50.50: Opinion

I led the campaign that helped unseat Slovenia’s right-wing prime minister

Despite intimidation, our feminist group ran a successful campaign to encourage people to vote in the recent election. Here’s how we did it

HNika Kovač photo.jpeg
Nika Kovač
4 May 2022, 5.17pm

Prime Minister Janez Jansa speaks at a press conference following a defeat at the Slovenian parliamentary elections. 24th Apr, 2022 | SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Live News

The sun shone in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, a country of just over two million inhabitants. People sat in the cafes, talking and laughing. To a casual observer, nothing would have seemed out of the ordinary.

But April 25 was a very special morning: it followed the night of the most important elections in the country’s history, elections in which as many as 1.7 million people voted. Elections in which people were deciding whether Janez Janša, an ally of the nationalist Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and a fan of former US president Donald Trump, would remain in power.

He failed. He was defeated by a newcomer to the Slovenian political scene, Robert Golob, whose Freedom Movement (GS) won more seats in parliament than all the right-wing parties.

This historic result has moved Slovenia back onto the map of democratic countries.

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In his first speech after his victory, Golob pointed out that one of the reasons for his success was the active involvement of civil society (NGOs and other rights groups) over the last year: civil society in Slovenia has woken up, taken to the streets, demanded social change and addressed inequality issues.

It’s a civil society that doesn’t belong to any party, but is aware of the need to fight for common values, be a voice for marginalised communities and demand change. This civil society is directly involved in changing legislation. It runs campaigns and is a mirror to power. And this civil society started the Go Out and Vote movement in Slovenia before the elections, and managed to increase turnout by 20%.

I am Nika. I am 28. And I had the great honour of coordinating the Go Out and Vote movement. I am the director of the 8 March Institute – Slovenia’s largest feminist organisation.

We’ve been in existence for more than six years now and our main goal is to tackle inequality in its various forms. We always keep in mind that gender equality can only be achieved in the context of the fight against poverty, which includes environmental protection, social policies and promoting people's participation in democratic processes.

Our model is simple: we write laws and run campaigns. In the last year and a half, we have successfully amended the law on rape, led (and won) a referendum on clean drinking water, and provided drinking water for the small town of Anhovo. Our campaigns work on the same principle: we choose a clear substantive goal related to changing the law; we collect people’s testimonies; we share them;and we call people to action. So far, we have not lost a campaign.

No move to the middle

When we launched the Go Out and Vote campaign, public intellectuals tried to convince us that the people we needed to be most interested in were the voters who identify themselves as the political middle. “These are the people who decide every election,” we were told. “These are the people who, in the last 14 days before the election, decide who they will cast their vote for. You have to convince them. They will decide what your outcome will be.”

Tactics for catching these people’s votes vary, but most are based on the same pattern: adapting the content of a political party’s programme and campaign to a ‘moderate’, central position. This means departing from clear and polarising positions. Adjusting opinions. Keeping silent on certain topics. Avoiding issues that could upset some voters and taking a strategic approach to topics that differentiate parties on the Left from those on the Right. Voters always need the ‘Other’, for them to position themselves against, but it is important that the Other is chosen so that the fewest possible votes are lost.

We decided on a different tactic. We based the Go Out and Vote campaign on a clear consensus on key issues and didn’t take a centrist position on them.

We went to towns and villages and talked about the values ​​that connect us. About solidarity. Public health. Public education. Helping the weaker. A more equal society.

People have clearly told us that the activities of political parties have been moving away from these values ​​in the last 30 years, and that this move intensified to unimaginable proportions in this last term of the National Assembly.

We listened to different stories.

The father of two, for example, who faces a fine of 10,000 euros for his' involvement in protests. An expert in her field who lost her job because she dared to oppose the decisions of the authorities. A police officer who took a selfie with a protester and was later sanctioned for it. Many people who have chosen not to be silent, but to commit an act of solidarity every day, receive death threats and similar attacks.

The effects of authoritarianism

It has become clear that the political has become personal, and that the government is interfering in the private lives of individuals in order to build and maintain its power. It is clear that the actions of the authorities have concrete consequences for people’s lives.

I realised this on my own. I’ve learned how an authoritarian regime slowly gets under your skin, breaks you down, creates anxiety and draws fear. I received death threats on a daily basis. During the election campaign, I didn’t dare to sleep in my own apartment but stayed in a hotel.

All this was due to the prime minister’s offensive manner of communication, which encouraged violence.

In the Go Out and Vote campaign, we decided to establish a clear distinction between the people and the government. We drafted a law that eliminates the political takeover of the police, education and the rule of law. We collected signatures for this law.

We urged people to go to the polls, and to bring five friends with them. We didn’t promote a single party in the campaign. Instead, we talked about the values ​​we have in common and how important it is to stick together.

The authorities tried to silence us: they ordered inspections of our organisation; they insulted us on the government's official communication channels; they incited intolerance.

But we didn’t stop. We spoke publicly about each attack, putting it into a broader international context by showing how Orbán uses such tactics in Hungary.

We asked people for solidarity, to build a movement. We have worked with NGOs and trade unions and made it clear that change can only be achieved together.

Last week, we distributed flowers all over Slovenia and encouraged people to take part in the elections. “Spring is coming,” we said. Each flower was a symbol of change.

On Sunday, we found that we had made it. The turnout was huge. We are the first country with authoritarian leaders in Europe in the 21st century to succeed in changing its government.

The campaign has taught us that we don’t need a pragmatic adjustment of political positions. We chose a side, and it was the side of the community, and the common good that is reflected in the public’s values. The campaign also showed how important it is that the ability to change who is in power doesn’t lie in the hands of the political elite, but in the hands of the people. People who stand together and fight for the common good.

What is next? We need to wait and see what the future government will do, how it is different and what changes it will bring. One thing that I am sure of is that we will watch it carefully.

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