Slovenians hand resounding election victory to liberal Robert Golob

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Robert Golob founded his Freedom party just a year ago and now the former energy executive has swept to power in Slovenia after voters turned away from the populist politics of outgoing prime minister Janez Jansa.

Golob’s upstart centre-left party won about a third of the votes in Sunday’s elections, with Jansa’s Slovenian Democratic party (SDS) taking less than a quarter, a much wider margin that opinion polls had predicted.

A former executive at the state-owned energy company Gen-I, Golob campaigned on the promise of creating a more liberal society and a pledge to end the alleged oppression of Jansa’s regime.

Addressing jubilant supporters on Sunday night, he said the vote showed Slovenians wanted change. “Our objective has been reached: a victory that will enable us to take the country back to freedom,” he said via a livestream from his home where he has been isolating since contracting Covid-19.

Jansa, a three-time premier, had tightened his grip on Slovenia over the past two years as he moved further into the orbit of Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban, who cruised to a fourth successive election victory this month.

His close relationship with Hungary’s strongman leader alienated voters and raised concerns about the “Hungarianisation” of Slovenia — a reference to Jansa’s tendency to ride roughshod over critics and independent media.

Golob’s clear win means he will have a relatively easy time forming a coalition with leftwing parties such as the Social Democrats and a smaller formation called Levica, making the unwieldy coalitions of past Slovenian governments unnecessary.

“We must form a government as soon as possible, which will return freedom and faith in a better future to Slovenia,” the Freedom party said on its website, adding that SD and Levica “will be our main interlocutors and collaborators in the coming days”.

But with voter expectations high, analysts have said Golob faces a tough challenge delivering the changes he has promised.

“He is expected to redraw Jansa’s laws, get rid of some of the [executives he placed in state] media, independent regulatory bodies, and in general turn the table around in a very short time, and there is a question whether voters have the patience or [will] turn away,” said Denis Mancevic, an independent analyst.

After the Liberal Democratic party of Janez Drnovsek collapsed in the wake of an election loss in 2004, other centre-left groupings have won mandates but had their terms cut short as their coalitions fell apart. Since then Liberal and leftwing voters have supported several political factions but found no permanent political home.

Mancevic said Sunday’s election, with a turnout of about 70 per cent, indicated a stronger mandate for a centre-left party than at any time since 2000, but the new government needed to quickly build on its victory. “People were motivated to go to polls,” he added. “But this is a protest vote, a no to Orban’s style of politics.”

In his election manifesto, Golob vowed to “design and pursue a foreign policy that is committed to the fundamental values of the EU”, and promised that Slovenia would be “part of the core EU countries”.

With French president Emmanuel Macron winning re-election on Sunday, Mancevic said Orban-style politics had two fewer potential allies at the European Council that a Le Pen and Jansa victory would have meant.

“These results show that authoritarian tendencies have their limits,” said Danilo Turk, a former Slovenian president and chair of the Madrid Club of former European leaders. “This holds an optimistic conclusion for Europe.”

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