“There is a significant chance of early elections. Hurricane season may be continuing, after all”
Co-written with Alenka Krasovec of the University of Ljubljana and Kevin Deegan-Krause of Wayne State University and originally published in The Washington Post:
Although it still feels like hurricane season in European party politics, some parties are clearly able to survive the storm. But winning the vote is just part of the battle.
Here’s what Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Slovenia tell us about anti-migration feelings, personality politics and other factors at play in European elections this year.
1) Anti-migration appeals work — to some extent
As expected, the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) won with 25% of the vote. Taking a cue from Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, SDS employed anti-migration rhetoric to great effect. Janez Jansa, the SDS leader for the past quarter-century, portrayed his party as the best defender of Slovenia from migrants and protector of the Slovenian way of life.
Anti-migration rhetoric and the increased salience of identity politics also proved an effective combination for the far-right Slovenian National Party and its colorful leader, Zmago Jelincic Plemeniti. The party won 4.2% of the vote and returned to Parliament after a seven-year absence.
2) Campaigning is always a fine art
Jansa is the most polarizing figure in Slovenian politics, a love-me-or-loathe-me politician. The SDS strategy focused less on converting voters to support him and more on mobilizing its core supporters. The party invested particular time and energy in its door-to-door campaign — a point Jansa emphasized in his victory speech.
In the 2011 and 2014 elections, the anti-Jansa sentiment mobilized support around one or two major new alternatives in the final weeks of the campaign — but this wasn’t the case in 2018. Frequently Jansa projected himself in a more moderate and prime ministerial light, emphasizing his expertise and experience and the party’s clear and coherent program. He mostly left it to others from SDS to bang the anti-migration drum in public debates and in the media.
3) Timing is everything, especially for new parties
In February, polls indicated a new party, the List of Marjan Sarec (LMS), was ahead with the support of nearly a quarter of voters. Sarec, a former comic and actor, promised new politics, following in the footsteps of other start-up political parties across the region.
Sarec toured widely in a campaign bus with the slogan “Citizen—Community—State”, but his support dropped during the last two months. LMS’s second-place 12.7% result in part reflected Sarec’s inability to outline detailed and coherent policy prescriptions when pressed by journalists and opponents.
As the 2011 and 2014 elections in Slovenia and others across the region show, launching early can be counterproductive. New parties that emerge just before an election may fare better — and ride the wave of optimism and enthusiasm, yet evade the difficult questions of policy details.
4) Prime ministers may get better marks with the passage of time
In 2014, the big winner was Miro Cerar. His party, initially named after its leader, formed just weeks before polling and won 34.6 percent of the votes. But high initial expectations and unfulfilled promises led to a striking slump in support soon after he took office.
Once Cerar stepped down as Prime Minister earlier this year and the squabbling of coalition partners disappeared from the headlines, his image as a decent and component prime minister returned. In the 2018 vote, his party — renamed the Party of the Modern Center in March 2015 — claimed just under 10% of the vote.
The passage of time also helped former Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek. Her eponymously named party crossed the 4% electoral threshold, thanks partly to voters giving a more positive evaluation of her time as prime minister from 2013 to 2014, when she navigated the economic crisis.
Her party also made a clear pitch for the pensioner vote, taking away votes from Slovenia’s pensioners’ party (DeSUS). But DeSUS’s lagging support was also linked to the performance of its leader Karl Erjavec as foreign minister — and to a decision to project itself on the left. Previously, DeSUS had projected an ambiguous ideological position in a way that allowed it to focus instead on promoting the interests of all pensioners.
5) For the moderate left, it’s a tough haul
In early April the Social Democrats (SD) were polling neck-and-neck with SDS and LMS at 20%, but a lackluster campaign left the party slumping to 9.9% of the vote. The SD failure, however, also lies in broader challenges faced by moderate social democratic parties across Europe in the past decade to promote social justice in an era of austerity.
While SD won more votes than in the previous election, it lost support on the left flank to Levica, whose pitch for a stronger welfare state and public sector resonated with many voters, particularly younger, educated voters in Ljubljana.
And Slovenia’s new government will be?
Although Jansa emerged the clear winner of the election, in echoes of the recent Czech elections, this doesn’t necessarily translate into forming a government. Jansa is a divisive figure — and has few willing coalition partners.
To become premier again, the two-time prime minister needs at least one party, probably two, to swallow its words. That may be tempting for a politician keen on a ministerial position but would be a risky move for his or her party.
The other alternative is a broad-based center-left government, with Sarec as the likely prime minister. Many parties may find it far easier to collaborate with LMS, especially with a technocratic, centrist agenda. But despite several years as a town mayor, Sarec has little political experience and would find managing a diverse coalition with several parties a challenge.
The 2018 elections were not as decisive as some European politicians were quick to claim. Although Jansa’s SDS won twice as many votes as his nearest rival, the difficulties of forming a workable coalition mean that there is a significant chance of early elections. Hurricane season may be continuing, after all.