A tricky coalition

By Alenka Krašovec
1 June 2018
Slovenia Slovenia
Which of Slovenia's parties will be willing to join the SDS in government?
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For more than a decade after the country’s independence in 1991, the Slovenian party system exhibited relative stability compared with other post-socialist central and eastern European countries. Some signs of greater instability appeared with 2008 elections, and with the 2011 elections we saw the so-called hurricane season of central and eastern Europe hit Slovenia badly. This was a storm in which not only did established parties lose electoral support due to the emergence of new parties, but these newcomers also lost out to even newer parties.

In 2011, the Zoran Janković List – a list of candidates convened by the mayor of Ljubljana, which has since grown into the party Positive Slovenia (PS) – won the parliamentary election by less than a 2% margin over the established centre-right Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS). Three years later, though, another newcomer – the newly founded Party of Miro Cerar, after the elections renamed into Modern Centre Party (SMC),– convincingly won the 2014 parliamentary election, 14% ahead of the SDS, with the PS trailing on just under 3% of the popular vote. The SMC went on to form a coalition government with the centre-left Pensioners’ Party (DeSUS) and the Social Democrats (SD).

There was some turmoil during the 2014-18 legislative term, but it intensified at the beginning of this year. Although President Borut Pahor, formally independent but enjoying the clear support of the SD, had already conducted with the parliamentary parties to decide the date of the regular parliamentary election, at a press conference on 14 March, Prime Minister Cerar announced he would submit his resignation to the parliament. This made it clear that, although regular elections were planned for June, early elections would be held for the third time in a row.

As Cerar explained, the straw that broke the camel’s back was a decision by the supreme court to annul the September 2017 referendum on the law governing the financing of a second railway track between the port of Koper and the rail hub of Divača, ordering a new referendum on the same question. The court argued parts of the proposed act were unconstitutional and that the government’s behaviour during the campaign was ‘unacceptable’, highlighting only the positive aspects of the project.

Additionally, the government faced a wave of strikes and protests from public sector workers, who demanded an end to austerity measures and wage increases amid positive economic developments. During the March press conference Cerar also highlighted cleavages within the government, criticising his coalition partners for obstructing urgent reforms, particularly within the healthcare system.

At the start of 2018, opinion polls indicated that another newcomer in the national parliamentary elections, the List of Marjan Šarec (LMŠ), could follow the path of the other successful newcomers. Its leader – a former actor – seriously challenged the incumbent, Pahor, in the presidential elections of autumn 2017, but in April, his star began to wane and three parties, the LMŠ, SDS and SD, for a short while, took turns at holding the top spot in the polls.

But, since the start of May, the SDS has decisively topped all surveys by a margin of 5-7%. This is no guarantee though. Once can’t ignore that surveys before the 2008 and 2011 elections also pointed to an SDS victory, but that possibility mobilised leftwing voters in the last few days of the campaign, bringing victory to the SD (in 2008) and PS (in 2011). Many expect history to repeat itself. If so, the LMŠ will likely benefit most, as it has lately been seen as the main challenger to the SDS.

No single issue has dominated the campaign, but those issues that have been brought to the fore have included public service reform – the healthcare system being most prominent – followed by immigration, labour market reform, tax (particularly as a means to assure higher salaries for workers), infrastructure (especially the controversial second rail track), the privatisation of Slovenia’s biggest bank, and the implementation of the recent international tribunal ruling on territory and maritime disputes between Slovenia and neighbouring Croatia. While the SDS is advocating more liberal economic policies and sharing many views with the Hungarian populist Viktor Orbán’s, the ‘anti-system’ LMŠ is presenting the electorate with a ‘new politics’ – an eclectic mix of the values of the centre left and centre right.

According to opinion polls, the SD should finish in third place, while the SMC can also hope to pass the 4% threshold for representation in parliament. DeSUS has sat in parliament since 1992 (initially as part of today’s SD), but until 2004 it had mostly taken the role of supporting the government. It later became a pivotal player in the formation of centre-left as well as centre-right governments. At the start of May the party’s leader, Karl Erjavec, signed an agreement with PS leader Zoran Janković to establish the Left Block, including a commitment that no signatories would for a coalition with the SDS. The SD, LMŠ, SMC and Left parties were also invited to join the Block, but all assured they would run in the elections independently. Polls indicate that Left  will pass the threshold once again, having entered parliament for the first time in 2014 (as United Left coalition was formed by three parties, while Left now consists two out of three these parties).

As in other countries with proportional electoral systems, coalition governments are the norm in Slovenia. Despite (centre-) left parties deciding not to join the so-called Left Block, their leaders in TV debates have publicly stated they cannot see themselves in coalition with the SDS, especially under Janez Janša’s leadership.

The big question therefore is, if the SDS win, who will join it in government? At the moment it seems only the centre-right New Slovenia is willing to enter such a coalition. Given that more than a fifth of the electorate are still undecided – and that in 2014 half the electorate made their choice in the last week of the campaign, with a third deciding only in the final three days – despite edging ahead in the polls, Slovenia’s left must still be ready for a surprise.