Illiberal democracy in Slovenia? Yes and no

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Citizens arrive at Slovenian government building to protest against Prime Minister Janez Jansa and his government in Ljubljana, Slovenia, 8 May 2020. [Igor Kupljenik/EPA/EFE]

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša is the strongest challenger to a status quo in which the left has been in power in the country for too long, writes Žiga Turk.

Žiga Turk, a professor, two-time minister in Slovenia’s government and former secretary-general of the Reflection Group about the Future of Europe, writes about growth, innovation, technology, sustainable development, creativity. He first published this commentary on BlogActiv

Since Janez Janša took over the government of Slovenia this March, the left is in shock that they lost power. Despite COVID, they are protesting every Friday in the capital Ljubljana, hooded Antifa included. On the international stage, there have been ongoing attempts to portrait Slovenia as another illiberal democracy in the making.

The irony is that Janša’s government is fighting what one could call “left Orbanism”. They will not flip it into a right one.

Orbanism?

If such a thing exists at all it also denotes a system in which one political side achieves total domination in the executive, in the parliament, in the judiciary, in the media, in the education, and in business.

Rule of law is replaced with rule by law. Checks and balances cease to exist. Branches of power do not control each other since they have a common trunk. Because power is abused to keep power change of government colour is unlikely.

In a recent book (source), professors Matej Avbelj and Jernej Letnar Cernic call this constitutional backsliding. Democracy is sliding back into a not democratic system. Poland and Hungary are often cited as examples of that. Slovenia not so often but is too.

This last statement should come as a surprise to many. The country has been seen as a model Yugoslav republic and later as a model new EU member state. The picture-perfect scenery in the background and relatively uneventful political developments (compared with the Balkan neighbourhood at least) helped.

Red Privilege

In Slovenia, over the last 75 years, the left led the government 90% of the time and the presidency 100% of the time. After the democratic change – the last 30 years – there have only been 7.5 years with a government led by centre-right including only a single full mandate.

The rest of the time the direct institutional, material, and ideological heirs of the socialist regime were in charge. There is not a single conservative daily newspaper published in the country. Public TV is understood as “their own” by the far left. Non-progressive, right-of-centre, pro-business NGOs have been struggling.

The share of non-government education from primary school to universities is negligible. Large parts of the economy were privatized into the pocket of management that had been picked by the communists before democratization. There is a vibrant true private sector, but they keep a low political profile. Standing up could be bad for business.

What Milovan Djilas called “the new class” (source) has successfully survived the fall of the Berlin Wall, kept the positions, influence, and property – the red privilege. Some politicians were new, but everything else stayed the same – independent of the change that was supposedly brought by democracy.

The “independence” of the institutions firmly in the hands of the sympathizers of the left is defended most fiercely. Because “independence” is a guarantee for the status quo.

It is hard to explain to the Westerners that there is independence and there is “independence”. There is a huge difference between independence of a judiciary or media that have been set up in a democratic society or independence of judiciary or media that is a legacy of an authoritarian state.

What has been existing in Slovenia is a leftist, decentralized “Orbanism”. Leftist, because the populism and demagoguery are left-wing. Decentralized, because formally it does not have a single strong leader but is rather a network that has captured the economy, the state and the media.

This network is so strong that at every election since 2008 they were able to create, from scratch, a new political party, around a newcomer into politics, to win decisive votes for a left of centre government.

Signalling right

Janša is the strongest challenger to this status quo. The fear-mongering that under his rule Slovenia may become another illiberal democracy is helped by the fact that he is good friends with Orban, that his MEPs often side with Fidesz, and that Hungarians invested in a few second and third rate media in Slovenia.

But realistically, Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS-EPP) is too weak for anything like that. It does not even have a majority in Janša’s coalition government, let alone in the parliament.

The Christian Democrats (NSi-EPP) and two “Renew” parties (SMC, DESUS) that make up a coalition are a guarantee that the “Orbanism” of the left cannot flip into “Orbanism” of the right.

The story goes that Chinese reformist Deng Xiao Ping, when asked at the crossroad what to do, told the driver to signal to turn left, but actually turn right. Janša is doing the opposite – signals he is going right but is driving straight – centrist and social have been the successful measures of his government during the COVID pandemic.

However, the right signalling is drawing flak from the left, it helps them polarize the country, and seed doubt abroad. The leftist mainstream media happily collaborates. The losers in this are the pragmatic moderates who see role models in Austria and Switzerland, not Hungary and Poland.

Towards a liberal democracy

Slovenia is in no danger of constitutional backsliding. There is nowhere to slide from. To see Slovenia’s struggle as a fight between the left and the right “Orbanism” is a guarantee for a status quo. Which is in the interest of the left.

The best that liberal and conservative democrats can hope for is that democratic balance is restored across the branches of power, that the left/right exchange of government becomes the norm rather than a shocking exception, and that red privilege in the deep state is challenged. Janša can challenge it.

The Christian Democrats and the other coalition partners are a guarantee that the privilege is not repainted in another colour.

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