We've been hearing how Central Europe's aging population is expected to put a strain on budgets and care facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic. But in Slovenia, there's a new twist to this old story. Slovenia has the lowest fertility rate in the entire European Union according to the European Statistics Office. And although the population is slowly increasing due to immigration, the country is undergoing a very noticeable demographic shift. And, this "greying" of Slovenia is expected to bring major changes to the political landscape.
A case in point is the Slovenian pensioner's party, the Demokraticna stranka upokojencev Slovenije. Known commonly by their acronym DeSUS, the small party has already begun exerting considerable influence over the political process, something that is expected to grow. In Slovenia's last election, DeSUS won nearly 40,000 votes and four seats in parliament. Since the election was very close, every seat became crucial for the center-right coalition. DeSUS, which had previously been allied with the left, swung over to the center-right coalition, but only after it had secured some of its demands.
DeSUS parliamentary representative Franc Znidarsic explains:
"DeSUS is aware of the aging population in Slovenia. This is why the party insisted, in its coalition contract, that the Ministry of Labour, Family and Social Affairs be obligated to prepare a care programme for the elderly. This programme should cover all levels: sufficient health care, appropriate capacities for homes for the elderly, home help, prolongation of the working period, jobs suitable for the elderly population, continuing education; taking care that that elderly are not pushed away from society, and that they have their rights and are given the opportunity to be included in every-day life at all levels."
DeSUS also secured a ministerial post: 45-year-old Karl Erjavec became the new Minister of Defense. And the current government, which has pursued a series of reforms, has been careful not to tread heavily on the pension system. As Slovenia's population gets older, and the ratio of workers to retirees evens out, the political power of the elderly is expected to rise. This will be to the advantage of DeSUS, or at the very least, the interests it represents.
Politics Professor Bogomil Ferfila of the University of Ljubljana's Faculty for Social Sciences:
"The political power of the older population in Slovenia will without any doubt grow, regardless of whether the elderly only vote for DeSUS as their own party, or vote for other parties. Either way, the other parties will have to consider the interests of the elderly: pensions, their economic, social and to a lesser extent their political situation. DeSUS has been trying to attract as many of these voters as possible. But it is worth noting that they started off as a party meant to attract the votes of other generations as well."
DeSUS has managed to carve a niche for itself in the Slovenian political landscape. The 15-year-old party boasts 36,000 members, with 143 local chapters. Its small size belies its influence, especially as "kingmaker" in the previous election. And as a party representing the interests of an age group that is rapidly increasing, it stands to gain ground in the future.
Throughout the 1980s, the number of people in Slovenia over the age of 65 remained flat at 10%. It has since risen to 15% -- and according to population projections by the Slovenian statistical office, this percentage will more than double by 2050, reaching a formidable 31.3%.
The percentage of people over the age of 80, meanwhile, is expected to more than treble in the next 50 years: from just 3% now, to 10% in 2050.
Whether DeSUS manages to harness these potential votes, or they are co-opted by the other large political parties, it's clear that the elderly will have an increasingly powerful say in the running of Slovenia.
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