The Slovenia Times

Polls and Politics



Close to the Finish

Recent opinion polls show a close contest between Janez Janša's centre-right Slovenska demokratska stranka (SDS, Slovenian Democratic Party) and Borut Pahor's centre-left Socialni demokrati (SD, Social Democrats), with SDS coming a few points ahead in most recent polling. According to a recent Episcenter poll conducted for the journal Finance, SDS is ahead with 28.7% of the vote, while SD is trailing with 23.9%. RTV Slovenija's most recent polling shows a similar advantage for Janša's party, and its lead is even greater in a poll published in the free daily Žurnal24. A poll conducted the daily Delo, on the other hand, shows a tighter race, with only two points separating the parties.

Because most parliamentary parties have already formed partnerships, the performance of the two leading parties will determine whether the centre-left or the centre-right bloc will get to build the governing coalition. All other parties may move up and down in the polls, but whether they will form the next government depends primarily on how SD and SDS fare. The high stakes have even led both parties to engage in a fierce battle for votes and even hire American political advisers.
It remains uncertain how the Patria scandal and the allegations by Finnish television (see front page) will affect SDS's performance. The Episcener poll, conducted after the accusations were made public, shows that both SDS and SD saw small drops compared to previous polling, but SDS's overall lead has not been affected.

Cracking Down

It is also unclear whether the Patria allegations will affect the public perception of Prime Minister Janša's anti-tycoon campaign. In the month leading up to the election, Janša has staked a substantial amount of his re-election bid on his crackdown on managers and corporate owners accused of improperly and fraudulently amassing wealth and influence during the post-communist privatisation process.

A key figure in this crackdown is Ivan Zidar, the head of SCT, a major Slovenian construction company. Zidar has been accused of using bribery to win a construction contract for SCT, as well as the improper purchase of a seaside villa formerly owned by the company. In July, Zidar was arrested but released after a few hours, as was state prosecutor Boštjan Penko, who was accused of but not charged with criminal of abuse of office allegedly connected to a recent meeting with Zidar. While not openly supporting Zidar, some members of the centre-left opposition hinted that the arrests were politically motivated.

Another twist in the Zidar saga came just weeks before the election, when pieces of fire protection plaster began to fall off in the just-opened Šentvid Tunnel. The tunnel was finally closed for several days after a large piece crashed on a German-registered car. The government parties blamed Zidar's SCT, the contractor for the project, for faulty construction. Zidar, however, was quick to deflect the blame; he argued that SCT was pressured to choose the British subcontractor in charge of the fire retardant and that DARS, the company in charge of Slovenia's motorways, should have arranged for a two-week monitoring of the tunnel.

The anti-tycoon campaign also has a direct effect on junior coalition partner Slovenska ljudska stranka (SLS, Slovenian People's Party). The brother of party head Boštjan Srot, is the embattled Boštko Srot, CEO of beverage group Pivorna Laško, who has been at the centre of the anti-tycoon crackdown. Boštjan Srot, who easily survived an intra-party confidence vote, is quick to point out that his party has no political ties with his brother and has strongly condemned any questionable privatisation practices. Still, it's uncertain if the connection will have an effect on the party's electoral performance.

It's (Still) the Economy, Stupid

In the second televised debate, however, the government parties decided to emphasize the economy rather than the anti-tycoon crackdown. Slovenia's economy has experienced substantial and sustained growth during the centre-right coalition's time in power. However, the opposition points out the high inflation rate, which has affected many Slovenes. Despite a recent period of deflation, Slovenia's inflation level was the highest in the Euro zone for a number of months.

Parties of the centre-left bloc has also criticized what they perceive as a troubling and growing gap between the rich and the poor, still lower than in many other European countries, but of concern to many voters. The opposition's case is based partly on the argument that the booming economy has left too many struggling Slovenes behind and partly on the implication that the foundations for growth were laid by the previous government's policies. In fact, during the second televised debate, Zares chair Gregor Golobič argued that the current government had little to do with the economic growth rate.

Disagreeing to Agree

Yet, the Slovenian political landscape is characterized by a remarkable policy consensus. All major parties are in favour of maintaining a wide-ranging and involved welfare state. In the early days of its four-year term in office, the current government toyed with comprehensive reforms that would have reduced the state's involvement in the market, relaxed employment laws, and made the economy more competitive. In the end, amid vocal opposition, the government backed down from many of these free-market reforms. The consensus in favour of an involved welfare state survived.

While the centre-left opposition often points out that not everyone has benefited from the growing economy, both blocs' specific views on the economy are similar: They both advocate substantial welfare provisions but also a slow withdrawal of the state from many of the remaining state-owned enterprises. It's only the pace of that withdrawal that is the subject of debate. In many ways, the broad political consensus that developed in the years before Slovenia's EU membership, when all major parties supported Slovenia's quick entry into the union, remains one of the defining features of Slovenian politics today. Despite the consensus, however, a large part of the campaign season has consisted of both blocs shifting the blame for any failings to the other side.

Fault Lines

After years of relative stability, the political party landscape in Slovenia has undergone a number of substantial changes since the last election. Chief among them was the collapse of LDS, for many years Slovenia's leading party. A sizeable number of leading party figures joined Pahor's SD, while a number of others formed Zares, a new left-leaning party. The rump LDS has effectively become a second-tier party of the centre-left bloc and its standings in the polls indicate not just a level of support far lower than what it enjoyed when it was led by the late former Prime Minister (and later President) Janez Drnovšek, but also a worse performance than the breakaway Zares. Nevertheless, the bloc has managed to overcome divisions and present a remarkably united face in the months leading up to the election.

Meanwhile, Janez Janša made a personal appearance at an unveiling of a statue dedicated to Drnovšek, in his hometown, a move almost certainly designed to appeal to former Drnovšek supporters who had once supported LDS. In fact, during the first televised debate, Janša portrayed himself as an heir to Drnovsek's legacy of inclusion, a statement that quickly drew statements of condemnation from the centre-left parties, who perceived the move as a cynical ploy to take advantage of the late president's popularity.

The populist Slovenska nacionalna stranka (SNS, Slovenian National Party) also saw some of its members leave the party after a conflict between party head and founder Zmago Jelinčič and high-profile member Sašo Peče. Peče and his allies went on to establish Lipa, which has also has a populist platform but is far more critical of the ruling coalition. So far, it has underperformed in the polls. Meanwhile, Jelinčič's SNS is enjoying a good showing in the polls, often beating LDS and junior coalition partner Slovenska ljudska stranka (SLS).

The fate of these smaller players, however, lies firmly in the performance of the two leading parties. The ultimate victor of that contest will almost certainly determine the collation that will rule Slovenia for the next four years. And it may be up to undecided voters to finally decide the winner.

Who's Who

Coalition parties:

Slovenska demokratska stranka (SDS, Slovene Democratic Party): Transformed into the leading party of the centre-right bloc by Janez Janša, who has led it since the early 1990s, SDS is a centre-right party that has historically enjoyed good relations with various right-leaning institutions, including the Catholic Church, but also enjoys broad popular appeal. It jettisoned plans for wide-ranging economic reforms early on, but is still in favour of expedited privatisation. Its success will depend in large part on how voters perceive the state of the economy.

Nova Slovenija (Nsi, New Slovenia): Led by Finance Minister Andrej Bajuk, who spent much of his life in Argentina and the US, NSi is a traditional conservative party with close tied to the Catholic Church and a strong emphasis on traditional values. It has recently been struggling in its effort to establish a successful political brand and its modest showing in the polls reflects those troubles.

Slovenska ljudska stranka (SLS, Slovenian People's Party): A party with a strong rural orientation, SLS is led Boštjan Srot, the brother of embattled Boško Srot, CEO of beverage group Pivorna Lasko, who has been accused of improprieties in the anti-tycoon crackdown. Boštjan Srot insists that his party is uninvolved and that it is generally sceptical of fast-track privatisation. SLS has partnered with the extra-parliamentary Stranka mladih Slovenije (SMS) for this election.

Demokratska stranka upokojencev Slovenije (DeSUS, Democratic Party of Retirees of Slovenia): DeSUS is traditionally a centre-left retirees' party and has often had rocky relations with SDS. Because it is led by Defence Minister Karel Erjavec, its electoral performance may be impacted by the outcome of the Patria scandal. It has experienced solid growth in most opinion polls.

Opposition parties:

Socialni demokrati (SD, Social Democrats): During his leadership of SD, the popular Borut Pahor, whose popularity surpasses Janša's in most opinion polls, has played a major role in SD's transformation from a post-communist party into a more modern social democratic one. The implosion of LDS has left SD as the undisputed leader of the centre-left bloc. The party is emphasizing those left behind during the high-growth period of the last several years. SD has strong ties to leftist labour unions, but it is also in favour of privatisation, albeit at a somewhat slower place.

Zares: Formed by MPs who left LDS during its implosion in 2007 and led by Gregor Golobič, Zares emphasizes a mix of liberalism and social democracy that defined LDS during its heyday. In many ways, the party is positioning itself as a younger, fresher successor to the old LDS. It maintains a strong third place showing in most polls.

Slovenska nacionalna stranka (SNS, Slovene National Party): With his populist, often nationalist rhetoric and unconventional views, Zmago Jelinčič has enjoyed a loyal following in Slovenian politics for years, particularly among disaffected young people. SNS hopes to follow in the steps of its leader's impressive showing in the 2007 presidential election and achieve its best election results yet. While not a part of the centre-right bloc, SNS has often defended SDS in recent times.

Liberalna demokracija Slovenije (LDS, Liberal Democracy of Slovenia): Once Slovenia's leading party under the leadership of Janez Drnovšek, LDS entered a crisis after its 2004 defeat, culminating in mass defections last year and poor performance in polls. Katarina Kresal, the head of LDS, is the only woman to lead a major political party in Slovenia.

Lipa: Lipa was formed after Saso Peče and two other SNS MPs split from their party amidst a clash with SNS founder Zmago Jelinčič earlier this year. Lipa also pursues a populist platform, but unlike SNS, it has vowed not to join in any collation with SDS.


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