A battle between change and experience in Slovenia

By Alenka Krašovec
7 November 2017
Incumbent Borut Pahor looks set to win, but Slovenia's race for the presidency still raises some important questions
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In Slovenia’s relatively young democracy, the role of the president is mostly ceremonial. But while their official powers are minimal, presidents have managed to exert considerable influence in certain areas, particularly in foreign affairs, alongside their official duties including leading the armed forces and nominating several top officials, including the central bank governor and members of the constitutional court.

So while the ongoing presidential contest is unlikely to do much to change the direction of Slovenian policymaking – not least because the clear frontrunner and winner of the first round is the incumbent, Borut Pahor – it is worth paying attention to, for two important reasons.

First, this vote comes less than a year before the parliamentary election, expected to take place next June or July, a contest that will determine the next prime minister and the composition of the government.

Given the two presidential candidates going into the second round are both technically independent of any of the major national parties the election is, of course, only an imperfect indicator of the state of the parties, but it is worth considering the impact of the presidential campaign as we move towards the 2018 general election.

On 22 October, nine candidates were listed on the ballot paper for the first round – and, for the first time, on this occasion the majority of them were women. In Slovenia, presidential candidates not affiliated to a party must be backed by the signatures of 5,000 voters (while a party candidate requires only the signatures of three MPs or 3,000 voters).

The incumbent, Borut Pahor, was on the ballot through the people’s support, having collected the required signatures. But despite being an independent politician since 2012, he has been openly supported by the centre-left Social Democrats (SD), the party he led between 1997 and 2012 (the last four years of which he served as prime minister), and currently a junior partner in the coalition government.

The main governing party, the centrist liberal Modern Centre party (SMC), performed poorly. Receiving just 1.7% of the first round vote, education minister Maja Makovec Brencic came seventh. Additionally, opinion polling for the parliamentary election by Delo has seen the SD in the lead for the first time in over a year. And so, for many, the result is being hailed as a warning for Prime Minister Miro Cerar ahead of next year’s general election.

The second reason this race is worth consideration, is for what it says about the politics of personality – a feature we are increasingly seeing in elections throughout western democracies – as both candidates entering the runoff contest are doing so independent of any major party, and on highly personal platforms.

In the first round, three parties entered their own candidate for president. The governing SMC party and the main opposition party, the centre-right Slovenian Democratic party (SDS) both waited until the last moment to reveal theirs, while the centre-right opposition party New Slovenia (NSi) nominated the party leader. Both the SMC and SDS had found it hard to find a prominent candidate, able to break through in what was believed to be an almost hopeless competition. In recent years, many barometers have consistently ranked Pahor as the country’s most popular politician, and his closest rival for the presidency has turned out to be Marjan Sarec – a former actor and small-town mayor, backed by the local, non-parliamentary, centre-left party Lista Marjana Sarca.

The campaign has been low-profile by financial measures: Slovenian parties are not wealthy and with the parliamentary elections due next year, candidates mainly opted for low-budget public gatherings and street canvassing, alongside the television debates. However, Pahor’s unique campaign, well-documented on his Instagram account, managed to attract some attention. The frontrunner decided to walk through the country, trekking 700 km in a bid to meet voters.

This follows his 2012 stunt, where he performed the duties of different manual workers, each for one day – spending 24 hours as, among other occupations, a hairdresser, a butcher, and a construction worker. His campaign five years ago attracted criticism for devaluing the office of the president. However, this time round, attacks have mostly been aimed at his record in office.

The main issues of this campaign have centred on the role and especially the authority of the president. This kicked off with a statement made by Pahor, in which he claimed his role as president is not to be a moral authority. He has been criticised for failing to intervene in disputes during his first presidential term, particularly his handling of Slovenia’s Anti-Corruption Commission. He has defended himself by saying his power is limited, and that it is not his role to “intervene in matters that only deepen divisions”. Rather, the president should contribute to political stability by stepping back from affairs that are for the government to deal with.

In the weeks leading up to the election, polls were predicting Pahor could achieve victory in the first round – a feat as yet only achieved in the 1990s by the country’s left-oriented first president, Milan Kučan. However, a week before the first round vote, the wind was knocked out of his sails as 34 leftwing intellectuals wrote in an open letter that he did not deserve to be re-elected based on his record in office and his self-promoting populism. At the same time, SDS leader Janez Janša publicly criticised the incumbent and managed to boost support for his party’s candidate while, just days before the vote, Kučan in a short statement did the same. In the end, Pahor fell short of winning in the first round outright, achieving 47.1% of the vote. In the November 12 runoff, Pahor will face Sarec, who managed to achieve 24.9% in the first round.

It seems in the runoff, Pahor will emphasise his political experience, while Sarec will play the ‘new politics’ card. According to the polls, Pahor should win the vote. But as the last two parliamentary elections in Slovenia, both of which brought success to newcomers in politics – not to mention the wealth of anti-establishment insurgents making strides in other parts of the world – have shown us, we cannot underestimate the appeal of that card.

Image credit: Jure Makovec / Getty Images – Marjan Sarec (R) and Borut Pahor (L)