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Slovenia’s New Hope

The man who could be the next prime minister has had a meteoric rise, but he has said little about the country’s most fundamental problems.

by Martin Ehl 15 July 2014

Miro Cerar
A mere six weeks ago, Miro Cerar, a Slovenian lawyer and professor, founded his political party. This past weekend, on 13 July, he won early parliamentary elections, probably setting a new record for fastest political ascent – at least among post-communist democracies in Central and Eastern Europe. With his entry into the history books, he follows his father, though the elder Cerar's fame was spawned not by political success but by two Olympic golden medals, won 50 years ago in gymnastics.

 

The Party of Miro Cerar took nearly 35 percent of the vote, earning 36 of 90 seats in parliament. Second place went to the right-wing Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), with 21 seats, followed by DeSUS, a pensioners party with 10 seats. Four other mainly left or center-left parties made it over the 4 percent threshold.

 

Miro Cerar has so far played the public role of a moderate constitutional lawyer who has avoided the siren calls from mainly center-left parties to enter politics. Now, like the new Slovak president, Andrej Kiska, Cerar has leaped into the top political echelons, and as a possible prime minister will form a new government.

 

It will not be easy – a country formerly considered a textbook example of successful post-communist reforms now struggles with the legacy of of state capitalism, a lack of foreign investment, and indebted banks. Privatization, which an EU rescue plan forced the former government of Alenka Bratusek to commit to, might be slowed down, depending on the new coalition's orientation.

 

Part of the problem could be that Cerar's party is filled with old liberal democrats, once in a party where Cerar's late mother Zdenka was the longtime deputy head. These politicians were the fathers of the economic policy that led to the outsized role of the state in the economy and to the brink of a bailout.

 

Cerar was surprisingly silent during the campaign on issues such as solving the debt question and continuing privatization, a process to which Slovenians have shown a traditional aversion – as a small nation fearing the economic onslaught of mighty neighbors. But the general expectation is that he will oppose the privatization of big state entreprises such as Telekom Slovenija or Airport Ljubljana. Still, Cerar would need to negotiate with the EU, which imposed (or inspired, depending on one's point of view) the tough measures of Bratusek's cabinet.

 

It is hard to say that Cerar's victory is simply a continuation of the populist wave that washed through the post-communist EU members during the last elections, when parties such as ANO in the Czech Republic or the New Right Center in Poland gained at the expense of so-called traditional parties from the left or right.

 

Similarly, in Slovenia, traditional parties took a beating, with the exception of the SDS. Only three weeks before the election, the party's boss, former Prime Minister Janez Jansa, began a two-year prison sentence for corruption connected with military public procurement, yet SDS remained the second most powerful party in parliament.

 

Cerar has inspired new hope in the country's political leadership and might end up resembling Slovakia's Kiska, who took his job only four weeks ago. Kiska, a political novice, used the general disillusionment of Slovaks with politics to form a kind of alternative to the strong, populist left now firmly in power and the totally broken right.

 

But it's too early to say whether Cerar will offer a new political style and content as promising as Kiska's. The Slovak leader has impressed with his first steps to repair the broken ties between the political elite and nongovernmental groups as well as his efforts to improve the tragically bad image and performance of the Slovak justice system.

 

In Slovenia, the connection between voters and politicians is generally broken after the collapse of the country's state-dominated economy model. Clear-cut populists – represented most prominently by Zoran Jankovic, the founder and head of the Positive Slovenia party – have not succeeded. His party, once the main part of a coalition government, did not even get into parliament, and Jankovic is battling in court with his own corruption case.

 

The future government in Slovenia will probably be formed by Cerar's party with the support of the pensioners and maybe the Social Democrats. That would mean the end of a period of right-wing and populist governments and a return to the center-left politics that has dominated Slovenia since its independence in 1991. But so far nobody has offered any cure for the country‘s economic illness.

 

The question is whether Cerar could offer new ideas and policies for getting the country back on track as a transition role model. A pure refusal of EU-inspired policies (which is what his coalition with the left would mean) could lead to a new bailout debate and damage Slovenia again.

Martin Ehl
 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily 
Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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