Slovenian Elections: A Win for Democracy, a Loss for Populism in Europe
Political newcomer Robert Golob’s victory in Slovenia’s April 24th general election may be both a step forward for its own democracy as well as a setback for populist strongmen in Europe. The triumph of Golob and his Freedom Movement, just formed in January, is a reversal for neighboring Hungary’s rightwing populist leader, Viktor Orbán, who just won his fourth term in office but can no longer count Slovenia amongst his ideological allies. Brussels will be relieved in view of Slovenia’s turbulent EU rotating presidency last year and as the Commission clashes with Hungary over the rule of law. Slovenia’s outgoing Prime Minister Janez Janša has been criticised for undermining a range of rights, including press freedoms. He has also been accused of corruption. In a strange twist, Janša’s leadership has eroded the democracy he had worked to build during the Slovene Spring. In his youth, Janša was a leftist before traversing the political spectrum; what started as anti-communism in his rejection of the Yugoslav regime veered into rightwing populism. After significant declines in media integrity and civil liberties, Slovenia was named a backsliding democracy in the Global State of Democracy’s 2021 report. Golob, who envisages the creation of a modern welfare state based on a green transition, inclusive society, and the rule of law, had framed the election as a “referendum on democracy.” In 2020, civil liberties for the first time sunk below East-Central European averages, with indicators on freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of movement and social group equality each downgraded to mid-range performance. Weakened checks on Janša’s regime have served to hasten backsliding. Judicial independence fell in tandem with government delays in appointing prosecutors and complying with judicial rulings; media integrity has been tested by Janša’s “war with the media.” In spite of its small population, Slovenia has played an outsized and influential role in its neighborhood, and advocated for EU enlargement to include the Western Balkans during its 2021 EU presidency. Signs of hope The election also stood out for a number of historic breakthroughs. Of the 90 seats up for grabs in the National Assembly, the Freedom Movement won 41 of them, higher than any single party in the history of Slovenian parliamentary democracy. In addition, electoral participation shot up, lending the result legitimacy and signaling representative and broad-based support. Slovenian electoral participation, which was high in the early years of democracy, has largely remained below the global average since 2012. The recent elections reverse this long-standing trend. Last month, 70 percent of 1.7 million eligible voters went to the polls, compared to 52 percent in the 2018 parliamentary elections. Golob was able to tap into growing public discontent manifest in anti-government protests which he successfully galvanized into the ballot box. Further, civil society organizations played a critical role through promoting voter participation, providing resources and practical information on how to vote, and even organizing free transport to polling stations. Finally, the Freedom Movement was able to offer a new party appeal, creating a bandwagon effect that drew votes from other established parties. New parties can improve responsiveness of government and can often innovate to capture emerging social issues and reflect public sentiment. With a clear mandate for his agenda, Golob is unlikely to encounter problems with the types of inertia that brought down the last governing center-left coalition at the beginning of 2020. The new administration will need to focus on restoring waning fundamental rights and impartial administration and shoring up media integrity. The experience of Slovenia can provide important lessons for recovering from backsliding and will be a country to watch carefully as the new parliament convenes its first session.
Building Global Support for Ukraine: Borders and Migration
The previous post in this series examined how overseas development assistance (ODA) to domestic refugee resettlement effectively displaced the cost onto those countries least equipped to bear it, and the consequences this has for European and American calls for global unity in supporting Ukraine. As this alone is insufficient to explain the reticence of the Global South to isolate Russia, understanding the conflict requires a deeper dive into where European policy has used development aid for less than democratic ends. Putting aside far-right figures who object to any and all state funds leaving national borders, development aid has been criticized by actors on both the left and the right as an anti-democratic and neo-colonial institution that undermines national sovereignty and fosters economic dependency. These critiques usually focus on the broad spectrum of development aid, and although separating out what is and is not “democracy and governance” aid and measuring its efficacy is methodologically tricky, metanalyses show that it does, in fact, contribute to democratization and to a lesser degree, protects against democratic backsliding. A key part of the efficacy of ODA targeted to strengthening good governance and protecting democracy is not just the impact of the programs, NGOs, and technical support programs funded, but the leverage that donor states and institutions are able to use to extract concessions in return for providing ODA. In other words, coercion is effective, which raises the obvious problem of when coercion is used for less than democratic ends. Since 2015, a key priority of EU donor governments has been to link development aid to recipient states’ willingness to accept rejected asylum seekers and prevent population flows towards the EU. Given the reordering of European domestic political coalitions that followed the 2015 migration crisis, it is not surprising to see the following new domestic political priorities reflected in foreign policy. That said, the responses seem to prioritize short-term political fortunes over long-term planning. It is difficult to envision how pushing for increasingly militarized and policed borders around the world serves to promote democratic values or even regime stability, and development experts also find that developing ODA programs to prevent migration is at odds with core development goals like reducing poverty. European successes in limiting migration flows have thus far required cooperation with authoritarians and turning a blind eye to their human rights abuses. Under the auspices of the €5 billion Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which began with the otherwise laudable goal of identifying and addressing the root causes of migration, hundreds of projects have effectively enforced “an externalized border policy of the European Union”, pressured cash-starved African governments to harden their borders for no domestic benefit, and in some cases, damaged local economic networks to the extent that net irregular migration increased. These policies engender hostility in the Global South and undermine the call for the solidarity of democracies against growing autocratization. As both China and Russia are adept at playing past communist ties and anti-western rhetoric to their advantage in Africa, there is no easy shortcut to building democratic support for European policy goals on the continent – development aid should prioritize expanding and protecting democracy, even if it means delaying the achievement of other policy goals. More broadly, European policymakers should be conscious of history, and recognize that behaviour that rouses memories of colonialism can only undermine their ability to achieve their policy goals on the continent. This blog is the second in a three-part series.
Building Global Support for Ukraine: the Question of Development Aid
The arrival of more than five million Ukrainian refugees in the European Union over the last several months marks by far the largest dislocation of people in Europe since World War II. Despite being over three times the size of the 2015 European migrant crisis, the influx of refugees has yet to provoke a political crisis. There are multiple persuasive arguments for why this is the case, but this piece will focus on just one: the increasingly common practice among European Union member states of shifting the financial burden of hosting asylum seekers and refugees onto less-developed foreign countries. While this practice might help shore up short term support for Ukraine on the continent, it also plays a part in undermining that support further afield. Europe has been increasingly comfortable literally shifting asylum seekers to countries outside the bloc in recent years – first in 2015 via an EU agreement with Turkey, then one with Libya for those caught at sea (under conditions Amnesty International calls “hellish”), and most recently in the British plan to send asylum seekers all the way to Rwanda. A lesser known practice, used in 2015 and revived today, has been for countries to redirect their existing humanitarian and overseas development assistance (ODA) budgets towards domestic refugee resettlement and processing – in many cases doing so by cutting already promised programs and funding. Development experts have pointed out the immediate material consequences in terms of greater hunger and poverty and decreases in public health because of the cuts. While internationally accepted guidelines do allow donors to categorize support for domestic refugees as ODA under certain conditions, this is simply an accounting guideline. Those on the receiving end of the cuts are also disproportionately affected by the global spike in food and energy prices that have been a fallout of Russia’s invasion and whose fight against the still-ongoing coronavirus pandemic is hampered by the continued resistance by rich countries to waive intellectual property rights for life-saving vaccines and treatments. These cuts will be felt most acutely with regards to already agreed-upon programs and funding, which recipient states will find nearly impossible to finance in today’s volatile macrofinancial climate. In a statement, Oxfam acknowledged that country’s aid budgets are limited, and that “tough choices” need to be made to ensure that funding obligations for both domestically-housed refugees and promised ODA can be met. This is a generous interpretation, as the cuts to development aid are not taking place in a financial vacuum. Germany recently announced a €100 billion increase in defense spending for 2022, and many other European countries quickly followed suit without expressing any corresponding financial concerns. A coalition of Swedish NGOs pointed out that their government’s projected budget surplus for 2022 is roughly fourteen times the size of its cuts to ODA. Denmark has singled out individual states for its budget cuts, repatriating promised funds to Bangladesh, Syria, Mali, and Burkina Faso, and warning of further cuts on the horizon. Part of the German package entails halving its contribution to the World Food Programme, and Sweden will cut its support for democracy and governance programming worldwide by 43 percent. The cost of rebuilding Ukraine is likely to be massive, the negotiations arduous, and the risks of poor coordination and misallocation high, so European policymakers can perhaps be forgiven for an abundance of caution with current financial outlays. As we have seen, the fallout of the war and its costs spread far beyond Europe, and the failure to handle these in a democratic and equitable manner risks breaking the international isolation that will be key to stopping the Russian war machine. This last cost is not one that European policymakers, not to mention Ukrainians, can afford to pay. This blog is the first in a three-part series.