A semi-surprising outcome of elections in Slovenia and Croatia

Ballot Paper for the Croatian elections: evil and lesser evil

A few days a ago, I had the chance to discuss the outcome of the parliamentary elections in Slovenia and Croatia (see here for the podcast). The fact that the incumbents lost the elections was no surprise. Not only is the current economic climate across Europe such that incoming governments have little chance of winning elections, no matter whether they are from the left or right, but also opinion polls in Croatia and Slovenia had predicated a resounding loss of the governing coalitions and parties. The main surprise was the victory of Positive Slovenia led by Ljubljana’s mayor Zoran Jankovic and founded only six weeks ago.

A striking feature of both elections in Slovenia and Croatia is the decline of the extreme right. Even though both elections were fought under the impression of a severe economic crisis and popular dissatisfaction, the extreme right could not benefit. For the first time since 1992, the Slovene National Party did not win a seat in parliament. In Croatia, the extreme right was represented by a confusing number of incarnations of the Croatian Party of Right, winning an all time low of one seat (the Croatian Party of Right running alone and winning no seat, the Croatian Party of Right-Ante Starcevic running with the Croatian Party of Pure Rights winning one seat and another autochtonous Croatian Party of Right). For full results see the final report of the election commission.

Of course, this does not mean that there were no populists winning elections. The ruling HDZ campaign on nationalist themes (unsuccessfully), denying national legitimacy to the opposition. It also formed a regional coalition with the populist mayor of Split Zeljko Kerum. The winner of Slovene elections is a populist, although more of the center left and the second party, the Slovene Democratic Party of Janez Jansa is heavily drawing on populist themes and seeks confrontation on classic national-populist themes.

The new centre-left governments in both countries have daunting tasks ahead of them. They have to engage in painful economic reforms and not just make few changes, but alter the very structure of the economic system. Even if Slovenia has been government mostly by centre-left governments since independence and Croatia by conservatives, there is a broad shared social support in the countries for a state that provides extensive services, be it in regard to health and social benefits or for employment. Such a state seems in both countries currently no longer sustainable. Thus “slimming down” the state will be inherently unpopular and left-wing coalitions will be forced to pursue neo-liberal reforms. This will make it likely that both new governments—if Jankovic is able to form a coalition—will quickly become deeply unpopular. Unless they are able to turn a corner in terms of economic growth quickly, they both seem likely to be replaced at the next elections, or even earlier. There is in fact a sense of deja vue in both countries. In Slovenia, the coalition seems like to be sabotaged by the abuse of referenda—the strategy employed by Jansa’s SDS in the past. In Croatia, the uncompromising position of Jadranka Kosor on election night suggests that HDZ might try to sabotage the government from the streets, a successfully strategy of Ivo Sanader’s HDZ ten years ago. Now, it might not be over war crimes, but economic cuts. While it does seem likely that the new governments will become unpopular, it remains still unclear on what the alternatives will be. Jansa’s SDS seems to be struggling to be electable to a majority of Slovenes and HDZ will have to decide between just reinventing itself or finally reforming itself, if it can.

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8 Responses to A semi-surprising outcome of elections in Slovenia and Croatia

  1. luka says:

    And what would be the “classic national-populist themes” on which Janša seeks confrontation? Do you mean the referendum on the agreement with Croatia?
    I am myself heavily critical of Janša’s tactics, but this description seems to me more like a caricature than an analysis. As for Janković, I’m afraid it’s much worse than left-wing populism (it’s a fair description, but it somehow doesn’t render the extent of the whole Janković phenomenon). Btw, most of the SNS votes went to his party (even a former SNS MP, Barbara Žgajner Tavš, got elected on his list).
    As for the referenda: it is part of the Slovenian political system, as a check that can be employed both by the opposition and the by organized interest groups. The left-wing opposition also used them between 2004-2008, only that it was less successful with it. I don’t understand why one should talk about an abuse: it’s a constitutionally guaranteed right and since 1991, Slovenia has had 18 referendums. Which means they are a normal part of the political process (not unlike Switzerland). Of the 6 referenda in the last 3 years, only half have been proposed by the opposition (Janša’s party didn’t have enough MPs to initiate a referendum alone), 2 by the unions and 1 by the government.

  2. luka says:

    Of the 3 referendums proposed by Janša’s party, one was on the reform of the national TV broadcast, one on an ad hoc law that would limit the access to former secret service archives, opened in 2007. So we are talking of very specific topics that don’t have much importance for the overall government policies. Only one referendum proposed by the SDS was on an important economic reform, namely on the prevention of unreported employment. That one was, indeed, populist (the referendum, I mean, not the law proposal, which was indeed slightly Draconian, but not unreasonable). The claim that Janša blocked the normal functioning of the government by abusing the referendum institute is nothing but a topos used by left wing politicians & pundits (and sometimes echoed in the liberal media). In reality, the former left wing coalition was very successful in blocking itself, and had little need for opposition …

  3. luka says:

    Btw, it’s very hard to qualify the SNS as “extreme right”: this is a chauvinist party (with an anti-Muslim, anti-Croatian and anti-Roma discourse), but it’s also pro-Titoist, anti-Catholic, and it officially defines itself as left-wing … Left-wing nationalism or chauvinist populism would be a better definition. The very fact that its votes migrated to Janković’s Positive Slovenia (as polls show) is quite symptomatic.

  4. Cyril says:

    I am not sure about the decline of the extreme right in Croatia… You forgot to mention that HDSSB has won 6 seats (3 more than in 2007…) in Slavonia!

  5. Florian Bieber says:

    Luka: The SNS is not that different from other extreme right or nationalist-populist parties. They are often drawing heavily on the socialist period (see Vadim Tudor in Romania) and have a somewhat difficult relationship with the churches. On the question of referenda, there is a structural problem with the way in which they can be triggered with the ability of MPs to launch referenda to overturn decisions decided by parliament.

    Cyril: You are right that HDSSB is of course also part of the extreme right, being led by a sentenced war criminal.On the other hand, the party’s goals are most regional and it demands the decentralisation of Croatia. Thus, it clearly has nationalist “credentials” but is programatically less an extreme nationalist party.

  6. luka says:

    Sure, I’m not questioning the comparability between the SNS and other nationalist-populist parties in East-Central Europe. I’m questioning the usefulness / appropriateness of the label “extreme right”.
    The ability of the MPs to trigger referenda might be problematic (if you ask me, I would be in favor of abolishing it), but it is an integral part of a complex system of checks and balances that make the up the peculiar consensualist structure of the Slovenian political system. In this sense it is not a structural problem, but rather a symptom of a certain structure of decision-making. But even if one would agree that it is a structural problem (but then – regarding to which ideal model?) – isn’t this then this claim in contradiction with your previous statement, in which you explained the “abuse of referenda” not by pointing out a structural problem, but by the contingency of Janša’s “obstructionism”, as if this were not a legitimate means of political political pressure, given to the opposition by the Constitution and the political system itself?

  7. luka says:

    Your mention of Janša’s nationalist-populist rhetorics was more of a prophecy: a week after the election, Janša mentioned on the national TV how Janković’s party allegedly pressured the “new citizens” not to vote for him (for Janša, that is), because he will strip them of their citizenship etc. The very next day, a “guest column” appeared on the webpage of the SDS explaining the same theory in more vivid and much more disturbing terms, making use of the most primitive ethnic stereotypes (voters in “sportswear” speaking in Serbian and waiting in groups in front of the ballot stations …), only to conclude that the “too generous Slovenian citizenship policy” was at the root of Janković’s victory. Needless to say, a public uproar followed (including a spontaneous “sportswear pride day” on Ljubljana’s central square), in which Janša tried very clumsily both to distance himself from this position and to defend his previous statements. Contrary to the proverbial unity displayed by the SDS in its public statements, this incident provoked a rather obvious clash between the more liberal wing of the party (sided by most of its pundits), who rejected the claims in the “column”, and the conservatives who defended it in the name of “free speech”. While reiterating the text doesn’t reflect the party’s views on the issue, it hasn’t been removed from the website … As far as I know, this is the first case, in which Janković’s ethnic background becomes a source of public controversy (and in a very nasty way).

  8. picard578 says:

    Neoliberal reforms never helped anybody, problem with Croatia is that we are semi-neoliberal country, pursuing neoliberal economical practices in combination with social state.

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