"Barbie" narrowly wins second presidential mandate in Slovenia

By bne IntelliNews November 13, 2017

Slovenian incumbent Borut Pahor — also known as “Barbie” because of his former career as a model — narrowly won the second round of the presidential elections on November 12. Pahor ran against a relatively new name on the Slovenian political scene, Marjan Sarec, a former comic and journalist who has been mayor of the small town of Kamnik since 2010. 

Ahead of the election, polls indicated an easy win for Pahor but voter lethargy helped Sarec to make the race harder for the incumbent. The Kamnik mayor is also expected to build on his unexpectedly strong performance in the presidential poll in the upcoming 2018 parliamentary elections. 

According to the latest data from the country’s election commission, based on 99.98% of votes counted, 52.94% voted for Pahor, while Sarec took 47.06% of the vote. Turnout was 41.74% and over 715,000 people voted. Slovenia has a population of about 2mn.

As in all ex-Yugoslavian republics, the president in Slovenia has mainly a representative role and is also supreme commander of the armed forces. 

Most people believe the president can’t significantly influence any political decision, adding to the lethargy and low interest in the presidential candidates, Miran Videtic, director at management consulting company VI-PU based in Kamnik, told bne IntelliNews

“At the finish line, but not alone, along with you. Thank you!” Pahor — a long-distance runner who competes in the Ljubljana marathon each year — wrote on his Facebook page after the elections on November 12. The sentiment was illustrated with a picture of Pahor in hiking gear. 

Pahor, who is a non-party candidate, is seen as the most progressive and modern president in the region. He’s an enthusiastic user of social networks, thanks to which he gained the nickname “King of Instagram”. He has also been dubbed “Barbie”, and even used the name to describe himself in the latest radio duel with Sarec.

“If I quote a host of a radio show in Slovenia, I have to say that presidential elections in Slovenia are like the Miss Universe competition. And, as Pahor himself said, he had an advantage there because his nickname is ‘Barbie’,” Videtic quipped. 

Pahor has been involved in politics for a couple of decades and he became prime minister in November 2008, though he served less than three years before losing a confidence vote in September 2011. His tenure as prime minister was also marked by one of the Eurozone's deepest recessions with Slovenia’s GDP shrinking more than 7.8% in 2009. Two years after he left office, Slovenia’s largest banks had to be bailed out by the state. 

As president, he has pursued further EU integration for Slovenia — the first country from Southeast Europe to join the bloc and the region’s only eurozone member. This is in contrast to the stance of several of his peers in the Visegrad Four countries, and has helped Slovenia’s reputation among investors. 

“Even though the constitutional act doesn’t give large authorities to the president, he is important for the country’s economy because in certain way he creates image about that country. Thus, it is important that the president is modern, liberal, committed to international relations and integration,” Videtic commented to bne IntelliNews on November 12. 

“Pahor’s first statements signalise that he is going to have stronger principles and stances in the upcoming five years, which is logical as this is going to be his last mandate. This could be good for the country’s economy if he does it when it comes to his positions related to foreign investments,” Videtic added.

A new force in Slovenian politics

Despite his loss to Pahor, Sarec’s performance highlights the fact that Slovenians like new faces on the political scene, and Videtic forecast that he will continue his political career, even though the election campaign revealed that Sarec lacks political experience and a strong position on foreign relations

“Definitely, the overall impression of this election is Sarec’s entrance deeper into the Slovenian political scene. The score in the presidential election builds an ‘highway’ for Sarec’s participation in the upcoming parliamentary elections in late spring 2018 and it is quite logical to expect him to appear with his list among the runners for the Slovenian parliament then,” Videtic said.

While the parliamentary elections are at least six months ahead, the Slovenian media and public have been more focussed on those than the presidential campaign. Neither of the two largest political parties in the country — Prime Minister Miro Cerar’s Modern Centre Party (SMC) and the opposition Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) led by former prime minister Janez Jansa — backed either Pahor or Sarec in the second round, after fielding their own candidates in the first.

Privatisation in the spotlight 

One of the hottest issues in Slovenian politics is privatisation, and Sarec’s comments in pre-election debates and his post-election statements have confirmed previous speculation that he will advocate anti-privatisation politics.

“This is actually bad news if it is expected from him to take part in the upcoming parliamentary elections. This is alarming news for investors if we bear in mind his stance about the vital country’s issue. He has openly opposed the privatisation of Nova Ljubljanska Banka (NLB) and this is a key Slovenian commitment to the European Commission. Thus, his entrance deeper into state politics via the upcoming parliamentary elections with such a stance is a very loud alarm to everyone committed to foreign investments,” Videtic said.

Slovenia had committed to sell 75% of the bank by the end of 2017 in a restructuring plan that served as a basis for the European Commission's approval of state aid to the bank in the 2013 bailout. However, plans for an IPO were dropped in June amid a dispute over the pricing of the offer and an ongoing lawsuit over Yugoslav-era deposits in Croatia. 

Earlier this month, the EC rejected the Slovenian government’s proposal to extend the deadline to privatise NLB for up to three years. Ljubljana says it won’t be able to sell of the bank by the end of this year, and is still in negotiations with officials in Brussels. 

Privatisation of Slovenia’s largest lender, and one of its most popular brands, has been one of the top topics among the public due to Slovenians’ well-known resistance to privatisation. As such, it could influence the general elections in spring 2018. The issue also sparked tensions within the government. On the other hand, Pahor’s victory over Sarec is likely to be positive for the future privatisation of the bank, when it does happen, as his commitment to foreign investors could encourage potential buyers of NLB to step forward.