Danica Fink-Hafner: Voters turn towards symbolic personalities when they are disappointed with political parties [Party Co-Op Series]

Slovenia has one of the most fragmented party systems in Europe. In the past its coalitions often contained more than five parties. In the 1990s and 2000s the Liberal Democrats had a dominant role in the governments, due to their relatively large size, centrist ideological position and pragmatic politics. After their decline no similar party emerged, even though the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), one of the oldest Slovenian parties, maintained a leading position in the polls and provided the prime minister across many years. The parliamentary elections took place six weeks ago, and the new government was installed one week ago. The reconfiguration of the government allows us to have a fresh look at the interparty dynamics.

Zsolt Enyedi discusses party cooperation with Danica Fink-Hafner, professor and Head of the Political Science Research Programme at University of Ljubljana, and expert on party politics, European integration, nation-building, interest-representation and democratization.

Zsolt Enyedi: Does it make sense to group Slovenian parties into blocks? If yes, is there a possibility for parties to move from one block to another one?

Danica Fink-Hafner: During the first decade after the transition, we clearly had three blocks. Liberal Democracy in the center was able to rule in a way that the political system was rather stable. Then after 2004 a long period of center-left versus center-right bipolar competition followed. The center-right was always led by the Slovenian Democratic Party, Janša’s party, but the trajectory of this party is rather complex. It started as an anti-communist social-democratic party. It is difficult to decide whether it was a left-wing or right-wing party during the 1990s. When it came to the rights of the employee their representatives in the parliament voted as social democrats. But later,

especially after it turned out that the European social democrats would not accept them as proper member of their family, and also due to internal domestic reasons, they shifted more to the right. It became a conservative party linked to the European People’s Party, shifting its ideology but keeping its president, Janša.

Let me show the complexity of this question with the party of Miro Cerar. His party started as centrist liberal, but many of its MPs left the party and joined the Social Democrats, while the party itself, under a new leadership, shifted to the right. Before the last election it merged with another small extra-parliamentary party and adopted the name of Konkretno. The European Liberal Party does not recognize this party as a continuation of the Miro Cerar Party, and it has denied membership from it. It is questionable whether we can consider these cases as black-and-white shifts between blocs.

Before we would discuss the current political dynamics, perhaps let’s go back in time a bit. After 2018, SDS, Janes Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party, emerged as the largest party and yet was not able to form a government. Why was it so?

The elections were dominated by strong anti-Janša sentiments, provoked not only by Janša’s personality, but also by his program of establishing the second Slovenian Republic.

When you look at the relevant documents, this program looks very much like Viktor Orbán’s model, including the reshaping of judiciary and giving more power to the executive.

Janša’s way of governing was seen by many as a threat, so that’s why the coalition was not possible. But he actually managed to take over the government in the mid-term, because the center left government was not able to solve its internal problems. The Prime Minister, who had little national experience, suddenly stepped down without consulting the partners. Additionally, the COVID crisis helped to open the doors for Janša, who then started to change the institutions and the whole society.

Individual personalities seem to play an important role in Slovenian politics. In some cases, even parties are named after their leader. Why is this so – why do individual political leaders have such a central role? And the second related question is whether the personality-centered politics constrains or helps the cooperation among parties?

I think people turn towards symbolic political personalities because they are disappointed with political parties. The disappointment grew especially after the financial crisis.

Voters believe that the way to make an actual impact on politics is by changing individual politicians in power. Especially the recently established, not-yet-institutionalized parties are dependent on leading personalities.

This personalism could facilitate cooperation among friendly politicians, but ambitions, concerns about prestige, and personal animosities often rather create obstacles. This is particularly visible in the case of liberal parties which were not able to unite because the leaders were not ready to give up their positions. In this regard the appearance of Robert Golob, the leader of the new party Svoboda, brought in some new dynamics. He is a manager, has both governmental and business experience, and was able to integrate many other liberal politicians.

In the last couple of years in Slovenia you had an interesting political structure, the so-called Constitutional Arch Coalition. What was the rationale for this alliance?

The Constitutional Arch Coalition was a temporary collaboration of center-left parliamentary parties which were in opposition to Janša’s government. The otherwise very individualistic parties started to cooperate partly because of external pressure and because of the efforts of Golob to unify the language of these parties. The block eventually managed to defeat Janša.

Governmental cooperation can be both formal and informal. In this current government, Levica is officially inside the government, but in a previous round they were supporting the government from outside. Why were they not officially part of the previous government? Why would a party refuse to share office and all the benefits that come with the office?

In order to understand this position, one needs to take into account the broader context of very low trust in political parties and government. Once a party is in government it is placed under pressure by various lobbies and can easily be tainted by corruption. This is a particularly big challenge for Levicawhich emerged as a radical left populist party, a big critic of the old corrupt elite. For them membership in government can mean loss of purity. Besides, Levica is a coalition of various groupings. Even the decision to join the government had to be based on an intra-party referendum. All the other potential coalition partners had to wait for a week for their decision. Finally, in Slovenia government membership comes with very high electoral costs for smaller parties. The largest party can destroy them. This happened with several parties under the rule of SDS. The most spectacular example is the case of the former party of Miro Cerar, which, in spite of promising originally that it would not cooperate with Janša, eventually joined the Janša government. Now they don’t exist anymore. The same happened to DESUS, the party of pensioners. Even New Slovenia suffered. The only winner was Janša, but by undermining potential partners he also undermined himself.

The 2022 elections were won by the Freedom Movement, Svoboda. Is this a proper party or is it an alliance of actors?

This initiative started with the leader. Public opinion polls showed Golob to be a prominent figure even before the party was formed. He used the platform of Green Party, a party which was registered but not active. Golob claims that he interviewed each potential member of the party to assure that the members don’t want to simply benefit personally from the potential government membership. Most recently, he selected ministers for his government using a Google questionnaire, a questionnaire used by employers in the private sector. But party building started with the integration of two small liberal parties, the parties led by Alenka Bratušek and Marjan Šarec. The combination of resources, organization networks, personalities and authorities may develop into an institutional institutions political party. But they’re still at the beginning of this process.

Now, let’s think about the relations among parties in general. How common is it in Slovenia for parties to share resources like donations, campaign infrastructure, electorally relevant information, or media outlets?

In general, this is highly unlikely because of the intense competition for government. But it happened in some exceptional cases. For example, DESUS used to compete together with the United List, now called Social Democrats, but then they decided to go on their own because the cooperation was not beneficial.

In general, the system is not geared towards cooperation. However, the last election period was different because the issue was not the ordinary change of government but rather whether to allow democratic backsliding. Within both the pro-Janša and the anti-Janša blocks there was cooperation.

On the center-right the disappearing former party of Miro Cerar channeled its resources into the campaign of other center-right parties, and they were also supported, at least on a symbolic level, by Janša’s party. The pro-Janša media, indirectly financed by Viktor Orbán, supported the campaign of the center right parties because Janša hoped they could become coalition partners in his new government. (By the way, the Orbán-money has recently left the Janša-media.)

On the other side of the spectrum there must have been an agreement between Golob, Bratušek and Šarec, that the latter politicians also get a piece of cake in case Golob enters parliament and they don’t. Golob kept his promise.

It seems that ideological considerations and, in case of Janša’s party at least, foreign money played a role in facilitating cooperation. What about the role of institutional framework? Some people think that the degree of party cooperation in the country very much depends on the institutional rules on the type of electoral system (Slovenia has open PR), the system of party finance or the rules of electoral campaigns. Do these institutional features of Slovenia push parties towards more or towards less cooperation?

The proportional electoral system supports individualist party competition. (Originally the threshold was extremely low, then it was increased to 4%.)

In general, the proportional system makes political parties egoistic, not really collaborative, but on the other hand the high degree of fragmentation forces parties to create coalitions.

The political science scholarship on democratic transition suggests that such conditions push parties to develop good relationships, to learn to work together and to create consensus. But after the long series of coalition governments we also see many inter-party conflicts in Slovenia.

The other systemic factor is the way public radio and TV work. They are open to all competing parties in election campaign even when a high number of parties compete, making it rather difficult for a citizen to follow all the discussions. From the point of parties this means that it doesn’t make sense to form coalitions: their voice can be heard anyway and new parties get as much airtime as old parties.

The third factor is financing. Each party that receives 1% of votes at the elections is entitled for public financing. As a result, some political parties only appear at elections. Between the elections they are not alive but have enough money to pay one employee. So, most of the institutional features support fragmentation and egoistic competition.

Concerning the career of Golob, the new prime minister, you mentioned that opinion polls played a big role. I wonder whether parties in general consider opinion polls when they decide about alliances and cooperation or membership in a coalition? Do politicians in general adjust their coalition strategies to opinion polls?

Increasingly, public opinion polls in Slovenia play a key and double role. This became particularly visible at the last elections. First, public opinion polls can produce political personalities and new political parties. Golob was identified by the polls as a potential counter-candidate to Janša and as someone acceptable to center left parties. The polling companies started to measure the popularity of a party led by Golob well before such a party came into existence. Second, polls also inform voters about which blocks of parties could realistically win. Based on the polling data the center-left civil society put the parties belonging to this block under enormous pressure to cooperate. Civic activists also made a huge effort to mobilize the voters. As a result, after a long period of low turnout the participation rate went up to 70%. So, public opinion polls are both measures and political instruments, leading to many debates about their use and their reliability.

My final question is about the current government, which is a three-party coalition. These parties cooperated to some extent already prior to the election, and now they cooperate within the government. How long-lasting do you think this coalition will be and what will be the most important challenges in front of cooperation? Will these parties form a robust alliance, one that will operate almost like a large umbrella party?

What keeps these parties together is to get rid of Janša and to restore democratic institutions. But the coalition is diverse. Levica, in particular, has some positions that are perceived as too radical by the other two partners. The new government will face many difficult issues. One of them is how to get rid of Janša’s cadre, how far they can go without breaking the rule of law. Then comes the issue of restoring the institutions damaged by Janša, like restoring the autonomy of the police. They all support restoring the social partnership cooperation with civil society, but what about the burning issue energy-prices, the rapidly rising costs of living, the supply of energy, especially in the autumn and then in winter? They will face the tensions between supporting the economy and fulfilling the very ambitious plans related to enlarging the welfare state. Levicais especially in favor of a bigger welfare state. They will have to agree on how to solve conflicts between economic and environmental interests. Golob talks about an environmental revolution, but he means by that energetic revolution that is still driven by economic reasoning. So, not everything he proposes is acceptable for the left. Then there will be conflicts among the coalition partners with ties to different marginal social groups like pensioners, young people without flats, or precarious workers. There are two big reforms to be prepared and executed, especially the healthcare system reform and the pension reform. So, I expect tensions quite soon. Interestingly, the parties are saying now that their plans are for two electoral cycles, not for one, but we will see.

In collaboration with Michal Matlak and Hannah Vos

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