The Slovenian Left controls three ministries — is the participation in the new government a chance for radical transformation, or a reformist trap?
As the results of the 2022 Slovenian parliamentary elections began rolling in on 24 April, supporters of the country’s premier left-wing party, Levica (Slovenian for “The Left”), appeared to be staring catastrophe in the face. At first, the initial results indicated that the party would fail to pass the four-percent threshold to enter parliament, despite pre-electoral polling that suggested the party was set to receive as much as 12 percent.
Later in the night, when it became clear that Levica would just barely squeeze past the threshold, ultimately receiving 4.46 percent — half of its result four years prior — there were not many reasons for cheerfulness either. To some, it looked like prime minister Janez Janša, a close ally of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, was the true winner, even if he would not be returning for another term. And yet, now that the dust has settled, the Slovenian Left finds itself in a position of surprising strength, with several key positions in the country’s new coalition government. So what happened?
Observers of Slovenian politics have been watching the vicious cycle between Janša’s government and various “new faces” for years now. It goes something like this: Janša is elected prime minister, the public soon begins to resent him, and liberal parties begin organizing around what is glibly referred to as “antijanšizm”. The opposition’s focus is then channelled towards liberal virtue-signalling, opposing the government’s authoritarian tendencies and moral indecency, and promoting some romantic idea of national-ethical rebirth, while silently continuing to push neoliberal policies, technocratic measures, and anti-immigrant mechanisms.
This particular Slovenian strand of liberalism exhibits a parasitic relationship with the country’s historically strong anti-collaborationist sentiment and still-powerful Yugoslav partisan legacy. Liberal elites wear the red star and organize rallies where they “whitewash” the old Communist slogans. To satisfy popular resentment against the political elites, political entrepreneurs without any meaningful experience to speak of emerge and present themselves as the solution to corruption and a meditator for the divided nation. They get elected, but their government quickly disappoints or falls apart and sooner or later it’s Janša time again.
For some time now, Levica has been the only hope for breaking this vicious cycle, and the only party that campaigns on issues like social security, salaries, workers’ rights, the acute housing crisis, and NATO’s imperialist policies, thereby dragging them into the arena of parliamentary politics.
Large numbers of young people in Slovenia are currently dealing with the fallout of an accelerating post-socialist transition: rents have sky-rocketed and buying a flat is now totally out of reach for the average citizen, while precarious employment is widespread. This marks a stark contrast to the experience of their parents’ generation, who benefited from Slovenia’s gradual transition and denationalization policies, allowing them to accumulate property and steady employment and thus enjoy a middle-class lifestyle.
Given this state of affairs, many on the Left harboured legitimate hopes that voters would give Levica a chance to take its programme one step further. But instead a “new face” won again, this time with 41 parliamentary seats — a new record.
That face’s name this time around is Robert Golob, a successful manager at the state-owned power company, GEN-I. The candidate of the newly founded Freedom Movement, Golob in many ways embodies the image of a contemporary business leader, able to motivate his employees to work harder and longer with inspiring but empty rhetoric. The party garners support from a wide variety of social groups without a common class background, held together by a vague idea of change, rebirth, and especially antijanšizm.
The new government the Freedom Movement leads also includes Slovenia’s Social Democrats and, somewhat surprisingly, Levica. There are likely two reasons why Levica was included, one being ideological and the other Machiavellian.
Robert Golob’s company promotes the use of green technologies and he himself comes from a coastal region where antifascist and left-wing sentiment remain strong as a result of its historical experience with Italian occupation. Moreover, Golob’s approach towards business is notably collectivist — he encourages workers to participate in management processes in a way that is sympathetic to left-wing notions of collective management.
Pragmatically speaking, the Social Democrats are very rooted in the state and local institutions. They command a powerful network and are mainly known for their hunger for power, not so much their politics as such. Having Levica in the government alongside them offers Golob more chances to control their influence over the coalition.
Levica was granted three key ministries, among them the newly conceived “Ministry of Solidary Future”, along with the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Family Affairs — both key flashpoints in Slovenia’s ongoing culture wars. Detractors have mocked the new ministry for sounding like typical neoliberal phraseology. Online, memes have circulated comparing it to government ministries in classic fantasy novels or Harry Potter. But questionable name aside, this institution will be specifically tasked with building the foundation for market socialism in terms of establishing the legal framework for employee ownership of companies and implementing a new form of what is known in the region as “self-management”, drawing on the experience of worker self-management in socialist Yugoslavia.
Although the concept remains firmly within a capitalist framework, self-management is more democratic than its twentieth-century predecessor in some regards. For example, the main employer in socialist Yugoslavia was still the state, which was, of course, also the manager in the last instance. Calling the former country “socialist” and the new idea (which is closely associated with Levica) non-socialist is a matter of perspective — the fact remains that companies in Yugoslavia still competed on the world market and workers did not have the autonomy to decide over the product of their work. Either way, any kind of self-management is closely linked to the Yugoslav past, and the Slovenian people are probably more eager to embrace it than in the rest of Europe as a result.
Another key concern will be the construction of thousands of units of social housing, for which there is a dire need in Slovenia. The ministry will be led by Luka Mesec, Levica’s national coordinator and most well-known figure, who is himself an intellectual familiar with theories of self-management and close to several progressive think thanks in the country. He will get a chance to establish something new and hopefully set an example for the rest of EU countries.
This arrangement is, of course, more than Levica could expect, given its low election results and the continued dominance of neoliberal ideas. On the other hand, it has raised the ire of some of the party’s orthodox Marxist and Communist supporters, who reject striking compromises with what they consider to be a capitalist government.
What Slovenia is witnessing is quite possibly a moment of historical transformation that may very well soon happen in other developed capitalist economies, as well. Robert Golob belongs to a new generation of capitalist managers who understand that capitalism cannot continue on in the old way if it is to survive, confronted as it is with finite natural resources, climate change, the rise of China, and the threat of popular unrest caused by shortages and precarization. At appears that a large part of his government’s programme, especially its economic and social policies, were taken from Levica, meaning the party will play an important and unprecedented role in Slovenia’s transformation.
Another, complementary and more contingent reason may be that the space on the centre-left and liberal spectrum was so emptied by the aforementioned polarization and the rise of the Right that it, along with Golob’s ideological beliefs, granted more space for Levica to operate. Nevertheless, the question of why the party received less votes than expected remains. The main reason continues to be the defection of some supporters to Golob’s Freedom Movement Party, which in turn was the result of tactical voting against Janša. But there are also other factors at play.
Levica exhibits a number of internal contradictions, with some of its members leaning more towards social-democratic and reformist orientations, while others gravitate towards a traditional communist outlook. Some of the latter expressed harsh judgements of Slovenians who were sceptical about universal or compulsory vaccination, which may have turned some voters away. Slovenians were very critical about the government’s narrative on the pandemic and there were many instances of popular rebellion and protest.
Levica also refused to support weapons shipments to Ukraine and defended the need for a peaceful resolution to the war. This may have also cost the party some votes, despite the fact that Eurostat surveys show Slovenians are the most sceptical nation in the EU when it comes to Western narratives about the Russian invasion of Ukraine (which is in turn probably a legacy of Yugoslavia’s anti-imperialist traditions and the Non-Aligned Movement).
As significant as they are, these problems would be manageable were the party able to speak to non-urban populations — or even urban dwellers outside the capital, for that matter. Levica suffers from a certain “champagne socialist” reputation among the majority of the population, and is often associated with the Ljubljana cultural elite.
For example, Levica’s election-night party, covered on live TV, was held in a bar called Pritličje in central Ljubljana, next door to the office of mayor Zoran Janković, a liberal politician and former manager who has been implicated in corruption scandals for decades. The bar’s owner is known for his moralizing left-liberal activism, but has never commented on the blatant corruption of the mayor, who is himself known for allocating space in Ljubljana’s gentrified downtown to his political allies.
Since its transformation from an electoral alliance to a party in 2017, Levica has struggled to establish its own identity. Mesec, for example, comes from a working-class background, but is mistakenly regarded by some sections of the electorate as belonging to a privileged class of deep-state operators. While he is far from being a radical communist and in fact closer to a kind of left-Keynesian, his use of the word “nationalization” during the campaign scared away some people. Beyond Mesec, the rhetoric of Levica MP Miha Kordiš tends to fetishize traditional Leninist rhetoric, which, of course, poses an obstacle to reaching a mainstream audience.
Another problem is that the party tends to be soft on deep-seated anti-Catholic attitudes in the country, now accompanied by new “woke” political trends. Generally speaking, Levica is much less receptive to this bigotry than most liberals, but often fails to distance itself from it explicitly. As a result, many rural and Catholic sympathizers are unable to identify with the party despite sharing many of its values. It should be noted that there was a strong Christian socialist movement in Slovenia before and during World War II, which was suppressed in collective memory after the fact. Indeed, traditional Slovenian social forms have strong communitarian tendencies, which right-wingers tend to exploit.
Levica’s presence outside of the cultural scene in the capital is close to none. The party has no clear plan for how to approach the populations of small towns and villages, or even suburbs and multicultural working-class areas built during socialism. While Levica has a lot of supporters in downtown Ljubljana, it has a lot of potential (but still sceptical) voters on the basketball courts and in lower-class apartments in the districts of Moste or Fužine, who then turn to the Social Democrats, a party oriented towards the capitalist class.
A lot of the party’s potential is thus squandered due to its lack of clear political and practical direction, which sometimes even stokes confusion among its supporters. Local party committees are involved in communities to an extent, but many people at the local level get the impression that the leadership is not particularly interested in them. In that sense, Levica could use some self-reflection and re-organization — even if the problem of striking a balance between work in parliament and mobilizing in society at large is one that confronts all left-wing parliamentary organizations around the world.
The Slovenian Left is thus in a deeply ambivalent position. On the one hand, Levica finds itself in a much stronger place than expected, despite receiving far less votes. On the other, they are a relatively inexperienced party facing a herculean challenge, tasked with constructing an extremely important ministry and implementing deeply reformist policies from the ground up. As voters’ expectations are high, even minor mistakes will provoke harsh criticism. Without a stronger identity and a grassroots movement capable of building deeper popular trust, Levica remains politically vulnerable and its future thus unclear. The risks are great, but so are the possible rewards.
Originally published on the website of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.