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SDS aiming for starring role in election with tough stance on migration

Ljubljana, 13 April - The opposition Democrats (SDS) are poised to become one of the strongest parties come voting day. Their bet is that voters will support an anti-migration and nativist agenda, combined with a neoliberal economic policy, a social policy that emphasises traditional family values, and the promise of fixing healthcare, transport and pensions.

Ljubljana
Janez Janša, the long-serving leader of the opposition Democrats (SDS).
Photo: Daniel Novakovič/STA
File photo

Despite tracing their roots to the Social Democratic Union and Social Democratic Party of Slovenia, which were created in early 1989 as some of the first democratic forces to oppose Communist single-party rule, the present-day SDS currently sit firmly on the right in the Slovenian political arena.

The SDS have become the nearest Slovenian equivalent to Fidesz, the party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, with strong echoes of policies that won Donald Trump the election in the US.

Janša, the longest serving party president in Slovenia with a tenure now spanning over a quarter century, is synonymous with the SDS and the party is steeped in events that directly affected him personally.

Two events stand out as formative: Janša's arrest by the Communist authorities in the late 1980s on charges that he leaked a military secret, and the Patria scandal; Janša served a third of an 18-month prison sentence in 1989 handed down by a military tribunal, and 176 days in prison in 2014, which he started to serve just before the early election.

The 1980s arrest known as the JBZT affair enshrined the party's firm anti-Communist sentiment and launched Janša's political career; the Patria scandal reinforced the belief among the rank-and-file that Janša and the SDS are being treated unequally by the mainstream media as well as the judiciary.

One of the results of the Patria scandal is that it affirmed the narrative that conservatives are "second-rate citizens" in a country where huge segments of society, including the judiciary, are still controlled by post-Communist elites, and that Janša had been faulted by being sent to prison just three weeks before the election in 2014.

Seeing themselves as underdogs besieged by forces with ulterior motives around Milan Kučan, the former president, the transition to an anti-migration agenda was thus almost seamless for the party when the refugee crisis broke out. Since then the party has repeatedly driven home the point that Slovenia is spending more on immigrants than on Slovenian families and Slovenian children.

This stance has echoes of Donald Trump's policy on immigration: the party brandished the Slovenia First slogan at an event in February that urged "positive patriotism", cautioned against multiculturalism and laid out a platform for making Slovenia a safe homeland with orderly public and state affairs, lower taxes, free entrepreneurship, and high pensions.

Alem Maksuti, a political analyst with the Institute of Political Management, believes that refugees are "a topic on which any 'rightist' party can build its agenda," especially after 2015, when Slovenia experienced the refugee wave first-hand. He thinks the SDS will revive this topic to mobilise voters.

"Overall, I believe the result of this year's election will depend more on the ability [of parties] to mobilise convinced voters than on convincing voters. When it comes to refugees, the SDS will not have problems, the majority of the people in Slovenia are not inclined to migrations and integration of migrants. Presidential candidate Borut Pahor had already clearly taken that into account in his campaign," he told the STA.

Matevž Tomšič, a political analyst and professor at the School of Advances Social Studies, agrees that the majority of Slovenians are disinclined towards significant migrations, in particular from Muslim countries, but he thinks it is questionable how prominently the topic will feature in the election.

"In terms of maximising their result, it would be appropriate for the SDS to shift towards the political centre with their programme and political proposals," he said.

The SDS is unique among Slovenian parties in that it enjoys fairly stable support among their core voters, with a strong local network built over two and a half decades and the distinction of being the only party to lead a coalition government (2004-2008) which started and ended its term in without adding or losing parties.

In this sense, Maksuti does not see any party biting away at the its base of support. "Their election result will depend exclusively on mobilizing members and supporters," he said.

The SDS have long been the dominant party on the right and are likely to retain the position, although these elections are somewhat specific: a multitude of new parties have emerged on the right, modelling the successful creation of parties on the left in the past, creating the risk that the votes may fragment.

Tomšič said there is always the danger of parties with overlapping programme cannibalizing each other, which can be a net negative for individual parties and a political bloc as a whole.

"The solution can be pre-election alliances of like-minded parties. But in order for the right bloc to win, a proper degree of political and ideological diversification is needed," he said.

Another danger is that the party appears to have burnt at least some bridges with its radical rhetoric, which could make it more difficult to potentially act as coalition partner even if, as the latest polls suggest, it will be among the strongest parties when the votes are tallied.

Prime Minister Miro Cerar, for example, has explicitly said his Modern Centre Party (SMC) would not enter coalitions with the SDS because it is too radical.

Overall, both Tomšič and Maksuti expect the campaign in general to be harsh across the board.

"Considering the high degree of ideological polarisation and great personal resentment among certain political protagonists, low blows are likely," Tomšič said.

According to Maksuti, the campaign will be dirty because the denigration of political opponents represents an important element of polarisation. "Since there is no alternative in the programming sense - except perhaps the Left - the parties and candidates will have to differentiate somehow, which is where personal resentment and being nasty to your competitors comes into play."

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© STA, 2018