LJUBLJANA, Slovenia — Only a few months ago, Robert Golob was virtually unknown in politics, didn’t belong to any party, but had a clear goal: to remove Slovenian right-wing populist Prime Minister Janez Jansa from power and stop a democratic backslide in the tiny Alpine state.
On Sunday, the Freedom Movement, a liberal green party formed by Golob only in January, won Slovenia’s general election, more than 10 percentage points ahead of Jansa’s Slovenian Democratic party as people turned out massively to vote for change.
As a party coming out of nowhere to win the election, the Freedom Movement follows a pattern seen in some other Eastern Europe states where right-wing populists lost elections mainly to newly formed parties and coalitions.
Eastern Europe’s populist wave already showed signs of ebbing last year with Bulgaria’s Boyko Borissov voted out of office in April and the Czech Republic’s Andrej Babis losing an election in September.
But some of the region’s most prominent autocrats, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic, have kept their tight grip on power after convincingly winning votes in their countries earlier this month.
Golob, a 55-year-old energy expert and businessman who has billed the election as a “referendum on democracy,” said he will form the new government with other left-leaning parties and they will lead Slovenia “back to freedom.”
“People want changes and have expressed their confidence in us as the only ones who can bring those changes,” he said, addressing his supporters via a video link from his home after contracting COVID-19.
Jansa, who was seeking his fourth term in office, reluctantly conceded the defeat.
The close ally of Orban and staunch supporter of former U.S. President Donald Trump has for years been accused in his country of eroding its traditional democratic standards.
Jansa came to prominence in the 1990s as a post-communist reformer, but he has been at loggerheads with the European Union over his moves to cut funding for the national news agency, restrict press freedoms and delay the appointment of prosecutors to the bloc’s new anti-corruption body.
Slovenian political analyst Andraz Zorko says Jansa’s election defeat can be attributed both to his anti-democratic stands at home and his government’s harsh anti-coronavirus measures that drew massive street protests last year.
“I believe that we yesterday observed the manifestation of huge antigovernment sentiment which was present (for the past), I can say, two years, especially last year,” Zorko said.
“I think that the defeat of the government and the coalition that governed the country is mainly due to some measures during the epidemic which were unnecessary and really harsh,” he said. “I am talking about curfew, I am talking limited moving within municipalities and some really harsh reaction towards the protesters last autumn.”
Slovenia’s prominent Delo daily said voters have put an end to “the worst kind of intolerance, devastating for 2 million Slovenians.”
“Humiliation, shaming, arbitrariness, dictatorship, injustices, curtailing of fundamental human rights and dignity — the people do not forgive that,” Delo said in a commentary.