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May 29, 2020

SLOVENIA: Fragmented political scene hinders Jansa’s illiberal intentions

BY Andrius Tursa

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Controversial policies initiated by Prime Minister Janez Jansa’s (Slovenian Democratic Party, SDP) government are an attempt to weaken democratic institutions in Slovenia. However, a strong public backlash and fragmented political environment will likely shield the country from democratic backsliding as seen in Hungary or Poland. In the meantime, Jansa’s provocative rhetoric and initiatives will keep domestic tensions high and attract international attention.

On 27 May, parliament passed amendments to the environmental protection act, which limits the involvement of civil society groups in administrative reviews of various infrastructure projects. While the adopted restrictions are less stringent than initially proposed, the move highlights wider concerns about the risks to democratic institutions in the country.

Since coming to office in mid-March, Jansa’s four-party coalition government has been embroiled in multiple controversies, which have triggered large and regular public protests despite the Covid-19 restrictions. Already during the first government session the cabinet moved to replace the heads of the police, armed forces and some intelligence agencies. While such replacements are not unusual with the arrival of a new cabinet, the changes were carried out very swiftly, with some of the new appointees of questionable backgrounds. The government has also attempted to significantly increase police powers in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis but was forced to backtrack after considerable public backlash and disagreements among the governing coalition partners. Meanwhile, Jansa’s attacks on independent media have triggered criticism from local journalist bodies and international institutions, including the European Commission. More recently, the prime minister revealed the government’s intentions to change public media financing system, potentially benefiting smaller outlets such as the Nova24TV channel linked with the ruling SDS. These developments raise concerns about democratic erosion.

However, Jansa’s capabilities to advance controversial policies is limited by a diverse and fragile four-party coalition government, which holds a slim one-seat majority in parliament. Although informal backing from the right-wing Slovenian National Party and two deputies representing national minorities supports the cabinet stability, any attempts to significantly undermine democratic institutions would likely face pushback from the coalition partners. In fact, two deputies have already withdrawn their support for the government this month and further defections are likely. The unity of the ruling coalition will be tested during the upcoming vote of no-confidence in the economy minister Zdravko Pocivalsek (Modern Centre Party), who faces accusations of illegally influencing public procurement of medical protective equipment.

A good handling of the pandemic has bolstered public support for the ruling SDP to multi-year highs. However, this is unlikely to last as the “rally around the flag effect” dissipates, and economic difficulties start weighing on Slovenian households. Jansa may be tempted to call for snap parliamentary election this summer, expecting to win a stronger mandate for his conservative agenda. However, Slovenia’s political landscape has been traditionally fragmented and unlike in Hungary or Poland, the ruling SDP (or any other party) would be very unlikely to win an absolute majority of seats. Moreover, as the 2018 election shows, even a decisive victory in the poll does not guarantee a seat in the government as other parties may be reluctant to partner with the SDP. As a result, Jansa is expected to continue leading a fragmented four-party coalition government, with his provocative rhetoric and initiatives keeping domestic tensions high and attracting international scrutiny.

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