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Analysis: Slovenian Government Concern Over Opposition's Europarliamentary Victory

By Donald F. Reindl

As the initial results emerged from Slovenia's 13 June elections for the European Parliament, there were surprises for the 91 candidates and 13 tickets competing for seven seats in the legislature. Most pundits had forecast a majority of seats for the governing coalition parties -- three for the joint ticket of the Liberal Democracy of Slovenia (LDS) party and the Democratic Party of Retired Persons (DeSUS) and one for the United List of Social Democrats (ZLSD), or perhaps a two-two split.

Instead, opposition parties won four of the seven seats, echoing a pattern across Europe. The conservative opposition New Slovenia (NSi) party garnered 23.5 percent of the vote (two seats), followed by LDS-DeSUS at 21.9 percent (two seats), the center-right opposition Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) at 17.7 percent (two seats), and the ZLSD at 14.2 percent (one seat). The remaining parties failed to make the cut, including a disappointing loss for the conservative Slovenian People's Party (SLS), which recently sought to increase its political leverage by leaving the government coalition (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 April 2004).

The Europarliamentary elections mark a milestone for Slovenia -- as a 14 June "Delo" editorial by Marko Pecauer observed, the state joined the EU on 1 May, but its citizens joined on 13 June. Nonetheless, similar to other new EU member states, turnout was an apathetic 28.3 percent -- the lowest in any Slovenian election to date.
Slovenia joined the EU on 1 May, but its citizens joined on 13 June.

Although some blamed the poor weather, the more likely causes of the low turnout were cynicism and a sense of irrelevance. Generic platforms based on "regional development," "solidarity," "fostering entrepreneurship," and vague "national interests" -- combined with a general lack of confidence stemming from recent political infighting -- failed to engage the public. In addition, the role of the European Parliament is unclear to most voters, who are more concerned about the makeup of their own national parliament.

Of the greatest interest -- both within Slovenia and among foreign analysts -- is how the outcome of the balloting foreshadows what will happen when Slovenes vote in national parliamentary elections slated for in September or October. Two interpretations prevail, seemingly dependent on the political inclinations of the analyst.

The first interpretation dismisses the success of the opposition parties on several grounds. First, because of low turnout, the overall percentage of the vote won by the right is an exaggeration of the actual support for those parties. Greater turnout in the fall is likely to restore the traditional backing for the leftist ZLSD, the center-left LDS, and its satellite party, DeSUS.

In addition, the popularity of NSi candidate Lojze Peterle -- reflected in the number of preferential ballots cast for him as opposed to his party (77 percent) -- artificially inflated support for the NSi, which has traditionally ranked fourth in opinion polls and is likely to return to the political background in the fall. Furthermore, potential rivalry between the SDS and NSi might prevent the two parties from presenting a united challenge to the government in the national elections.

The second interpretation declares that there is a sea change in the mood of Slovenia's electorate. The 4:3 victory of opposition parties reflects a lack of public confidence in the government and a steady erosion of support for the LDS in particular (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 6 February 2004). The one-year drop in LDS-DeSUS popularity from 40 to 22 percent shows that voters are tired of 12 years of LDS-led government, according to Miha Brejc, the lead SDS candidate. SDS party head Janez Jansa predicted that this trend will continue into the fall, when an SDS-NSi based coalition forms a new government.

The LDS has pursued a left-oriented policy that has alienated much of the electorate, concluded Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel. Speculation is growing that Rupel, who has repeatedly clashed with the LDS leadership, might now switch his allegiance to an opposition party.

Whichever analysis proves correct in the long run, it is clear that the LDS-led governing coalition has suffered a setback. On the evening of the voting, Prime Minister Anton Rop simply went home instead of attending a news conference, leaving the task of defending the party's weaker-than-expected performance to Education Minister Slavko Gaber. Meanwhile, the NSi and SDS celebrated their victories.

The former head of the SLS, France But, who resigned his post in exchange for the lead position on the party's European Parliament ticket and forfeited his position as minister of agriculture when the party exited the coalition in April -- has announced that he will likely retire from politics. Although it polled fifth, the SLS now faces a public-image crisis. It is regarded as unfaithful by the coalition, opportunistic by the opposition, and weak by both.

An even worse result was achieved by the Slovenian Youth Party (SMS), which polled just 2.3 percent. The SMS formed a temporary alliance with the Greens to exploit a political niche but showed the poorest performance of all parliamentary parties. The recently created, centrist Slovenia is Ours (SJN) party won nearly twice as many votes as the SMS, and could garner enough votes in the fall to oust the SMS from the political scene altogether.

The broader implications of the vote are clear. A government defeat in the fall elections is not yet certain, but the opposition will mount a formidable challenge to the LDS-led coalition.