Sunday

21st Apr 2019

EU elections to test Slovenia's handling of crisis

A year ago mass demonstrations broke out in almost all Slovenian cities and many towns.

During these demonstrations against the then right-wing government, corruption and austerity measures, an organized group of black-clothed men – something Slovenia had never seen before – marched with covered faces into the crowd that was gathered in the capital city of Ljubljana.

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  • Janez Jansa (l) pictured with the EU commission president. The former PM is still a powerful player in Slovenia (Photo: Slovenian EU Presidency, Thierry Monasse)

Sporting slogans like "Against EU servants", the men started throwing torches and home-made explosives into the crowds and attacked riot police in a bid to undermine the peaceful protests.

Many asked: "Where did they come from?"

The question comes in light of the fact that Slovenia is one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in Europe. It has almost no immigrant-related issues and no representative ethnic minorities. According to the latest census, from 2002, only 28 Jews live in the country.

Slovenia also has no fascist past. And its nationalist Slovene National Party disappeared after the 2011 parliamentary elections.

So the appearance of the anti-EU group, with its fascist overtones, was a sobering experience.

But recent events indicated that its presence should not have been a complete surprise.

Skinheads broke into the Philosophy Faculty at the University of Ljubljana in early 2010 while in January this year it came to light that extreme right wing groups were being trained on the official military ground of the Slovenian army.

The secret service had started an investigation into the scope of extremism in Slovenia. But the follow-up made headlines everywhere. The investigation was blocked by the then-ruling right-wing party Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) – part of the European People's Party (EPP).

SDS leader and prime minister at the time, Janez Jansa, quickly responded with the new concept of "left fascism". Protestors against austerity measures, so-called "left fascists", were deemed to be the problem.

The prime minister's move was seen as a way of deflecting attention from the fact that the SDS, and specifically Jansa himself, had many sympathisers on the hard right.

Meanwhile, scandals dogged Jansa.

Last year's protests broke out after the country's Anti-corruption Commission discovered that both he and Zoran Jankovic, the main opposition leader and mayor of Ljubljana, had large amounts of unaccounted-for cash at their disposal. Jansa, for example, bought his car with €46,000 in notes. The revelations eventually forced him to step down – albeit extremely reluctantly.

Following the turmoil of the Jansa premiership, Slovenia got itself its first woman leader: Alenka Bratusek. An MP with the centre-left Positive Slovenia party, Bratusek was sworn in as prime minister in early 2013. She is largely credited with stabilizing the country’s economy. And in a boost for her leadership, Slovenia has so far managed to avoid a touted EU-IMF bailout, despite the dire situation of its banks.

Nevertheless the country is in an economically bad way. It had one of the deepest recessions in the Eurozone in 2013. Unemployment is at 11.6 percent while the European Commission predicts further recession this year (-1%) and a return to slight growth only in 2015.

Meanwhile on the political front, the country remains in thrall to Jansa. He is, according to polls, perceived to be the second most powerful politician in the country.

And, in what many Slovenes consider an oddity, his continued national prominence, despite the scandals, is partially due to support from Europe.

The European People’s Party issued a statement in November expressing "concerns about the situation in Slovenia […] regarding the condemnation" of Jansa and the "unsatisfactory" judicial system in the country. Its statement followed Jansa's conviction over the summer for taking bribes in a military equipment deal.

In terms of political rhetoric, the country's recent communist past is enabling right-wing politicians to label anyone from the centre-left or further to the left as a communist. Social democracy is bandied about as a byword for totalitarianism.

It is in this febrile economic and political atmosphere that EU elections will take place in May.

Jansa's party likely to lose a seat

But while domestic political cleavages are deep, people remain fond of the EU.

And even if the European Commission – which pushes budget-slashing economic policy – is perceived as an institution that predominantly serves the wishes of Germany, people's anger has not empowered populist forces.

The most organised party in terms of the EU vote is the SDS party, but it is likely to lose one of its seats due to the Jansa scandals.

The bulk of the country's eight seats are expected to go to centre-right parties.

Leftist parties are set to get two MEPs into the next EU parliament – and it remains open whether one of these seats will go to Janez Potocnik, the country's EU commissioner, who has yet to say whether he will enter the race for the ruling Positive Slovenia Party.

MEPs are not particularly well-known creatures in Slovenia. However, two stand out.

They are the centre-right Lojze Peterle, the first Slovenian prime minister after independence, and the centre-left Tanja Fajon, who played an important role in securing visa-free travel to the EU for Albanians (a café was subsequently named after her in the Albanian capital Tirana).

New left parties

The economic and political discontent has resulted in two new left parties in Slovenia – Solidarnost and The Initiative for Democratic Socialism. The latter has teamed up with other left-wing parties, such as Greece's Syriza, to form a pan-European coalition. However, it is not expected to win an EP seat.

As in the last two EU elections, turnout is expected to be low. In both 2004 and 2009, just 28 percent of voters went to the urns. But the centre-right SDS, Jansa's party, is hoping a possible referendum on the same day, on the opening of archives to do with the country's communist past, will mobilise its supporters to go and vote.

And while it is easy to get swept up by the prevailing narrative that the economic crisis or dissatisfaction with the EU will benefit anti-EU or far-right parties, Slovenia offers hope against this.

The black-clad aggressive groups of men who stormed last year's protests were surrounded by peaceful demonstrators who later took the aggressors to the police.

And the wider protests turned into cultural events with spontaneous concerts, creative happenings and carnival-like demonstrations.

Slovene voters will elect 8 MEPs to the 751-strong European Parliament on 25 May.

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