With eyes fixed on the Le Pen-Macron face-off in France and the ongoing war in Ukraine, Slovenia has seen an expected election victory.
In the former Yugoslav country, liberal newcomer Robert Golob defeated populist, Trump-fan Janes Janša, in a hard-fought election tipped as a “referendum on democracy.”
But who is the man likely to be the next prime minister? And how did his Freedom Movement (GS), which launched only in January, come out of nowhere to win a “surprising” 34.5% share of the vote?
‘People want change’
Until recently, the US-educated Golob had been out of the political limelight in Slovenia.
Now he is preparing to take the reins of the mountainous country of two million people, having promised to return Slovenia to “freedom” after the controversial leadership of the conservative Janša.
“People want change and trusted us,” said the 55-year-old former head of Slovenia’s main electricity company during his victory speech on Sunday.
“Today people are dancing, but tomorrow a new day begins. Tomorrow we’ll start working hard.”
The speech, which was delivered from the comfort of Golob’s own home as he had recently caught Covid, marked a strange end to the campaign.
“We’ve been joking that I’ll be the first prime minister to win [an election] remotely,” he told Slovenian news website Žurnal24.si.
Throughout the campaign, Golob framed the vote on April 24 – which saw the highest voter turnout since 2000 – as “a referendum on democracy,” accusing Janša of undermining democratic institutions and press freedoms since he took over in 2020.
He also promised to salvage his country’s relationship with the EU, which has been badly damaged by Janša’s overtures to the Hungarian nationalist leader Viktor Orban.
“This country has always been oriented towards Western Europe and I am convinced that we will return to our family,” Golob told AFP during the campaign.
‘He promised better’
Born in 1967, Golob made a successful career for himself as an energy executive.
He trained as an engineer in solar energy and became Slovenia’s Secretary of State for Energy at the turn of the 2000s.
Golob then went on to found his own energy company, GEN-I, in 2002. Yet the moment for his entry into politics came when the state restructured GEN-I, ousting Golob from his job last year.
After much speculation and a failed attempt to form a government in 2011, Golob took over a small environmentalist party and renamed it Freedom Movement, together with several professionals who lost or quit their careers under Janša’s government.
Their agenda was to focus on the environment, open society, normalisation, and the modern welfare state.
Politically, Golob is a liberal who advocates personal and social responsibility, alongside a technocratic approach to politics
He has pledged to improve health care and pursue a transition to a greener economy, in a coalition government with Slovenia’s other centre-left parties (the Social Democrats and the Left).
Golob has also been active in local politics, serving as a city councillor in Nova Gorica, near the border with Italy.
“If you live in a community, you can’t behave as if you don’t care what happens outside your home. You must contribute to the common good, if not for your own sake, then for the sake of your children,” he told Primorske Novice in an interview.
‘We are cautiously optimistic’
A silver-haired, father of three, Golob is “capable of learning” from his mistakes, said analyst Valdo Miheljak at the University of Ljubljana.
“At first, I took him for a neo-liberal candidate, but he strongly changed his positions,” he said, especially in education and health care.
Golob also has “proven his oratorical skills”, Miheljak added.
This allowed him to shake off potentially damaging blows from his political opponents, without denting his popularity, and compensate for the GS’s lack of political experience.
During the campaign, he came under fire for his high salary of 196,000 euros per year – more than ten times the average Slovenian salary.
Little is known about Golob personally and he has been careful to keep his family away from the public eye.
Media allied with Janša reported extensively on alleged financial wrongdoing linked to his previous job at GEN-I, as well as a bank account opened in Romania in his name in 2017.
Golob has claimed this was a case of stolen identity and that he only learnt about it recently, reporting it to the bank in question, not the police.
Yet Golob owes much of his political fortunes to popular anger at his opponent, the three-times elected Janša.
After botching his country’s vaccination programme and imposing a strict curfew, Janša cut off funds from Slovenia’s public broadcaster and gave politicians more sway over the judiciary and police.
Even before campaigning formally began, Golob said he would support civil society in their attempts to repeal what they see as this harmful legislation. This helped his party shoot to the top of opinion polls.
“We are cautiously optimistic, we hope he will be able to keep his commitments,” said Jansa Jenull, one of the leaders of the protest movement.
“He promised better,” he added.