In the 2022 parliamentary elections, Janez Janša, a right-wing populist leader of the SDS party was defeated by Robert Golob and his Freedom Movement, a new party on the scene. According to both Freedom House and V-Dem reports on the state of democracy in the world, Janša’s defeat lead to democracy bouncing back in Slovenia. But is Golob truly any less populist than Janša, and why has he nonetheless restarted democratic consolidation to Slovenia?
Labelling Janša as a populist and identifying how he contributed to democratic erosion in Slovenia is neither difficult to explain nor easy to dispute. Populist leaders seek to represent the will of the people, and in their opinion, it is the only thing that matters. Minority rights are unimportant compared to the overwhelming will of the majority. The definition of “the people” differs for each individual leader and is also tied to the idea of the others, the opposition, the minorities. Janša’s definition of the people was very clear – he targeted less educated, religious, conservative and mostly rural people. The level of support he received remained relatively constant; ranging between 20 and 25 percent in every parliamentary election since 2014.
Labelling Golob as a populist is perhaps controversial, yet not unfounded. He may not be a populist in the most common interpretation of the concept, yet, at the core, his rhetoric and campaign elicit a faint sense of familiarity. The people are dancing in the streets, was Golob’s mantra throughout his election campaign. Dancing to celebrate freedom, democracy, diversity; all the things Janša’s government repressed and Golob would restore in the upcoming election.
When it comes to public policy, the indecisiveness of the electorate is reflected in his own actions, or lack thereof. Is that not the embodiment of populist ideals? While populism and pluralism are mutually exclusive, Golob played the pluralised electorate to his advantage in uniting it against the common enemy and turning into the singular “people” he would represent. His definition of said “people” was very liberal, including everyone excluded by Janša; the young, fed-up, progressive, liberal, even minority groups, that vehemently opposed Janša’s reign in power.
During Janša’s time in office, the negative influence of populism on liberal democracy was observed. This was most noticeable through his transformation of the media landscape; causing press freedom to decline rapidly, which resulted in a soft media strike, lasting over 430 days so far. Moreover, Janša’s press takeover resulted in lower-quality media outputs, the cancellation of one of the most popular television shows, and in turn lower ratings, less viewers and less advertisers. The final hydra’s head was one of Janša’s supporters in the syndicate passing changes that entitle all the journalists that the opposition will seek to remove with exuberant severance packages, dealing yet another crippling blow to the media if they wish to become more independent again.
On top of that, while the global COVID-19 pandemic posed threats to democracy worldwide (and an argument can be made that it was a necessary evil), Janša used the pandemic as an excuse to silence his political opponents and attempted to amplify his powers, for example by activating a controversial law that would give the military more executive power, but this was rejected in parliament as it did not reach a 2/3 majority. He consistently defended his actions with a public rhetoric, claiming he was acting in the best interest of the people and slamming the opposition.
When Golob was elected, he set out to overturn many policies and decisions of the previous government, including pushing for a more independent media, which he is achieving to an extent, and removing controversial figures from important positions. The government was elected on the premise of promising to bring people back their freedom, making healthcare more accessible and ending police tyranny established by Janša. In his campaign video, he explicitly states that, on election day, the decision is not about which party to vote for, but what kind of society we wish to live in; an open and free community, or an autocracy. As is common with politicians worldwide, I could easily draw parallels between some of his speeches and those of Donald Trump, as he preached of making America great again.
By listening to the vox populi, Golob manages to simultaneously embody key populist concepts, as well as preventing Slovenia from further sliding into an electoral democracy and leading it back towards a liberal one. This goes against what Mudde and Kaltwasser argue in their short introduction to populism, where they state that when transitioning from an electoral to a liberal democracy, populism will have a negative effect.
As is illustrated by Golob’s election and government, this idea does not have room for the notion of the electorate’s wishes directly being tied to democratic deepening. While populism discussed in an ideational way has room for both positive and negative interpretations, I find that mainstream media labels politicians as populist in a negatively connotated way. More attention should be brought to the other side of populism. In Golob’s case, the idea of positive populism can be summarised in these points:
1. Redefining “the people” in an extremely inclusive manner; while Janša’s group is narrowly defined and relatively exclusive, Golob uses this to his advantage and brings together all the outcasts, uniting them against the common enemy
2. By answering to such a large amount of people, the diverse people’s wishes he represents generally advocate for concepts that are seen as “good”; media freedom, accessible healthcare, the rule of law and more
The shortcoming of such a form of populism is a similar issue pluralism faces; all opinions realistically cannot be represented, and in order not to split the electorate he managed to unite against a common enemy, Golob and his party remain thoroughly indecisive in many of their actions.
While Golob’s election campaign stands as an example of the idea of populism being used for promoting democratisation, the post-election reality is, as is common, quite different. Labelling Golob a positive populist without examining his intentions of going into politics can be a bit reductive. I wonder whether the populist and empty rhetoric is a facade for ulterior motives – the Slovenian right, including SDS, implies that Golob is using his position to hide suspicious activity of Gen Energy, the company he previously managed, and intends to privatise it in the future. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen.
Just recently, Golob has announced a change in communication; from making promises to reporting on progress made. Is this a step towards a more actionable government, or a way to avoid public scrutiny and operate less transparently? Ultimately, Golob is yet to fulfill his promises, most notably on healthcare reform, and until action by the government is taken, I struggle to label Golob’s tenure as successful, which is disappointing considering his record-breaking victory in the elections, and disappointing for my argument of the potential of positive populism. Perhaps the democratic rebound in Slovenia Freedom House and V-Dem speak of exists only in ideas, rather than in practice.