Newly formed Freedom Movement threatens to oust SDS in Slovenian general election

Newly formed Freedom Movement threatens to oust SDS in Slovenian general election
Under the charismatic Robert Golob, the Freedom Movement is improving its rating in the polls. / Freedom Movement
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje April 20, 2022

The outcome of the April 24 general election in Slovenia is unpredictable, but it is clear that the two main rivals are Prime Minister Janez Jansa’s ruling rightwing Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) and the green centre-left Freedom Movement led by a political newcomer, ex-energy company boss Robert Golob.

Given that whichever party wins would be unable to form a government alone, they will need the support of other political players. However, the Freedom Movement has the advantage as even if Jansa’s party emerges as the winner, it will probably be unable to form a government due to insufficient support from the other parties expected to enter the parliament.

Under the charismatic Golob, the Freedom Movement is progressively improving its rating in the polls, and it is quite possible Golob will join forces with the opposition bloc known as the KUL coalition — four parties that signed a preselection agreement in September — to form the new cabinet. Golob himself said he is willing to cooperate with parties from the KUL coalition.

Tanja Fajon, leader of the Social Democrats, the third biggest party in the Slovenia’s assembly and one of the opposition coalition membes, told bne IntelliNews that the election programme of the opposition bloc and the new Freedom Movement are similar and cooperation is quite possible.

“There are strong links between parties of democratic opposition and Golob as we share most of our values and goals. Our programmes overlap in many respects therefore we see Mr. Golob as a potentially strong partner in a future government should the voters decide to trust us on April 24,” Fajon said in an e-mailed comment.

Polarising prime minister 

Jansa is a polarising figure, and for the last two years the criticisms of the current government have been fiercer than against any of the previous cabinets. Weekly protests in Slovenia held symbolically every Friday against Jansa’s government are a clear signal that many people want a change in the course of Slovenia’s politics.

An outspoken Twitter fan, Jansa has been heavily criticised for his firm grip on the media, autocratic governance as well as unsatisfactory handling of COVID-19 pandemic accompanied by strict restrictive measures. Jansa’s cabinet has also repeatedly confronted the EU in the area of media, freedom of the press and the rule of law. He has often tweeted offensive comments against critical journalists.

The poor relations between the SDS and several other parties in the current parliament meant that even though the SDS won the last general election in 2018, the second ranked List of Marjan Sarec (LMS) formed a government with a broad coalition of smaller parties. Only after Sarec’s government collapsed did Jansa’s SDS agreed to form a new government in coalition with the Modern Centre Party (SMC), New Slovenia (NSi) and the Pensioners’ Party (DeSUS). Even then things didn’t go smoothly, and DeSUS left the coalition in December 2020 due to disagreements with Jansa.

As the next election approached, four opposition parties, the LMS, Social Democrats, Levica (the Left) and the Alenka Bratusek’s Party (SAB) signed a co-operation deal in September 2021, agreeing to form a government without the SDS should they gain enough votes in the next general election.

Polls indicate close race 

On April 24, voters will elect 90 members of Slovenia's parliament including two deputies elected by the Italian and Hungarian minorities. 

Before the emergence of the Freedom Movement, Jansa’s party was leading in the polls, but Golob’s party immediately came up close behind the SDS and even led in some polls. Ahead of the election the result is hard to predict as different polls provide different results, but it is clear that the Freedom Movement is the one that will shuffle the cards on the Slovenian political stage the most.

The latest poll published by Dnevnik on April 19, less than a week before the elections, shows the Freedom Movement is leading in front of Jansa's SDS party, with a difference of less than two percentage points. The Left and the Social Democrats emerged as the third and fourth political forces, followed by NSi and LMS. The SAB and the Let's Connect Slovenia coalition are also close to joining the National Assembly.

The recently-established Let’s Connect Slovenia coalition consists of five parties — the Modern Centre Party (SMC), which is part of Jansa’s coalition, Economically Active Party (GAS), the People's Party (SLS), Slovenian Greens, the New People's Party (NLS) and the New Social Democrats.

Another opinion poll conducted by Parsifal for Nova24TV, a rightwing news outlet close to Jansa, on April 12-14, showed that Jansa’s party is leading with support of 18% of respondents followed by Golob’s party (17.1%). The Social Democrats are third (6.9%), followed by Levica, supported by 5.3%, and the same percentage goes to NSi.

Fragmented political scene 

According to commentators the pre-election campaign did not bring any major surprises or innovation, but it was marked by numerous pre-election confrontations.

Whatever the election outcome is, the main challenge remains the fragmentation of the political scene, loose coalitions and the inability to form a majority, strong and stable government.

However, the opposition against the ruling party in Slovenia became stronger with the emergence of the Freedom Movement.

The candidates faced each other in a pre-election TV debate on Pop TV on April 18. Due to his infection with COVID-19, Golob took part via a video link. “I'm sorry that I have to talk in this way, but on the other hand, it's a way to be able to de-taboo this unfortunate disease and shows that it’s more like a common disease than we think," said Golob, according to Zurnal24.

Talking about his path into politics, he said: “I myself had no desire to go into politics, although many people persuaded me, but in the end I realised that there is no one else and that I have no choice, if I want to live in a free and open society, I must accept the challenge.” 

Jansa, meanwhile, appeared to dismiss the challenge the Freedom Movement poses to his SDS. Asked about the opinion polls, which show that Golob’s party is overtaking the SDS, Jansa said: "If it was not him, it would be someone else. Since 2008, a new or recycled face has always been put into play before the elections. This has happened this year as well. The opposition is always putting a new player in the game.”

However, one of Jansa’s partners in the current ruling coalition, NSi president Matej Tonin, said he would be open to joining a coalition with Robert Golob's party — but without the Left, as he called the Left’s programme “harmful”. 

Newcomer and favourite Robert Golob 

The man who may well replace Jansa as prime minister is the ex-head of Slovenian energy trader Gen-I, Golob, who was appointed leader of the renamed non-parliamentary green party Freedom Movement at the end of January.

Before that Golob served as state secretary at the economy ministry between May 1999 and June 2000. In 2006 he was appointed head of the management board of GEN-I where he kept the position until 2022. In 2011 he became the vice-president of the Positive Slovenia party and later the vice-president of the Alliance party Alenka Bratusek (now SAB).

The Freedom Movement was formerly known as Green Actions Party (Z.Dej), which was led by ex environment minister Jure Leben.

Golob said that he is not worried about how many seats his party will gain in the election, but that he wants to form a government with 60 MPs.  Golob has repeatedly said that he sees the KUL parties as natural post-election allies, but he does not intend to collaborate with Jansa’s SDS or the other two parties in the current ruling coalition.

Golob’s party is running under the slogan "we deserve a better state”. At the heart of the Freedom Movement’s programme are green breakthroughs and the creation of conditions for a sustainable economic and social model that will be resilient to the consequences of any financial, energy, food and war crises. 

The party focuses on the complete abandonment of fossil fuels, waste reduction, the launch of multibillion-euro investments in renewables, sustainable mobility, energy and food self-sufficiency, as well as the green transformation of industry and agriculture.

According to Golob, in order to overcome the problems in Slovenia’s healthcare system, which he said “collapsed” during the COVID-19 pandemic, radical and comprehensive healthcare reforms including €500mn of investments in the first 18 months are needed.

Golob also said that the divisions between the left and the right will be overcome. The parliamentary elections on April 24 are seen by Golob as a “referendum on democracy in Slovenia”.

Hardliner Jansa’s SDS

In both policy and experience, the Freedom Movement is very different from the party it is hoping to oust, Jansa’s SDS. The SDS has so far participated in five governments and Jansa has been a presence on the Slovenian political scene for decades. A communist in his youth, Jansa's political viewpoint shifted from a liberal, pro-democracy dissident under communist rule, to a social democrat to a rightwing hardliner. The style of Jansa, a close ally of Hungary's PM Viktor Orban, has been compared to former US president Donald Trump.

Jansa has served as prime minister three times. He previously held this position from 2004 to 2008 and from 2012 to 2013. Jansa has led the SDS since 1993. The party is known for its opposition to immigration and conservative approach to LGBT rights.

The SDS advocates a free and competitive economy and education that should be subordinated to its needs. The party also advocates for a higher birth rate and the strengthening of the national identity of Slovenians.

The SDS emphasises human dignity among its core values, but also patriotism as a positive attachment to the homeland, its culture and especially the language. According to the SDS, culture is of special importance in Slovenian society. 

“By increasing the share of science and technology, the structure of graduates must approach those from highly developed EU countries and take into account the needs of the economy,” according to the party’s programme. 

The SDS rejects public borrowing to cover current budget deficits. "We will handle all aspects of public finances with care, especially public expenditure,” the SDS’ programme promises.  Regarding foreign policy, the SDS welcomes the US efforts to “expand the space of peace, prosperity and democratic values in the world”. 

Jansa has come out as a strong supporter of Ukraine in the war with Russia, but the war is not seen as having a major impact on the upcoming election. 

Social Democrats heading for third place 

For the first time, the Social Democrats are running in the parliamentary elections under the leadership of long-serving MEP Fajon. Fajon, a former journalist, is currently head of the Slovenian delegation within the political group of Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. She is also the author of several documentaries.

In the 2018 general elections, the party achieved the third best result after SDS and LMS with just below 10% of votes, and is vying for the Left for third place in the upcoming election. 

The party's election programme has been summed up in ten points. According to the party’s programme, the SD advocates eliminating corruption in the health care sector and better conditions for doctors in the private and public sectors.

Raising the added value of the economy would be ensured, among other things, by €700mn in additional incentives to increase productivity, innovation, greening and the internationalisation of companies. The SD also supports the gradual introduction of a 32-hour working week.

In the field of green energy, the SD proposes incentives for solar power plants and the introduction of an energy cap to limit rising electricity prices and prevent energy poverty.

“As a leader of Social Democrats I strongly believe in our programme, which we have been preparing for several months with many different stakeholders including civil society. We are convinced that we have by far the best programme and the most experienced team that can lead Slovenia forward towards a more equal, social, green and democratic society,” Fajon told bne IntelliNews.

The Left

The fourth party expected to have a significant presence in the new parliament is the democratic socialist party, the Left, led by Luka Mesec. It was established in 2017 by four civic groups and movements and individuals as an alternative to the existing political establishment. In 2018 general election, the Left won nine parliamentary seats. Mesec said that the Left is now striving to achieve a 30% better result than in previous elections.

“Our bet is clear; we are going to the elections to defeat the right, and [for] the government to be formed with the Left,” Mesec was cited as saying in early March.

Mesec also said that the party has remained consistent for eight years, without having any serious scandals or cases of corruption, promising they will continue to work in that way in the future.