New Slovenian president faces growing social unrest

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This article is part of our special report EU-Ukraine Relations.

The austerity measures introduced by the current government have brought many people to the streets to defend their social rights, and the belief that Slovenia should remain firmly grounded on the premises of a modern welfare state, writes Marko Bucik.

Marko Bucik is a foreign affairs writer for the Ve?er newspaper in Slovenia and graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. He previously worked for the Slovenian Government, the European Commission and headed the office of the Slovenian MEP Ivo Vajgl (ALDE).

"Borut Pahor, former prime minister of Slovenia (2008-2011), former member of the European Parliament (2004-2008), former president of the Slovenian Parliament (2000-2004) and a longtime president of the Slovenian Social Democrats (1997-2012), won the presidential elections in Slovenia with 67.4% of the vote in the second round.

He defeated the incumbent President Danilo Türk, who captured 32.6%. Only 42% of Slovenian voters cast their votes. Pahor thus becomes the first Slovenian politician to hold all three most important political offices in the country.

Pahor's victory in the first round 11 November came as a surprise to many, his final decisive win less so. He has been comfortably in the lead over the last weeks and has managed to keep himself there. The next days will bring many detailed analyses of the merits of Pahor's campaign and reasons for Türk's significant defeat. However, there are three general points worth making.

First, after the collapse of his coalition government late in 2011, after a strong defeat in the early parliamentary elections when the Social Democrats under his leadership gathered a mere 10.5% (2008: 30.5%) and after being ousted as party president, Pahor managed to re-invent himself.

At the point when many observers already wrote him off, Pahor launched his presidential bid with ambition and determination, leading a campaign that over the course of several months saw him working in a textile factory, paving roads and collecting waste.

Facing an uphill struggle due to his arguably poor performance as prime minister, Pahor turned his fortunes upside-down. Despite all odds, he managed to emerge as a clear victor through a grassroots campaign that has clearly left a mark.

Secondly, Pahor unquestionably won over the majority of the Slovenian electorate by positioning himself in the political centre. He thus forfeited some of his traditional support on the left and captured the centre, as well as an impressive majority among the right-of-centre voters of his once-archenemy and current Prime Minister Janez Janša.

His campaign emphasised “togetherness” and compromise in the face of an ever more ideologically divided Slovenian electorate. He refrained from openly criticising the current government and argued for pragmatism as a way out of the current economic crisis.

Many on the left have accused Pahor of selling out his earlier social-democratic political convictions and resented his appeasement of Janša, who is seen as sliding towards more authoritarianism and promoting excessive austerity.

Many on the right have welcomed Pahor's conciliatory language, arguing that only such discourse could bridge the strong ideological divide in the country. Here again, only time will tell whether this was simply a campaign strategy or Pahor's sincere political re-alignment.

Third, Türk failed to capitalise on his relatively successful first term and his unquestionable intellectual capacity. He failed to recognise the growing threat of Pahor's surge and at times appeared dismissive and patronising.

In the final month of the campaign he saw his ratings plunge due to perceived aloofness and by an ambiguous response to questions and speculations about his personal wealth. He arguably also relied too heavily on the support of the leader of the opposition, Zoran Jankovi?, a popular mayor of the capital city Ljubljana and a controversial political figure that faces numerous charges of corruption.

In more general terms, Türk was ultimately hurt by the inability to consolidate his standing on the wider left by exposing more strongly Pahor's political re-positioning and failed to capture votes in the political centre by more openly – and some would argue legitimately – challenging Janša and his government. He thus transitioned from historically high levels of public support while in office to a weak showing at the ballot box.

Pahor will start his mandate among very tense social and political circumstances. In the past week, numerous mass protests have spread across Slovenia expressing genuine feelings of disappointment and anger about the precarious situation in which Slovenia finds itself merely 21 years after gaining independence.

With the number of those unemployed persistently above 11% and with Slovenia's GDP projected to contract by 2% in 2012 and a further 1.4% in 2013, little optimism is left. The frustrations with the current economic hardship have been further strengthened by perceptions of corruption among the ruling elites, their insensitivity to the population's fears and their inability to cope with the crisis.

The austerity measures introduced by the current government as a remedy to Slovenia's deteriorating public finances and the growing difficulty to access international capital markets, have also brought many to the streets to defend their social rights and the belief that Slovenia should remain firmly grounded on the premises of a modern welfare state.

None of the presidential candidates convincingly responded to the social unrest and expression of disaffection that will probably only grow over the coming months.

As a matter of priority, Pahor will thus have to deal two main issues. First, facing a strong general distrust in politics and amid a growing social unrest, he will have to affirm his legitimacy as a newly elected President.

The level of voters' participation (42%) in this presidential election was significantly lower than in 2002 (65.4%) and 2007 (58.5%). Secondly, he will have to credibly respond to the legitimate concerns expressed by the protestors and establish a social dialogue that will capture the intensity of civic engagement previously unseen in Slovenia.

If he fails, he will not only marginalise himself, but also allow the situation to deteriorate, potentially resulting in a political deadlock that will strengthen the now exposed public frustrations with politics and leading to further erosion of trust in state institutions."

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