Slovenia 2012: A rare victory for austerity?
A presidential election was held in Slovenia on November 11 and December 2, 2012. The President of Slovenia holds a mostly ceremonial office, with powers limited to commanding the armed forces. The President is directly elected by universal suffrage to a five-year term, and the President is limited to two consecutive terms in office. Eligible candidates must receive the support of 10 MPs or 5,000 voters or a political party with 3 MPs and which received over 3,000 votes in the last election.
Until recently, Slovenia – a member of the EU and the Eurozone – was seen as one of best performing states out of the new eastern members of the EU with strong economic growth and healthy public finances. However, since 2009, Slovenia is in the midst of a major economic crisis because of its dependence on foreign capitals and exports. The country’s GDP shrunk by nearly 8% in 2009 and it drifted back into recession, with growth projected to recede by 2.2% this year and by 0.4% in 2013. Unemployment has increased from 4% in 2008 to over 8% this year, and it is projected to reach 9% in 2011. The country’s credit rating was decently downgraded, and its debt has grown rapidly from 22% of the GDP in 2008 to nearly 47% of GDP in 2012. The country’s current government (like the previous one) is committed to austerity measures in a bid to revive the economy.
One year ago, on December 4, an early general election was held in Slovenia. Ultimately, a centre-right government was formed with Janez Janša, who had previously served as Prime Minister between 2004 and 2008, at its helm. Janša’s government has passed several austerity measures including cuts in public sector wages, pensions and social benefits, a new law which will make it easier for employers to hire and fire employees and pushing back the retirement age. Janša has not excluded a “Greek-type scenario” – asking for a European bailout.
These policies, and alleged corruption at the highest levels, have created social discontent and unrest. Demonstrations against austerity and corruption in Maribor and Ljubljana at the end of November turned violent.
Elected President in 2007, Danilo Türk has become a noted critic of the centre-right government. He has opposed the inclusion of a “golden rule” in the constitution and he opposed the pension reform, the new labour market law and other austerity policies. Janša, during his first term as Prime Minister between 2004 and 2008, had already had confrontational relations with the then-President, Janez Drnovšek.
There were three contenders in the first round, in early November. Incumbent President Danilo Türk, a left-wing independent, was endorsed by the largest opposition party – Ljubljana mayor Zoran Janković’s Positive Slovenia (PS) and five other parties (including the moribund LDS and Zares and the governing pensioners’ party). Prime Minister Janez Janša’s conservative SDS endorsed Milan Zver, a SDS MEP and former cabinet. A small coalition partner, the right-wing NSi, also endorsed Zver. The third candidate was former Prime Minister Borut Pahor (Social Democrats, SD), the centre-left Prime Minister defeated in the 2011 elections (the SDs fell from 29 to 10 seats in that election). Pahor, who lost the SD leadership in June, was endorsed by another junior partner, Gregor Virant’s centre-right Civic List. Türk was the anti-government and anti-austerity candidate – painted by the right as a far-leftist. Zver was the most pro-government candidate. In the middle, Pahor, whose government between 2008 and 2011 had also supported austerity measures similar to those being implemented by Janša, backed the government’s economic policies and promised to be an independent, ‘bipartisan’ president who would work with both sides, seeking ‘national unity’ to surmout Slovenia’s economic challenges.
Turnout in the first round was an all-time low, at 48.2%. The results of the first round, on November 11, were as follows:
Borut Pahor (SD) 39.93%
Danilo Türk (ind) 35.9%
Milan Zver (SDS) 24.18%
Danilo Türk had been widely expected to win fairly easily, making the results of the first round a major surprise. Pahor was likely boosted by strong performances in several debates against his two opponents, and his adroit sugar-coating of the bitter austerity message by appealing to national unity and promising to restore peace if not prosperity by working with, rather than against, the government. Pahor was able to draw cross-ideological support, drawing from the ranks of both the left and the right. Zver did not endorse any candidate after his defeat in the first round, the result of a poor campaign. However, if Janez Janša stopped short of explicitly backing Pahor, he implicitly endorsed him when he urged voters to vote for the candidate who supported reform.
Türk was taken aback by his first round defeat. He warned that the low turnout in the first round, an all-time low, represented growing discontent and apathy towards the political system and political elites, increasingly seen as corrupt.
Turnout in the runoff was 41.95%. The results were:
Borut Pahor (SD) 67.44%
Danilo Türk (ind) 32.56%
Borut Pahor was elected President with over two-thirds of the vote, soundly defeating the incumbent. Unable to check Pahor’s post-first round momentum, Türk even lost some his own voters – he had won 292.5k votes on November 11 but only 228.9k voters showed up in his favour in the runoff. Pahor’s appeal to national unity and peaceful relations with the government might have been boosted by the violent anti-austerity and anti-corruption demonstrations in Maribor and Ljubljana.
On maps (available here), Pahor’s (and Zver’s) support is largely rural or from small-towns, while Türk dominated – in the first round – in the urban centres of Ljubljana, Maribor and Koper, more left-wing and socially liberal. Rural areas tend to be more right-leaning, but Pahor’s support was more than exclusively right-wing rural areas – he also did well in urban areas where the SDs are strong (Nova Gorica) and more swingy rural areas. In the runoff, Türk only held on to a few core districts in central Ljubljana.
Borut Pahor’s victory, which almost came out of the blue, is a rare electoral victory for austerity policies in Europe (along with the Netherlands in September). In recent elections, parties and governments which have supported austerity policies have either lost power or done fairly badly. Pahor, endorsing the government’s economic policies and running on a platform of national unity to restore prosperity and surmout tough times, proved succesful. The presidency is a largely symbolic post in Slovenia, and Pahor’s election will not change government policies or significantly alter the course the country’s politics, but perhaps his campaign style and rhetoric will influence other parties and candidates in Europe, in upcoming elections?