Can Europe Make It?

The Slovenian United Left: from protest to movement, and from movement to party

Overlooked by many in Europe, a quickly growing radical left party in Slovenia is providing an example to movement and party builders across the continent.

Alen Toplišek
19 January 2017

United Left protest.

A lot has been written about the electoral success of Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece in the last two years, stimulating a debate among commentators and academics alike about the emergence of a new radical left party family and left-wing populism in Europe.

Little, however, has been said about another new radical left formation in Mediterranean Europe – the United Left (Združena levica) party in Slovenia. Its roots go back to the winter of 2012–2013, when Slovenians joined other protestors around the world in protesting against the unresponsiveness of mainstream political party elites to the plight of ordinary people, corruption and growing socio-economic inequality.

The circumstances surrounding the Slovenian protests therefore reflect those that we have also seen in other parts of Europe: the ideological and programmatic hollowing out of centrist political parties, a lack of vision in governing, and an inability to deal with the growing socio-economic divide.

Whereas Syriza already existed as a radical left coalition of parties and political groups well before the post-2008 wave of protest movements, the United Left sprang out of the protest movement in Slovenia, in the same way Podemos did from the Indignados.

Like other new radical left parties, the Slovenian United Left is facing some crucial questions over its future political strategy. How will it negotiate the internal tensions between the different constituents of the party? Should it continue to use a clearly Marxist discourse to differentiate itself from rival and mainstream parties, or would it fare better with an ideologically ‘lighter,’ and rather populist discourse?

The way the United Left chooses to tackle these questions will determine whether it remains a marginal left-wing party with limited scope for stimulating change, or a party that can generate broad popular support and even effect change through government. 

Populist beginnings

The beginnings of the United Left can be described as populist. The protests, which erupted in the second biggest town of Slovenia, Maribor, in November 2012, quickly grew into a country-wide movement as the number of protesters swelled rapidly in consecutive waves of protests.

The rallying cry of the ‘All-Slovenian Popular Uprising’, as the protest movement came to be known, was ‘They are finished!’ (‘Gotovi so!’). This kind of discourse created an antagonistic frontier between the morally ‘good’ people and the ‘corrupt’ political class: left, right or centre, all political representatives were seen as equally guilty and corrupt.

As the protest movement grew, more and more unsatisfied demands were piling up for the political class to address: (1) a public debate on the necessary changes to the legal and economic order; (2) end to austerity and structural reforms; (3) reform of the judiciary; (4) equalising the status of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary movements; and (5) recall elections and more direct democracy. But before these reforms could be deliberated upon and adopted, the key demand of the movement was for the government to step down.

Following the Argentinian political theorist Ernesto Laclau’s formal criteria of what makes a political formation populist, the Slovenian popular uprisings ticked two of the three boxes: the formation of an antagonistic frontier discursively separating ‘the people’ from the political elite and the emergence of a chain of unsatisfied and heterogeneous demands.

The failure to tick the third box – the unification of these demands into a stable political configuration – points towards the inability of the movement to construct a stable political identity. This led to the fragmentation of the movement after the prime minister Janez Janša was forced to stepped down in March 2013, and eventually to its dispersal in the summer that year.

One group of protesters, mainly composed of Marxist students and academics, formed the Initiative for Democratic Socialism (IDS), which later transformed into a new political party. A year later, in March 2014, the IDS joined two other smaller extra-parliamentary political parties to form the United Left.

If the ideological ‘thinness’ of the movement’s populism was unable to hold together the heterogeneity of the ideologically diverse demands of the protesters, the ideological ‘thickness’ and activist experience of the IDS proved to be key assets in the continuity of the United Left as it emerged from out of the streets. 

Activist experience and the ‘new’ in the new radical left

Although the protests were mostly triggered by newcomers – ordinary people with no previous experience of political activism or institutional affiliation – spontaneity only explains the initial stage of the popular uprisings. As the protests grew into a movement, other individuals and organisations joined in and formed different coordination committees.

Compared to other coordination committees with political aspirations, the IDS benefited from the years of experience of many of its members in previous protest movements and civil-society initiatives. From the anti-NATO and Iraq War protests in the first half of the 00s to the migrant movement and 15O Movement up to 2012, the IDS was well-versed in horizontal forms of organising and street politics. Alongside the practical experience, the IDS was intellectually enriched with Marxist class analysis, developed through educational research projects, such as the Workers and Punks University and the Institute for Labour Studies in Ljubljana.

Their long-time experience in protest movements and ideologically-coherent intellectual prowess enabled the IDS, and later the United Left, to take advantage of the political opportunities that the popular uprising presented. Compared to other coordination committees and the mainstream centre-left political parties, it managed to unite around a more or less clearly articulated political project of democratic socialism, which represented an alternative to the sterile neoliberal consensus of other political forces in Slovenia.

In what signifies a clear break from the past of radical left politics in Slovenia, the IDS saw a need to combine horizontal forms of protest politics with vertical structures of electoral politics. By recognising the importance of using its power and participating in existing power structures of representative politics, it moved away from the two-decade long tradition of the radical left in Slovenia that was averse to electoral politics.

In the summer of 2014, the United Left competed in both the European and early national parliamentary elections. Having been established only three months earlier, it didn’t manage to gain any seats in the May European parliamentary elections. However, in the national parliamentary elections a month and a half later, it pulled off a remarkable 5.97% of the vote, which gave the United Left six seats in the 90-member national assembly.

A combination of three elements – opening up political opportunities and taking advantage of them, articulating an alternative political project to neoliberalism, and establishing a political party – could therefore explain why the radical left in Slovenia has been more successful than its sister organisations in other countries of ex-Yugoslavia.

The endemic distrust in political institutions and the growing wealth gap (a result of the speeded-up liberalisation of the economy), common to all the ex-Yugoslav countries, however, present a potential opening for the new radical left in the rest of the Balkan region as well.


The United Left: between parliamentarianism and politics of the street

Despite only having six MPs, by entering the parliament the United Left has gained greater media coverage for its activities and political programme. Slowly learning the tricks and the procedures of the parliamentary trade, the United Left’s MPs have tactically used the new skills to exert pressure on the coalition government and other opposition parties. This way they managed not only to mitigate the proposed laws, which would disproportionately affect the lower class and minorities, but also to acquire support for their own parliamentary initiatives.

After two and a half years in the parliament, the United Left initiated a discussion and helped pass legislation on improving the rights of same-sex couples, ensuring the state provision of free lunch meals for all school children, defending pharmacies in Slovenia from complete commercialisation, and enabling the production and use of marijuana for industrial purposes.

All the while, it has consistently and vocally opposed austerity measures, supported the democratisation and greater participation of citizens in representative politics at various levels of societal organisation, endeavoured to improve the conditions of precarious workers, and fought against the adoption of free trade agreements, such as TTIP and CETA.

However, the dynamics of parliamentary work, which tends towards centralisation and systematisation of internal decision-making, oftentimes clashes with the more open and horizontal practices of civil society groups and social movements. While the parliamentary group has successfully worked together, despite its members being affiliated with the different coalition parties, the situation inside the coalition structures of the United Left is not so rosy.

There are frequent operational disagreements between the four pillars of the coalition: the Democratic Labour Party (Demokratična stranka dela – DSD) and the civil society representatives (acting as an autonomous fourth pillar of the party) on the one hand and the Party for the Sustainable Development of Slovenia (Stranka za ekosocializem in trajnostni razvoj Slovenije – TRS) and the IDS on the other.

The biggest hurdle facing the party at the moment revolves around the unification of the United Left into a single party. For example, if a supporter wants to become part of the United Left, they need to register as a member of one of the three coalition parties. This organisational structure, although it could be praised for its horizontality and open structures, is causing confusion among voters.

The proponents of the unification (mainly the IDS and TRS) present improved efficiency, better management of available resources and streamlining of activities on the ground as the main reasons for the proposed change. The opponents (civil society individuals and DSD), however, have concerns that the United Left will turn into yet another classical political party that will abandon its hybrid relationship with social movements and civil society. 

Future strategy: a move towards a populist transversality?

To increase its electoral appeal towards broader segments of society and maximise the utility of its resources against other competing political parties, the United Left will need to move towards further centralisation of its structures and mobilise a greater majority of voters behind its programme. But how can it accomplish this without putting in peril its original progressive principles and becoming just another catch-all centrist party?

In in a recent interview for the Nation, the renowned political theorist Chantal Mouffe laid out two possible trajectories for the new left to build a collective struggle around: a Marxist and a populist one. Both pathways entail the creation of an antagonistic frontier between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’: the working class versus the capitalists (the Marxist trajectory) or ‘the people’ versus the elite (the populist trajectory). The constitution of this frontier is what separates the new radical left and left-wing populism from the liberal class-conflict-blind politics.

Up until now, the United Left has been following the Marxist trajectory for the most part as its main mobilisation strategy. This is evident in the prominent use of a Marxist vocabulary in its discourse. Yet, there are also traces of a populist trajectory in the United Left’s political strategy, with appeals to ‘the ordinary people’, ‘the 99%’ and the popular ‘majority’ against ‘the wealthy’ and ‘the elites’.

The challenge facing the party now is to construct ‘a people’ by introducing new signifiers and vocabulary that will be able to transverse the different struggles in society; what Mouffe and Laclau understand as the creation of ‘a chain of equivalence’, or what we can also call a populist transversality.

This would mean a move away from the current ideological ‘thickness’ of its Marxist discursive strategy to an ideological ‘thinness’ of a more populist discourse, which would act as a temporary glue for the articulation of a new and alternative collective will.

Only this way can the United Left hope to increase its popular support and open the possibility for entering government and holding real decision-making power. The United Left should not shy away from this monumental task or postpone the prospects of it too far into the future. After all, isn’t its key objective to transform institutions from within, government being the key vehicle for achieving this?


This article draws on a paper that was presented at the Workshop ‘Europe's new radical Left in times of crisis,’ hosted by the School of Political Sciences at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (Athens Office) in November 26-27, 2016.


See other articles from the Workshop here.

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