Is the essence of current democratic elections to fend off right-wing populism? Interview with Gal Kirn on Slovenian elections

June 1, 2022  — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from LeftEast — On April 24, 2022, Slovenians voted in a parliamentary election to remove their long-time Prime Minister Janez Janša. LeftEast presents this interview with the Slovenian Marxist Gal Kirn on the broader significance of the election and its results.

Q: You compare the Slovenian elections with those in France. What are the similarities and what are the differences?

A: The similarities are that the election process in Slovenia was reduced to a referendum for or against Janša, which is similar to the second round of elections in France where votes were for or against Le Pen. This similarity is that voters chose between autocratic statist capitalism with open racist and nationalist discourse (presented by Le Pen and Janša), on the one hand, and neoliberal capitalism supporters talking about the freedom of the French and Slovenes (presented by Macron, who is certainly a right-wing liberal, and Golob–the new face of the new party Freedom movement–who portrays himself as a centre-left liberal interested in ecological transition to green capitalism), on the other.

Now the differences are that Slovenia has emerged from a two-year state of emergency: Janša, an old autocrat and militarist, made good use of the pandemic situation to purge inconvenient people from all independent editorial teams and directorships in the fields of culture, media, higher education, while also actively building clientelistic networks in the economy and political bureaucracy. His government employed massive numbers, and he has made more worrisome attempts to cleanse the police and army apparatus. Adopting extremely bad laws in terms of ecology – trying to privatise water (a decision overturned in a referendum a year ago), he sent water cannons and used heavy fines against those protesting every Friday in front of the parliament. In the run-up to the elections, Janša finally focused on the strategy of offering carrots we’ve seen exercised by “uncle” Orban: giving subsidies for electricity, gas, and regulating oil prices in times of crisis, Janša also raised pensions for some, and carried out strong propaganda in the media landscape he now dominates. However, this strategy came a little too late, while a large mass of people had already turned against him. There was a clear bipolarity between Janša (autocracy) and anti-Janša (democracy) positions.

The situation in France is different because it was the right-wing neoliberal in power there, and who also behaved autocratically towards the youth, the working class, the middle class, migrants. Macron’s rule saw huge strikes, protests, gilets jaunes, challenging him throughout the electoral cycle. Moreover, there were also two different conceptions of France that challenged his rule, and voters were given an electoral choice: Melenchon’s platform with openly leftist program, which is social and working in the direction of a new republic that would finally be more open also to migrant workers (this convinced about 22% of the people) and Le Pen’s far-right program, which combines social and neoliberal policies with openly anti-immigrant nationalist and pro-Putin views (this received 23%). Le Pen’s party also has a very strong network in local (semi)rural areas. In Slovenia, however, the left bloc (the Left party and the Social Democrats got barely 11% of the total vote) completely capitulated in the electoral campaign, as it could not bring leftist topics into the campaign. This can be attributed both to their own weakness in the campaign, and the very narrowed-down choice in the election framing as a historic decision on (anti)democracy.

Q: Comment briefly on the election results. What can be expected from the relative winner of the Freedom movement, Robert Golob? He likes to point out that they are a movement, not a party, so party discipline will not be so important, but expertise for various positions in government.

A: The Freedom party is a liberal-pragmatic technocratic formation, which has a lot in common with the ideology and know-how of the former Liberal Democracy of Janez Drnovšek. Remember LDS conducted a transitional process, stayed in power from 1992-2004, and despite the “death” of the LDS, Slovenian political space is continuously presented with an identical recipe every time. In the light of Janša’s threat, and due to the weakness of the left, there was always a new face with a new party (Janković, Cerar, Šarec) that would occupy the centre of the electoral landscape. All of these new faces are “successful” managers who present themselves as able to run the country effIciently, to respect the rule of law, and as those who won’t conduct too radical neoliberal reforms. Golob’s Freedom party is certainly not a movement but an interest group, a platform that manages different lobbies/sectors and expresses pragmatism and centrism. There is no elaborate program- the general guidelines are written by the EU and capital. I believe that Golob’s way of conducting politics will certainly not be as autocratic as Janša. I think Golob will respect human rights and protests more. His government will be better in communicating with media and interest groups, will correct some of the horrific mistakes made by Janšists, and will also start executing the transition to a greener economy. I would predict, unfortunately, that a moderate continuation of neoliberalism will be seen with some increased investments in the spheres of technology and ecology. I do not however see this as a course to some miraculous green paradise. I sincerely hope that more social investment will be directed towards education, health system and social housing, which has been traditionally supported by a large part of electorate in Slovenia.    

The team that is now coming to parliament is very inexperienced, which we can see also in the actions of SDS (Janša) cadres already in procedures at all points (they just brought forward 30 new laws that will slow down the normal flow of the parliamentary work). But since Golob has a major mandate and support I believe also that the government will be more efficient. The Freedom party will rule in a coalition together with the SD-Social Democrats and Left party.

Q: Compared to the previous two elections, the number of votes for the Left have almost been halved and in that sense it has achieved an electoral failure. However, there are only 5 parties that have entered the National Assembly. What are the reasons for such a failure of the Left and what room for manoeuvre does it now have?

A: Compared to the last election with 83,000 votes, the Left received about 51,000 votes this time, which, due to the higher turnout at the polls is a defeat, a failure. The left came in by narrowly passing the threshold as the last party, with 4.45%. There are several reasons for the failure: we can certainly interpret this election as a tactical vote (for the majority parties of the centre were aiming to defeat Janša), while also people prefer to vote for the winners. However, the result reflects how badly the party has done in recent years, where they have been left by some activists and even members of the parliament that entered to other parties. In essence, I would say that the Left joined too easily this centre anti-Janša chorus, and to ally itself in coalition with the centre parties was to shoot themselves in the foot; a strategic mistake, if we think of electoral strategy. First of all, this move to a coalition took their room for manoeuvre, as it does not allow them to attack the more neoliberal centre parties and promote some electoral initiatives deemed conflictual (to abolish the added health insurance that benefits big insurance companies, for example). This also had the effect of shifting its program to the centre-left of the field, where they are not speaking of socialism but of co-ownership of companies. The party thus presented a much more “moderate” campaign, and along the way also became alienated from on the ground politics, the initiatives of new trade unions and civil initiatives. Also, at the time of the start of the war in Ukraine, the Left party did not develop any distinctive leftist positions that would oppose the war and was not distinguishable from all the other parties that have been basically escalating the conflict. I am afraid that taking part in a coalition of power without any major reformation of the party will bring only more alienation from its base and from democratic socialist principles.

Q: What lessons should a left-wing party learn from all this? How to work and act under today’s conditions, inside and outside of parliament?

A: The most important lesson would be to be determined to read social change, thus to not only be reactive and conservative to protect what we have won from times of socialism, but to formulate an environmental and socialist program, with policies that can lead to transformation.  Despite being in the government or in the parliament, the left party should always work with people, with referendums, and set up their own media (not only the social media bubble!), and it should go outside the centre and to smaller cities, where it can work especially on environmental projects.

Q: What do you predict will continue to happen on the Slovenian party and general political scene? Will the government be formed quickly and what can be expected from it?

A: The coalition talks have concluded in mid-May 2022, and Golob has been elected now as a new prime minister. Despite Janša and his party are doing everything to stall the process of the new government formation, it is clear that the Left party will get three ministries: the ministry for labor and social affairs, the ministry of culture and the ministry for intergenerational solidarity (led by the coordinator of the Party, Luka Mesec). If prime minister and coalition will agree to support the agreed coalition agreement,  these ministries, especially the labor and intergenerational one could be able to make serious steps in increasing the minimum wage and basic pension that will be equated with the level of minimal wage; they will improve the state of affairs in the cultural and media field that has been under serious dismantling and clerical influence; they will be able to fight against long-term precarious work, improve the care work in elderly homes and probably what is now the major project: building of new social housing, 20 thousand new units in 10 years. So far all the media analysts have observed that the new coalition agreement has been very influenced by left ideas (and Left party), but still the coalition agreement is just a paper that sounds good for start. These plans will be faced with a lot of hindrances, whether external (the war in Ukraine, EU pressures, debt, stagflation) or internal (coalition negotiations, scandals, internal party politics, new elections), which should not be underestimated in such a highly volatile time. Apart from grand plans, left politics should focus on a long-term strategy     . In my view it is now time for internal inspection, critical evaluation and change of course that will bring the party to its democratic socialist roots and to work on the field with activists.

Gal Kirn is a Marxist philosopher and an Assistant Professor of Sociology of Culture at the University of Ljubljana. He is the author of Partisan Counter Archive (De Gruyter, 2020) and Partisan Ruptures (Pluto Press, 2019).