Slovenian President Danilo Turk (L) casts his ballot as his wife Miklic looks at him at a polling station in Ljubljana on December 4, 2011 during early parliament elections. Photo: Jure Makovec/AFP/Getty Images

Election The Early National Elections in Slovenia, 2011

On 4 December, Slovenian citizens went to the polls to elect their representatives in the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia, after the President of the Republic, Danilo Türk, had signed an order dissolving the Assembly on 21 October 2011. The Republic’s first snap elections were called after a vote of no confidence on 20 September had brought down the left-wing government led by Borut Pahor (Social Democrats). Here the author notes that several long-term implications may arise from the election results and post-festum reactions.

Published on on januari 10, 2012

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On 4 December, Slovenian citizens went to the polls to elect their representatives in the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia, after the President of the Republic, Danilo Türk, had signed an order dissolving the Assembly on 21 October 2011. The Republic’s first snap elections were called after a vote of no confidence on 20 September had brought down the left-wing government led by Borut Pahor (Social Democrats). The main reason for this vote, apart from scattered corruption cases throughout the main government parties, was that a lack of coordination, both among the member parties and with opposition parties and other social partners, had rendered the governing coalition unable to advance much needed reforms, and naturally fuelled public resentment.

1. Key Political Parties in the Election: One Dominant Contender, Two Surprisingly Influential Newcomers

The first early elections after the proclamation of independence in 1991 brought some significant changes in the Slovenian party system with the emergence of two influential new players on the scene: Zoran Janković, Positive Slovenia (“Pozitivna Slovenija”, PS) and Gregor Virant, Citizens’ List of Gregor Virant (“Državljanska lista Gregorja Viranta”, DLGV). Both men had political and professional pedigrees — Janković was a successful businessman before entering politics as mayor of the capital Ljubljana, and Virant had been successful as one of the most “technocratic” ministers in Janez Janša’s (Slovenian Democratic Party) right-wing government. Both of them personified their parties (Virant even founded his own party after being successful with his own list of candidates) and entered the political arena as fresh forces that would overcome a party system whose ideological burdens made it impotent to address the true priorities, namely weathering the economic crisis and upholding the rule of law. It is here that other influential political parties had failed, including the members of the outgoing coalition — Social Democrats (“Socialni demokrati”, SD), Zares, Liberal Democracy of Slovenia (“Liberalna demokracija Slovenije”, LDS), and the Democratic Party of Pensioners of Slovenia (“Demokratična stranka upokojencev Slovenije”, DeSUS) — although Zares and DeSUS waived their support to that government prior to its fall . Nor did the main opposition party, the Slovenian Democratic Party (“Slovenska demokratska stranka”, SDS), inspire hope. Other less influential parties in the election included the Slovenian People’s Party (“Slovenska ljudska stranka”, SLS), New Slovenia (“Nova Slovenija”, NSi), the Slovenian National Party (“Slovenska nacionalna stranka”, SNS), and the Party for the Sustainable Development of Slovenia (“Stranka za trajnostni razvoj Slovenije”, TRS).

A number of key leaders personify their political parties: besides Janković (PS) and to some extent Virant (DLGV), such leadership figures include the 2004-2008 prime minister Janša (SDS), the earlier prime minister Drnovšek’s protégé Gregor Golobič (Zares), and Zmago Jelinčič (SNS), an autocratic leader with a band of loyal “quasi-nationalist” domestiques. There are several party leaders grasping for similar leadership who still face some opposition within their party ranks: these include primarily Karel Erjavec (DeSUS), who has publicly chastised party “dilettantes” on several occasions; the up-and-coming Radovan Žerjav (SLS); and the outgoing prime minister Borut Pahor (SD), who faces perennial opposition from party cliques close to the former president Kučan. Leaders of other parties — Katarina Kresal (LDS), Ljudmila Novak (NSi) and Matjaž Hanžek (TRS) — reflect a more consensual style of leadership, although the mass media’s focus on party front-runners often makes them too appear as solo acts.

It is hard to talk about the parties’ traditional bases of support due to the highly volatile electorate. Nevertheless, we can identify several attributes of voters who traditionally support each of the parties or blocks of parties. The most useful distinction is between the “Spring”[1] and the “non-Spring” parties (the latter consisting mainly of reformed communists and socialist youth). The Spring parties (SDS, SLS, NSi) occupy a center-right position and compete for voters with more traditional values, mostly with Catholic backgrounds (60 to 70 percent of the population according to the 2002 census), ethnic Slovenian ancestry, and often a clear anticommunist stance. To be precise, SDS has more wide-ranging support, from small business owners to straightforward conservatives, while SLS relies on rural and suburban Slovenians, and NSi on a numerous Catholic population. The non-Spring parties meanwhile may be considered as the descendants of the former communist elite or socialist youth, yet compete for voters with more libertarian attitudes, advocating pro-life policies and the separation of church and state, opposing religious education in schools, etc. Traditionally, SD, LDS, and Zares would be considered the main contestants, but Janković’s PS clearly addressed this side of the electorate as well as, as did TRS with its sustainability agenda. Virant (DLGV) opted for a more center-focused approach, addressing both moderate right-wingers and better-off traditional supporters of the left-wing parties. DeSUS built on the support of numerous pensioners, though leaning more to the left, while SNS rested on the support of less educated, alienated voters with more or less extreme attitudes.

2. The Economy and Corruption — Manifest and Latent Campaign Strategies

As a result of the somewhat extraordinary circumstances of the country’s first early elections since independence and the current economic crisis combined with the former government’s inability to implement substantial reforms, the start of the electoral campaign seemed promising and issue-oriented. In spite of some mudslinging, the political parties generally attempted to present their more or less coherent agendas for getting Slovenia out of its current state of affairs. Some of the major actors elaborated their visions in extensive manifestos that thoroughly explained their proposed courses of action, while others put forward their standpoints in an ad-hoc fashion, responding to the inquiries of the mass media and the course of events in the election campaign. By and large, the center-right parties (SDS, DLGV, SLS, NSi) prepared much more elaborate platforms than their left-wing counterparts (SD, LDS, Zares, PS). Despite significant differences in their presentation of key standpoints, which were in accordance with the contestants’ general ideological positions, just about every political figure focused on the economic crisis, often in close connection with the crisis of the euro, and consequently on the causes of the crisis and, more importantly, the causes of the state’s inability to escape it: an ineffective judiciary, a state-controlled economy, and privatization. Nevertheless, as the campaign neared its end, the “usual” electoral tricks made their appearance. As in almost every national election campaign to date, corruption scandals stole the limelight from programmatic solutions. According to the polls, the two top contestants at the time, Janša and Janković, seemed to be the key targets, with Virant, Kresal and Golobič also entangled in misdoings. Overall, an election campaign that had started on a promising note ended up as just another negative campaign, which is what the Slovenian public is accustomed to.

3. Elections as Show Business: The Americanization and Personalization of Politics; Misleading Opinion Polls

The coverage of the elections in the national mass media was in keeping with the usual pattern of Slovenian election coverage. Some media tried to set the agenda, particularly the two nationwide TV networks, RTV Slovenia and the private-sector network POP TV, while most others just reported on the events that the parties organized as part of their campaign strategies. Daily newspapers and TV news crews thus covered a great deal of daily action during the official 30-day electoral campaign, from press conferences and manifesto launches to comments on the corruption scandals in the later stages of the campaign. Nevertheless, the televised debates — arguably the most important item of media election coverage — provided the most material for spectators to chew on. The TV debates followed the same trajectory as the campaign in general, starting with manifestos and ending with corruption scandals. However, an important deviation happened at their outset. Under electoral law, parties represented in parliament enjoy the advantage in the mandatory free campaign coverage in the publicly owned media (RTV). But with the entrance of two important newcomers (PS, DLGV), the public television network deviated from normal practice and introduced a new format that allotted much more coverage to the two newcomers and to NSi, a party with no seats in the Slovenian parliament but with one MEP. This caused some protests of discrimination against the other non-parliamentary parties, and also placed some minor parliamentary parties (SNS, LDS, Zares) in a less favorable position. The private TV network POP TV — the main nationwide rival of public television — handily organized the debates to maximize their audience: like public television, POP TV set the four TV debates in a pattern that promoted the personalization and Americanization of the campaign (see Mancini 1999), devoting much less attention to content and much more to selling a package. In one show, for example, the wives of the four main rivals, Janša, Pahor, Janković and Virant, were introduced and answered questions.

Another profoundly interesting aspect of the elections were the public opinion polls. From the start, they named Janez Janša’s SDS as the clear favorite in the race, and at certain points measured its support at close to 50 percent. Since the winning party usually achieves about 30 percent of votes, such a result would have enabled SDS to form a constitutional majority (two thirds of seats) with its fellow right-wing parties NSi and SLS. Some partisan public opinion surveys were also conducted which clearly favored SDS, despite some shifting support in the last days of the campaign. Overall, while the public opinion measurements did not identify the winners and losers of the elections correctly, they did identify support for the smaller parliamentary parties and those that did not pass the four-percent threshold. Opinion polls with such ambivalent accuracy had been seen in previous national elections. However, the only polling agency which conducted a “parallel election” among a sample of 14,000 individuals hit the actual results spot-on.

4. Higher Turnout, Virtually no Incidents

The first early national elections were marked by higher voter turnout (65.6 percent of the 1,709,692 eligible voters) than two previous elections (60.6 percent in 2004 and 63.1 percent in 2008). The 2011 elections also continued a trend previously detected: the electoral units[2] with the highest turnout are those located in the Ljubljana basin, closest to the national capital, while the units with the lowest turnout are those in the less developed east, surrounding the troubled industrial city of Maribor, Slovenia’s second largest city, and the easternmost regions with their fragile and underdeveloped economies and high unemployment. The difference in turnout between the most and least active electoral units was exactly 12 percentage points.[3]

Barring some violations of electoral silence, modern democratic Slovenia has no record of serious electoral infractions. Nevertheless, one embarrassing incident happened during the 2011 elections in the municipality of Tržič. One hundred ballots were misplaced, which caused a serious commotion and the closure of the town’s polling station for one hour. Apparently the ballots were later recovered, but the ensuing nationwide delay in the announcement of election results was the first in the country’s democratic history.

5. Unexpected Winners, Cynical Losers

Against all expectations, Zoran Janković and his Positive Slovenia won the elections. The party, composed of breakaway center-left deputies, several mayors, former athletes, journalists, other well-known individuals, and Janković’s  administrative team from the Ljubljana city hall, had been formed just two months before the election. The result shocked Janez Janša and his SDS, who had been set to mark their victory in grand style with a luxurious party after the public announcement of results. The defeat proved so bitter to the SDS that news teams had to wait about an hour and a half for Janša’s scheduled statement. Furthermore, he publicly refused to congratulate Janković and shake his hand at Cankar Hall, the traditional post-election venue where the parties reflect on results and thank voters for their support. But Janša’s most cynical act was his long-awaited speech after the announcement of the electoral results, in which he expressed the expectation that another election would be called for before the new parliament could serve out its term. Events so far seem to bear him out, as Zoran Janković has not been able to form a government due to the maneuvering of the smaller parties, DLGV, DeSUS and SLS, which demonstrate a potential for coalition with both left-wing (PS, SD?) and right-wing parties (SDS, NSi?).

Table 1: Official Results of the 2011 Elections of Deputies to the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia
List of Candidates Number of seats Number of votes Percentage
Zoran Janković’s List — Positive Slovenia 28 314,273 28.51%
Slovenian Democratic Party 26 288,719 26.19%
Social Democrats 10 115,952 10.52%
Citizens’ List of Gregor Virant 8 92,282 8.37%
Democratic Party of Slovenian Pensioners 6 76,853 6.97%
SLS of Radovan Žerjav — Slovenian People’s Party 6 75,311 6.83%
New Slovenia — Christian People’s Party 4 53,758 4.88%
Slovenian National Party   19,786 1.80%
Liberal Democracy of Slovenia   16,268 1.48%
Party for the Sustainable Development of Slovenia   13,477 1.22%
Others   34,488 2.57%
Total* 88 1,101,167 100%
* The National Assembly has a total of 90 deputies, including two representatives of the Hungarian and Italian minorities.
Source: National Electoral Commission (2011)

Several long-term implications may arise from the election results and post-festum reactions. First, the balance of power on the left side of the ideological continuum has been completely reorganized, since the formerly dominant LDS has dropped out of the parliament, along with Zares, and given way to Janković’s new dominance, shared with the significantly weakened SD. Second, although ostensibly from the center,[4] Virant has proved to be a new force challenging the dominance of Janša’s SDS on the right wing. Third, despite introducing two significant new political actors into the field, the new National Assembly leaves the balance of power between the poles virtually unchanged, and keeps up the usual shenanigans that form part of Slovenia’s political folklore. However, probably the most profound result of the elections is the rise of nationalism that was triggered by an anonymous author on the SDS’s official website. The writer accused Janković of coercing the immigrant population to vote for him by allegedly spreading the belief that a right-wing victory would cost them their citizenship (Siol, 2011). Janković, the son of a Serb father and a Slovenian mother who has lived in Slovenia from early childhood, gained significant support from the immigrant population, which the anonymous author called “voters in sweat suits”. The publication of this “analysis” divided the population and spurred some protests, but nevertheless highlighted the xenophobic and ethnic nationalist tendencies smoldering in parts of Slovenian society, including the political elite (see Deželan, 2011). In a word, the elections that were supposed to close the chapter of stalemate and failed political management during the economic crisis have opened a new chapter in the country’s shameful history of ethnic nationalism.


Deželan, T. (2011): Citizenship in Slovenia: The Regime of a Nationalising or a Europeanising State? (CITSEE working paper series, 2011, 16.) Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh School of Law., accessed 12 December 2011.

Mancini, P. (1999), “New Frontiers in Political Professionalism”, Political Communication, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 231–45.

National Electoral Commission (2011): Official Results of the 2011 Elections of Deputies to the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia., accessed 20 December 2011.


  1. So called after the “Slovenian Spring”, the state-building process of the late 1980s, marked by political pluralism.
  2. Slovenia is composed of 8 electoral units, each with 11 electoral districts. Each electoral unit provides 11 deputies. Together with two deputies representing the Italian and Hungarian minorities, these make up the 90-member chamber.
  3. The turnout ranged from 71.8 in the Central Ljubljana electoral unit to 59.8 percent in Ptuj.
  4. Virant clearly holds programmatic convictions of the economic right and attracts support from the conservative part of the electorate.
  • by Tomaž Deželan

    Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana; researcher at the Centre for Political Science Research at the same faculty.

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