The winner of the 24 April 2022 Slovenian parliamentary elections is a party, which is center-left, pro-green and poro and pro-business. Cross-border Talks reviews the clash at the elections between what some describe as Robert Golob’s “technopopulism” and pro-Orban right-wing populism of Janez Janša
While most of Europe was occupied with the French presidential race, another election ended with a victory of a center-left, NGO-supported party over right-wing hardliners. Things are going to change in Slovenia… but how profound will the change be in the end?
Not long ago, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party celebrated a decisive victory in parliamentary elections, leaving the united opposition far behind. On 24th April, Orban must have waited for news from Slovenia: Janez Janša, one of his close political allies, also fought to win another term for his government. He was not as succesful as Orban, though. While 23,5% for Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party was enough to win two MEPs more than in the previous elections, 34,5% of voting citizens chose the Freedom Movement, a fresh party led by Robert Golob, promising a green transformation and a society open to everyone. It will be actually more precise to say that Golob won these elections than to say that Janša lost them: in fact, the right-wing leader managed to keep the same voters he had four years ago. He still enjoys a wide margin of trust. He is neither eliminated from Slovenian politics, nor deprived of chances to re-emerge in the next electoral battle. Nevertheless, his rival managed to unite the anti-Janša voters around himself. He successfully persuaded even socialist voters to support his center-left project as the best chance to stop the right-wing just now.
Undoubtedly, Robert Golob has charisma and a vision. For Miha Kosovel, a civil activist based in Nova Gorica, right on the border with Italy, Golob’s image and his program were a totally new quality after the last few years of political stagnation.
“He was talking about how we are going to live in ten, twenty years time. He suggested how our economy would change, what changes we must introduce. We have not talked about the future like this over the last years. We might have discussed regulation or deregulation, but we did not discuss what will happen in ten years time” – Miha Kosovel explains.
He looks at the elections’ results with moderate optimism. And he points out further reasons for which Golob got a big portion of votes in the cities and among the youth: while being a leader of a new political party, he is also a former CEO of a state energy company. He holds a Ph.D in electrical engineering. When he outlines a plan for green transformation for Slovenia, people trust him as an expert and experienced manager on these matters. Last but not least, in his electoral campaign he got a great deal of support from civil society groups. The NGOs, fearing for their own safety and capacity of further operation in Slovenia, rushed to stand against Janez Janša before he managed to break down the autonomy of the non-governmental sector. This colourful and active campaign has secured thousands of urban, liberal-thinking voters for Golob. More left-leaning voters might have been additionally attracted to his housing program, as lack of affordable housing is haunting Slovenia just like it has been haunting her Austrian, Italian or Croatian neighbours.
The lack of affordable homes is just one of the sad effects of Slovenian free market actions: and Janez Janša is also responsible for that. Unlike his populist right-wing counterparts in Poland and, to some extent, Hungary, he did not include social programs or benefits in his programme.
“He is a classical neoliberal – explains Gal Kirn, a political scientist specializing in Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav studies. – He is really good in populist rhetoric of fuelling the resentment, presenting himself as the one who struggles against the elite, including the transitional elite. He speaks in a very militant anti-elitist and also anti-migrant language, which is very much appreciated in rural, more backward areas of the country, close to the border with Hungary and Croatia. In addition, he has a network of local leaders, e.g. mayors of smaller towns, on his side. This brings him success even though his economic policies, in fact, disempower his own voters” – sums up Kirn.
He admits that Janša tried some ‘last minute bonbons’: he subsidized electricity and gas bills, he introduced a pension rise. But, apparently, he made too little and too late.
Yet one more element should be added to the aggressive language-local networks recipe: a set of partisan, right-wing media launched with the direct help of Viktor Orban. It is not a secret, Miha Kosovel says, that Hungarian money was channeled into Slovenia via Republika Srpska, via different foundations and private entities, to give Janša a chance to build up sympathetic news portals and websites. Media through which he could speak out loud his anti-left-wing rants, his accusations against a ‘deep state’ and his ruthless criticism of any right-wing rivals. – Every time Janša lost an election, and he lost quite a few, he got more radical, he spoke in a more brutal language – Kosovel says.
Building his own extreme right network was one step – taking over the state media was another. Just like Kaczyński in Poland and Orban in Hungary, Janez Janša orchestrated a campaign of putting his supporters in the state media and state cultural institutions, including state-owned art galleries or the Museum of Contemporary History. The official news agency of Slovenia (STA) was refused the legally-mandated funding for months, thus being brought to the verge of bankruptcy – because it offered real news and reports and not biased content favorable to the government.
Yet, all these assets were not enough to block a mobilization around Golob and his movement. Golob’s mandate to rule and offer a genuine alternative is convincing, much better than his party hoped for. Enough to say that during his first address to voters, on the election evening, he hinted at a tripartite coalition between Freedom Movement, the Social-Democrats and the democratic socialists of Levica – just to realize that it would be enough to have just one of these partners to secure a parliamentary majority. But will Slovenians really experience a true change of political course?
Gal Kirn is skeptical:
“Robert Golob promised to neutralize the damage that was done in these last two years in different ways or in different ministries. I believe this will be done.
He has no doubts about Golob’s sincere democratic and pro-human rights convictions. He is also ready to trust his promises of green transformation.
In comparison to Janša’s rising authoritarianism, this is a clear progress. Yet, when it comes to a broader economic vision, doubts start. For Robert Golob is not a person from outside the system, like thousands of voters were successfully persuaded. Apart from being an ex-CEO of a state energy company, he is, as simple as that, a very rich person. One that would gladly build a green capitalism, promote ‘greener’ companies and healthy lifestyle, but not lift a finger to make further steps towards green socialism (or anything like this). The pro-business current during his campaign was also noticed by Miha Kosovel. Golob, he says, advocated lower taxes, made clear steps to attract middle class, business voters. It would be a mistake to consider his party left-wing. Rather, it fits into the Slovenian tradition of having strong left-liberal parties (“liberal with a left addition, if you wish”).
Slavoj Zizek goes even further, by asserting that what we saw in Slovenia is not a victory of good democrats over evil right-wing populists, but rather a success of ‘technopopulists’: a movement that promises to take care of all the people thanks to policies based on expertise, rationalist approach, chilling down emotions and going beyond the left/right division. A victory of technopopulism over right-wing populism is not a triumph of real democracy, as both kinds of populists strive to ‘turn off’ genuine political conflict: that is, the one based on material interests.
For Zizek, the most striking example of democracy-imitating technopopulism was the French one: Emmanuel Macron and his LREM party, whose promises to restart French politics eventually brought about a brutal suppression of popular protest. Robert Golob will certainly not go that far. He is well aware of the fact that Slovenian society, in its majority, expects pro-social policies. It is not an accident that Slovenia was the only post-Yugoslav country that did not slip into nationalism and had a strong social-democratic current all along. Janez Janša, who has been in post-Yugoslav politics for all the time, needed an economic crisis, a series of mistakes by political opponents and a lot of patience to come to power. And as the elections’ results show, his once won political base did not grow – despite all his efforts.
“Robert Golob is definitely more center-left person – Gal Kirn says, when asked about possible Golob-Macron parallels. – He knows that the majority of Slovenians want a public healthcare system or public infrastructure. Also, Janez Jansa was against all social partnerships and ignored trade unions. If Golob wants to be a credible alternative, he must „show an ear” and invite these people to negotiate, to seek a common position.”
For Miha Kosovel, too, Golob is not a politician whose alternative for right-wing authoritarianism includes privatizing everything:
“He said that the strongest point of the short term program should be health, public health. He is very, very pro public health, against privatization. He also spoke against such situations when doctors are employed in public hospitals, but also have their private practices and try to bring patients from the public to private sector. He was very vocal against this. So, in terms of healthcare, he is left-wing, no doubt,” – Kosovel points out.
What can help Robert Golob are international circumstances: seeing Ukraine war on its borders, millions of refugees inside the borders and the pandemic still not over, the EU is not likely to pressurize Slovenia on economic policies and cuts, like it was done to Greece and other peripheral countries a decade ago. Furthermore, the green transition program and turning away from Russian gas is likely to get EU’s support. That said, even the ‘technopopulist’ government has the chance to bring about a positive development in Slovenians’ lives.
Or rather, it has a duty to do so. For if a real change for the better does not come, there comes… Janez Janša. Stronger than ever and ever better equipped in his anti-elitist discourse. Both Slovenian interlocutors agree on this point: he will fight for power and keep rallying his voters, those who did not win during the transformation, those who feel ignored by consecutive governments. Ignored, unfortunately, also by those who claimed to be an alternative going further that Golob’s project. Neither the liberal opposition nor the left, including the democratic socialist Levica, does not reach out to rural or small town voters, Kirn explains. He points out to essential ecological problems of the non-urban Slovenia. – The cities have a really well functioning social infrastructure. And the rural side has nothing. They get trash from our cities. There is pollution. There are biggest factories and lack of clean water. And yet the left parties do not go there with solution proposals. They fight for urban voters and leave the rural areas to the right-wing and the Catholic Church.
Making steps towards equality and better life for those outside of the cities, assuring a good level of public services, empowering the disempowered, will be the crucial task of this government. Especially that Robert Golob is met with trust and hope not only among the educated, urban-based citizens. If we look at the electoral map, we see that in every single Slovenian regional unit it was Golob’s party who won. Even though in every single regional unit the rural population is more numerous than the urban one. Furthermore, the mobilization among the rural voters was foremost. They now hope for change. If the hopes are not fulfilled, there is a politician ready to get their votes back.
That said, empowering the disempowered remains the best – and possibly the only – way to consolidate democracy. And set the example for others.
Photo: Robert Golob in action (source: YouTube)