In Search of an Alternative in Slovenia

Politics in Central Europe are deadlocked between the neoliberal center and the ethnonationalist right. Can Slovenia’s left break past both?

Jean-Claude Trichet (R), president of the European Central Bank and his wife Aline welcome Janez Jansa, president of the European Council and then-prime minister of Slovenia, at the Alte Oper concert hall on June 2, 2008 in Frankfurt, Germany. Ralph Orlowski / Getty

Mainstream pundits in Europe have long regarded Slovenia as a voice of democratic reason in a highly volatile region. It is the good student, following instructions well, almost getting a star beside its name — on the path to becoming the “Switzerland of the Balkans.”

The locally grown and long-ruling neoliberal center prides itself on its exceptional, fairy tale existence. On the one hand, it saw itself as “not succumbing” to the nationalistic barbarity of the recent wars in the post-Yugoslav context. On the other, it secured a swift and relatively painless transition to Euro-Atlantic integration and acceptance of the euro.

As a small country, the Slovenian PR apparatus focused on branding niches and presenting itself as one of the world’s greenest and most sustainable tourist locations, home to amazing extreme sportsmen from ski jumpers to the newly crowned basketball champions of Europe with the rising star Luka Dončić, a site of the new entrepreneurial crypto-spirit materialized in the first monument to blockchain (yes, an actual, physical monument) in the quasi-Silicon region, and last but not least, home to the philosopher-king Slavoj Žižek and first lady Melania Trump. The sense of national pride based on neoliberal individuality — if you work diligently, in the end you will always be successful and rewarded — was a strong part of the neoliberal ideology.

Over the last few years, however, a major blow has been dealt to the image of the postsocialist haven by two major events. First, the intensification of capitalist crisis after 2007 meant that the governments — “center-right” or “center-left” — underwent a series of privatization campaigns that, without any democratic discussion, sold off the state’s most profitable companies.

Furthermore, in the last decade the country has seen increasing waves of austerity measures that targeted the working class and the welfare state. The level of class inequality and the number of those living in relative poverty have been rising, while for the first time since independence, increasing numbers of youth and the well-educated have left Slovenia.

The uprisings of 2012 and 2013 can be seen as the most direct expression, even if not clearly articulated, of the discontent, as well as the waning ideological and political support for the dominant class. The most emphatic political message of that era was deeply “anti-political”: “the political class is finished,” meaning, the politicians are all the same and corrupt, which in the last instance called for a morally pure and just governance within the horizon of private property and the welfare state, but with a bit more space to maneuver vis-à-vis the troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) and EU institutions.

Then, in the elections held in early June, another major development disrupted the neoliberal center myth of Slovenia as the space of “civilized” and decent governance. Voters predominantly chose the authoritarian, right-wing party SDS (Slovenian Democratic Party), which has strong financial, political, and ideological links to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

SDS is not a new party; party leader Janez Janša led governments in the past. The international media outcry was not so much about Janša being a nationalist, anti-immigrant, or a representative of harsh neoliberal reforms, but about his open political alliance with Orbán’s Hungary. Rather than becoming a new Switzerland, Slovenia is looking more like authoritarian Hungary.

Europe has never been a harmonious community based on solidarity and equal economic and political relationships. This is clear not only by the introduction of severe monetary and fiscal discipline within the eurozone, dominated by Frankfurt’s European Central Bank, but in its core institutional framework that facilitates the movement and profitability of big capital. This helped deepen Slovenia’s periphery’s status as a pool of cheap labor power for the major multinational corporations of the core countries.

This is strengthened by asymmetrical crediting relations. Not long ago, European media highlighted “aid” to the “lazy Greeks” and their malfunctioning bureaucracy; it is now seen as a source of major profit for Germans. Germany received around 3 billion euros from the Greek taxpayers in order to service Greece’s debt, and this amount doesn’t include major deals within the military industry. More recently, the neoliberal center, with its political representation in Brussels, received a political competitor in Hungary that together with other Visegrad Group countries (the Czech Republic, and Poland, and Slovakia) initiated a militant form of ethnic revolt against Brussels. In the recent historical memory of Yugoslavia, a fight against Brussels easily triggers the reminiscence of the fight against the “evil” center, Belgrade.

In the small and richer republics, the political representatives of the Slovenian and Croatian League of Communists used to complain during the 1980s that their efforts for a “fairer” (which meant more neoliberal) distribution of wealth were thwarted by Belgrade and central institutions that privileged the periphery. Rather than addressing the class question, rising unemployment, and the implementation of the IMF’s structural adjustment programs, the Yugoslav political class translated social issues increasingly into nationalistic terms. In this respect, the Yugoslav crisis of 1980s speaks directly to the crisis of the European Union today.

And yet again, with the growing social and economic insecurity and waning ideological legitimization of the neoliberal center, the space of Visegrad Mitteleuropa and the ruling authoritarian right-wing parties present themselves as the only alternative to the unjust system of the EU. Both Brussels and Budapest’s orientations are pro-capitalist. Budapest adds a more protectionist twist both in terms of domestic policy against immigration and minorities, as well as by protecting the economic interest of national bourgeoisie. But who says that the economic interests of bourgeoisies in the core countries are not protected? They simply found their stronghold within the European institutional setting.

In the last year, Slovenia could observe a clear political shift from the neoliberal center to authoritarian neoliberalism in all neighboring countries: Austria, Croatia, Hungary, and Italy. This move triggered a resurrection of the old idea of Austro-Hungarian and Central European “unity.” The latter once stood firmly in defense of Christian civilization and Europe in front of the Ottoman (Muslim), now immigrant, “threat” and provides a strong ideological anchor and racialized division between us and them.

It is then not surprising that Slovenian political parties followed this path: once the neoliberal center in Brussels came out with austerity policies, the authoritarian right-wing began to rise in Budapest, with the difference that the new transitional process is now not any more led by the more “civilized” neoliberal center parties, but by openly authoritarian right-wing parties that have no pretense of defending human rights, democracy, the free movement of people and goods, or solidarity between the nation-states that allegedly formed a core of Maastricht’s European Union.

The Road to the Authoritarian Right

The other key reasons behind the victory of the authoritarian right wing in Slovenia include the austerity governance of the former center parties (Moderate Center, Party of Retired and Social Democrats), which intensified without any open pressure from the troika, and despite considerable economic growth in the last two years. The vote was a harsh blow for the ruling party of Moderate Center, which went from 35 percent to less than 10 percent, as well as for the Party of Retired (from 10 percent to 5 percent).

Secondly, if the previous electoral cycle in 2014 still carried a strong left and center-left imaginary presenting itself as an alternative to the austerity of the troika, the major decline set in after 2015, after the troika staged a financial coup and defeated the Tsipras government. After 2015, the “left” was seen either as incapable of organizing international solidarity or as capitulating in the face of the serious challenges involved in the move towards political autonomy.

Contrary to the prevented Grexit and to the in-process Brexit, the Visegrad countries are now seen as the only political agents that can fight against the extreme center in Brussels. All of the energies of the technocratic center in Brussels and Germany had to be mobilized in order to discipline what could become a left government in Greece. The threat back then was real, with the potential left contagion spreading to Spain. After 2015, there was a strong disappointment with the Left, pushing high electoral abstinence and producing a new form of resentment and discontent that shifted to the Right.

Thirdly, support for Orbán was not only ideological but material, with major financial injections to all SDS media outlets. Journalists who exposed these illegal and otherwise problematic payments were immediately open to heavy political pressures from SDS media outlets.

Behind the ideological affiliation lies a naked agenda of economic interests: the Slovenian “silk road,” which consists of building additional railway infrastructure between the coastal port of Koper and the interior. This would extend the traffic of port cargo. Thanks to an agreement with Orbán, this would also become Hungary’s corridor to the Adriatic Sea. Orbán’s government would not only receive profits from tolls on the infrastructure and a return on credit, but also become the owner of this strategic infrastructure.

Parsing the Numbers

The electoral results show that only 52 percent of all eligible voters actually voted. From those that voted, a predominant amount favored the authoritarian SDS, with 25 percent (twenty-five seats in the parliament), and the second new center party — the one-man show Marjan Sarec, came in second with 12.5 percent (thirteen seats). All other seven parties gained between 4 percent to 9.9 percent of the vote, speaking to the fragmented nature of the political crisis and the collapse of ideological hegemony.

Thus, the biggest party in these elections is the army of the disappointed that remained home. Opinion polls registered their discontent, expressing the view that either nothing will change or their utter disgust by political choices and the low level of discussion during the campaign. There was a general sense that while economic growth is real, people are seeing few changes in everyday life: austerity continues, wages remain the same, new job opportunities are often precarious and low paid.

In recent years, many well-educated youth started leaving Slovenia, finding jobs in countries like Austria and Germany. With stagnating or even decreasing pensions and potential health system reforms, the welfare outlook looks very unstable. Slovenia also had a long-standing minimum wage on 638 euros per month, which can only be sufficient if one still lives at home with their parents, does not have a family, or has a rich partner.

Within the context of rising economic growth, the only party in parliament that mobilized around socioeconomic issues was Levica (Left Party), which pushed the demand to immediately elevate the minimum wage to 700 euros. But the neoliberal-oriented Social Democrats have also increased cuts in social assistance for the poor, meaning the amount of relative poverty has not diminished in Slovenia, leading, among others things, to an increase in the number of evictions.

The refugee crisis and the fear of terrorist attacks throughout the whole of the European Union became a cynical and all-too-easy way to divert attention from the most important issues facing the country. SDS took up the issue of refugees immediately, as it fit into its long-term nationalist, racist, and anti-immigrant platform. The first enemy they took on were the “forces of continuity” discovered in the “remnants” of Communist elites that supposedly still dominate everything in society and have not properly and fully privatized state-owned companies. The first groups of ethnic enemies were recognized in minority and marginal groups like former sister republics of Yugoslavia, Roma, LGBTQ Slovenians, migrants, and more recently, refugees and Muslims.

This set of ideological divisions constructs a strong border between “us” and “our” properly Catholic, Slovenian way of life and “them,” who are not properly integrated, do not speak our language, and steal our jobs. The use of more vulgar language to reach the masses, and the spread of fear and mistrust that follows, is common, seen in their daily newspapers and social media in ways that aren’t far from Trump and figures of the European far right. The dominant slogan of the campaign was that the real Slovenians are threatened by the “epidemic” of refugees and the fantasized refugee budgetary expenses. To the repeated question of the rising tide of xenophobia in Slovenian society, SDS leader Janez Janša prefers to speak of the Left’s or critical journalists’ supposed hatred of their own nation.

SDS, Janša, and other right-wing ideologues were not alone in using such rhetoric — they were merely the ones who profited most from it. But the ruling coalition of center parties — the Social Democrats, the Party of the Moderate Centre, and the Party of Retired — did the same. Each of these actors worked to keep the general population in socioeconomic insecurity. At the same time, during the heights of the “refugee crisis,” the former coalition adopted most of the existent right-wing opinions, never addressing the reality that it was actually the social state that failed to address the refugee issue.

In the 1990s, Slovenia saw more than 70,000 refugees come to and stay in Slovenia during and after the wars in ex-Yugoslavia. This was the time of economic downturn — gradual privatization, soaring unemployment — but the state managed to cope with the refugees. Compare this to the recent arrival of a few hundred Syrian refugees, playing out in high drama on our TV screens. Instead of expanding the budget and mobilizing state welfare institutions, the initiative to assist these refugees was left to social groups from below and humanitarian organizations that helped to intervene in the most acute times of crisis.

The neoliberal center government was in many respects participating in the nationalist revolt against Brussels’s quota and inventing locally specific solutions, such as sealing off the Balkan gates to refugees. The government installed barbed wire all along the border with Croatia, cynically renaming barbed wired a “temporary technical impediment.”

In this landscape, xenophobic ideas and intolerance began gaining in popularity. Critical researchers observed that a considerable portion of commercial and public media reported on the topic of refugees with alarmist tones and constant televised monitoring of the borders, as if we had entered into an age of permanent natural catastrophe, with streams of refugees flooding over our borders and annihilating European civilization.

The Growth of Levica

Levica did improve their electoral results. The party moved from 6 percent to 9.3 percent, from five to nine seats in the parliament, coming just behind the major center parties: Social Democrats received 9.8 percent (ten seats) and the former ruling party of Moderate Centre 9.6 percent (ten seats). Levica is the only parliamentary party that has openly opposed neoliberal austerity, promoting the slogan “welfare for all and not the few.”

Most of its parliamentary attempts to change legislation in the previous mandate, whether same-sex marriage, the recognition of Palestine, the introduction of 700 euro minimum wage, free lunch for kids from poor families and workers, or the co-management of companies by workers were rejected, or thoroughly revised by the ruling coalition and right-wing forces. In times of refugee crisis and later, Levica was the only party that openly and continuously embraced pro-refugee positions — a highly unpopular move, public opinion-wise.

But for Levica, the political calculation and short-term interest of favorability could not be the real measurement of alternative politics. For any viable future, left politics needs to act according to firm political principles that call for struggle against exploitation and domination in its various forms, despite its marginal role in the parliament. In this respect, Levica, in its public proclamations, does not shy away from disagreements on the Left, being critical towards the tendency of Die Linke leader Sahra Wagenknecht to push for defense of German workers only while pushing close to the anti-refugee positions of the center-right parties, or Syriza’s strategy of continuing austerity.

Despite the broader political context of anti-refugee sentiment and neoliberal economics, and a general Europe-wide disillusionment after the defeat of Tsipras in Greece, Levica managed to grow through the election. Among the parliamentary parties, Levica had by far the smallest budget for the campaign. There were no jumbo billboards or fancy TV spots, no big media presence to spread its political message. The time granted to the party during public media discussions was very little compared to right-wing and center parties.

A few objective and subjective factors gave Levica an advantage over its first elections four years ago. In 2014, Zdruzena Levica (ZL, United Left) was a coalition of parties and social movements, which all major media ridiculed as an amateurish, nostalgic return to “neosocialism.” But ZL did embody the most progressive spirit of the uprisings from 2012–2013 and connected diverse social groups that would be dissatisfied with the absence of the Left.

Compared to that first phase, Levica became more recognized in the media through parliament and protests, while also, according to leftist critics, overly concentrating on parliamentary work. This was most manifest in the tensions and splits within the former coalition ZL that has not developed a united frame to work together. Levica has then become a consolidated party from two constitutive parties, Initiative of Democratic Socialists and TRS — Eco-socialist party that was formally announced only in June of 2017, while other parts of United Left ran on their own (getting less than 1 percent), and some former active members became disillusioned by the parliamentary direction Levica was taking.

Compared to previous electoral cycles, Levica has now built upon a more effective infrastructure of local organizations with a group of engaged activists. The strongest part of the electoral campaign was their work with both activists and representatives of the party engaging directly with the public on the streets, along with an effective use of social media.

The campaign’s focus can be reflected in the social composition of the vote: Levica won most support in the urban centers and among youth. It came first in the capital, Ljubljana, and in parts of the seaside, Koper (Primorska), where it received highest support among young voters from eighteen to thirty-five (though the same was true for SDS). The core of the political vote came from youth up through the middle generation, the well- to middle-educated voters from the urban milieus that recognized the plea for the end of austerity and a viable alternative to precarious and flexible employment. But the major groups of the most vulnerable — the heart of the working class — either remained home or voted for other parties. Levica must address all the working people and expand parliamentary work back to the struggles of workers and fighting privatization. This would offer the party a path to becoming a dominant political force by the next election cycle.

The political space after the elections is further split on the Right, which despite some gains cannot make a coalition government: SDS (twenty-five seats), Catholic neoliberal fundamentalists NSi (against abortion, for total flexibilization of work, etc.) with 7 percent, and SNS, the extreme right-wing party with 4 percent. These three parties gather only thirty-six seats (forty-six would make a majority). On the side of the neoliberal technocratic center, we also have now a fragmentation: Party of Sarec LMS (one-man band, technocrat-liberals) with 12.6 percent and thirteen seats, former ruling party of moderate center SMC with 9.7 percent and ten seats, neoliberal-oriented Social democrats SD with 9.9 percent and ten seats, Party of Retired DESUS with 5 percent and five seats, and the former Prime Minister Bratusek ZAB with 5 percent and five seats). This gives them a total of forty-three votes taken together; that is, three votes short of the majority.

As I write, the right-wing coalition (Jansa-SDS, neoliberal Catholic fundamentalists NSI, and extreme right-wing SNS) would need one of the parties from the center to join it. What seems much more realistic is that the neoliberal-center parties invite NSi to join the government. To imagine any of the center parties entering an SDS government is not a real possibility, since this move would go against the rasion d’etre of centrist politics. The main political stance for the neoliberal center was never to really present any alternative but to mobilize voters not to vote for Janša. The choice was limited to voting for austerity with or without a human face, not “no austerity.”

In this context, Levica might be either invited for technical support of the center minority government, where it could demand some strong conditions to be executed (e.g., raising the minimum wage, referendum on exit from NATO); in the most likely case of a center government, where five parties of the neoliberal center (LMS, SMC, SD, ZAB, and DESUS) will be joined by the neoliberal-right NSi. This ruling coalition will not be stable, as it consists of six political parties, where NSi will be a Trojan horse for the right-wing SDS. In this constellation, however, Levica will become the only left opposition party, while Jansa and the extreme right-wing SNS will be heading the right-wing opposition, increasing the polarization in the turbulent times ahead. Any coalition will be unstable, and Slovenia will most likely have early elections, in which Levica and SDS will be on course for a major ideological clash.

A United Left in Europe?

Mitteleuropa seems to be becoming fertile terrain for extreme right-wing ideas, movements, and parties, just as it was during the 1930s. The “axis forces” of Rome, Berlin, and Vienna are being called upon to supposedly protect European civilization. But rather than viewing Central Europe as a site of some transhistorical dark and deep European racialized essence, we can see how this trend offers false alternatives in all of Europe: on the one hand, the centrist technocrats of Macron’s ilk, on the other hand, Le Pen; enlightened absolutism or chauvinist absolutism; the human face of Juncker’s drunk capitalism, or the brutal voice of Orbánismo.

This is now given as the ultimate choice for the vote in the new Europe, perceived as the fight for civilization and the decent Europe of the technocratic center. The latter can impose brutal border regimes, make the Mediterranean a cemetery, sell weapons to brutal dictatorships, continue a “war on terror” without remorse. It is a center that can exploit the periphery with complete political and economic calculation, as it did in Greece. Recently, the chief representatives of the neoliberal center, Macron and Merkel, responded to a tougher stance against the authoritarian right by announcing their own tougher stance on migration and strategic future investment of the European Union into North Africa and the system of detention centers. Someone else will now do the dirty work for the EU, from Erdogan’s Turkey to North African countries and the Mediterranean Sea itself.

In this context, left forces should not try to play the “good nationalist” card, a tendency personified by Die Linke’s Sahra Wagenknecht in Germany. We have entered a time when the new, extreme right-wing parties are not merely “national,” protecting workers within their borders, but are now well-connected globally. On the side of the Left, as always, there are growing splits and disillusionment, especially after the 2015 defeat of Tsipras. There might be three different left electoral options in the coming EU elections (Melenchon’s front, Gysi’s European left, and Yanis Varoufakis’s Diem25), at a moment when two extremes, the center and the authoritarian right wing, seem to become more unified than ever. If the Left does not work towards a viable and united front, it risks becoming a force identified with the legacy of the welfare state whose renovation can seemingly be realized only by the authoritarian right.

The extreme center still comfortably holds in the EU institutions, navigates through international agreements (e.g., CETA, newly announced “cooperation” with Singapore and Japan, though it has major problems with Trump) that favor multinational corporations and promote austerity, while the authoritarian right pursues separate but connected authoritarian nation-states.

We must move beyond the two false alternatives of national liberalism and national socialism that are now dominating the European horizon. Perhaps a critical voice from the Yugoslav past can work as a warning shot to trigger the united front of the Left? Such a front should serve both as a call to engage in the coming electoral process of the EU but to always be present with the Left in the streets and grassroots organizations, with the aim of forging a more effective organization at the international level. The way forward for the Left is one that dares to be self-critical of its past decisions but can step beyond the narcissism of who will lead this front and openly reject nationalism. If the Left is to have a future, in Slovenia and beyond, it must put forward a real alternative to neoliberal capitalism with or without a human face.