subsequently, my mom and I — have maintained close ties with friends and relatives there. I have been traveling to Slovenia regularly for a quarter-century. On my first visit in the mid-1990s — before it was a European Union member and more than a decade before it adopted the euro as its currency — I encountered a young country that was hungry for connection and economic growth but struggling to survive independence.

In subsequent trips, I saw how Slovenia transformed. Ljubljana, the capital, went from a drab and frankly dour city that wasn’t very easy to access to a place you’d like to visit. The country is now one of Europe’s hottest destinations, known for its incredible natural splendor, an exciting culinary scene and an easygoing population eager to welcome visitors.

All of which made what I experienced on my last visit in 2019 quite disconcerting. For the first time in all my visits, I encountered nativist attitudes mixed with disinformation and conspiracy theories, that strange hybrid I have heard about often but rarely seen up close. Whether it was the casual references to unfounded yet oft-repeated antisemitic tropes about Jewish domination of the global economy, or strong support for Trump’s border wall, I ran into viewpoints that were at odds with the Slovenian spirit I had come to know over the years.

These interactions didn’t represent the majority of my encounters, but they were enough to raise questions in my mind about what was happening in a country that had seemed to be moving in the right direction.

Jansa’s rise and the perception that he was close to receiving another term made me worry that Slovenia’s best days were behind it — that it, too, would succumb to the dark cloud of authoritarianism. But it surprised me again.

Macron’s victory in France may have restored some of our faith in the future of the free world at a time when we desperately need it. But believe me when I say: Slovenia is something to behold. That is even more true now that it voted against the tide of illiberalism. If you care about other fragile democracies, it is worth looking closely at Slovenia — and even paying it a visit to experience and support it yourself.