Despite becoming more socially open, Slovenians hold on to traditional values

Ljubljana, 30 December - The Slovenian Public Opinion Survey has examined people's attitudes and values since the late 1960s as the first such continuous research carried out in the country on such a scale. Throughout the years, it has shown that despite becoming more open, Slovenians are unable to let go of traditional values, according to Mitja Hafner Fink, a sociologist and professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences. Family remains the most important value.

The survey is conducted by the school's Public Opinion and Mass Communication Research Centre, which is focused on researching social stratification, quality of life, national identity, political culture, role of government, religion, family and work values, health, political orientations, industrial relations, and mass media.

It is also part of international comparative programmes such as the International Social Survey Program, the World Value Survey, and the European Social Survey.

The primary aim of the centre was to help politicians make decisions, Hafner Fink notes. Today, their purpose is mostly academic as they try to understand and explain social processes and phenomena. That is why data collected in Slovenia is often used in international academic research. "These programmes put Slovenia on the global social-sciences map," he says.

Since Slovenia became independent, surveys have been carried out to try and help decision-makers and track political processes, Hafner Fink says, adding that what interested politicians the most were voting intentions. "Politicians mostly asked questions regarding their party's election outlooks, which was a new trend at the time," he said.

Today, other agencies are dealing with this, conducting public opinion surveys on the matter multiple times per year. Researchers have shifted their focus elsewhere.

The Slovenian Public Opinion Survey measures the social pulse, with more stress being put on values than opinions. "We want to determine what drives people to express their opinion and informs their actions," the professor notes. They also measure people's trust in institutions, which is "an important glue that helps society to function."

Each of their surveys also includes questions about some of the current affairs. They have been especially active during the Covid-19 pandemic, and this year they have also included some questions on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. "We try to respond to topics that are burning issues for the people as well as for politics," Hafner Fink says.

Fieldwork and face-to-face interviews yield best results

Their methodology is conservative according to Hafner Fink, and still consists of conducting fieldwork and face-to-face interviews, as required by criteria for academic research, where the best methodologies available should be used. As for samples, they have to be high-quality and representative, so their findings apply to the entire population.

It can take several months to obtain a sufficiently representative sample. The desired response rate is 70%, which few achieve. In the last survey, they managed to get a response rate of around 60%, which is remarkable, he points out. For example, the response rate for telephone or online surveys is only around 15%.

Up until the Covid-19 pandemic, the bulk of their research was based on face-to-face interviews, but now they have also started using online interviews. Just as lockdown came into force, they were preparing to do another field study, but as that became impossible to do they opted for an online method. Once the sample is ready, there is no postponing as the sample can become outdated due to population changes.

Some research is now done online as this is a rising trend among researchers and agencies. In international academic programmes solutions are being sought that would allow for combining of different survey approaches within a single study. Research into the effects of combined surveys and the comparability of results is already under way, but there is no definitive solution to this transition yet, he noted.

These are two distinct situations in which people express their opinions. This can have an impact on the results. With online surveys researchers do not have as much control over the sample, as they invite respondents to take part by post but do not know who has responded to the invitation. Since older people tend to be less internet-savvy, they are given the option of responding in writing, which 10-15% of respondents choose to do.

"If they had not been included in the survey, we would have had a much worse age structure of the sample," said Hafner Fink, but adds that by going online, they have persuaded younger people to respond.

Researching the topics of family and gender roles

In a survey conducted this spring and summer, multiple studies were carried out. One of them was the International Social Survey Programme, which includes 60 questions on a single topic - this year the topic was family and gender roles. Another was on internet use, and there was also one on homelessness.

The Slovenian Public Opinion Survey incorporates some standard questions, such as those on personal satisfaction with how society and democracy function. Another set of questions focused on the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The results indicate that Slovenians are split between security and freedom, which became clear during the pandemic in conflict situations and resulted in sometimes harsh criticism towards government measures.

Also on the agenda was trust in institutions. Repressive institutions such as the army or the police are high on the trust list among Slovenians, despite the latter losing public trust lately. The EU still enjoys a high level of trust, whereas political parties do not. Neither do the parliament or the government.

Hafner Fink says this shows Slovenians are disappointed with politics after expectations were running high in the transition period, which he says is typical for all post-socialist countries. "Socialism had no real politics, people just participated in rituals", he notes.

The majority of respondents say they have little interest in politics. All post-socialist countries which had authoritarian systems have this problem, Hafner Fink thinks. Few people are politically active between two elections. Party membership in Slovenia is below 5%, although there has been a slight upwards trend during the pandemic. In some societies, this share is between 15% and 20%. "People do follow politics, but more as bystanders, not gladiators."

Trust in the media is also down, as the percentage of those who do not trust the media is higher than the share who do. The problem with the media is their vast diversity, so it is challenging for people to decide who to trust. The media have long not been what people expect them to be, Hafner Fink says.

All that has happened with the media in the past two years has left its mark. Trust diminished during the pandemic, when the government also took the biggest hit regarding public trust. Even healthcare has not lost less trust despite not functioning for a while.

When the survey was being carried out, the war in Ukraine had only been going on for a few months, but Slovenians were concerned nevertheless. Russia is seen as the main culprit, but quite a few respondents said the US also fuelled the conflict. The respondents were quite cautious regarding escalating measures against Russia.

This could be because in the spring it was not yet clear to what extent the conflict in Ukraine could affect Slovenia, Hafner Fink notes, especially with regard to the energy crisis and the subsequent price hikes in energy and food before winter. This will be reflected in the fall survey.

The super-election year

Touching on the super-election year, Hafner Fink says that low turnout is typical for Slovenia and all other young democratic countries. This stems from disappointment in politics and unmet expectations after the change of social system. In the era of socialism, it was common to view elections as just a ritual with no real power to change anything.

Hafner Fink also thinks Slovenians view general elections as the most important elections, and they respond to other elections differently. "Election tiredness" is only partly to blame for low turnout, he notes.

From a historical point of view, referendums have had significantly lower turnout than elections, mainly due to the subjects being decided on. People simply have not formed any opinions on some matters. "Having no opinion is an opinion in itself," he says.

The 2022 Slovenian Public Opinion Survey shows the share of people self-identifying as left or right has been converging over time. There is a constant slight predominance of left-wing supporters, but because the centre ground is growing stronger the left and the right wing are balancing out.

The "left-or-right" division is traditional in politics, but one that applies less and less to political reality. Populism and divisions on both sides are rampant, and people are trying to escape this.

Politics is responding to this as well. But political players slowly adopting centre ground is a double-edged sword, Hafner Fink says. Independence can also mean that one does not form an opinion or have a clear political profile. "In politics you have to be ideological, have a vision of how you see society, and political parties should have one. If they do not, they have a problem," he says.

Politics relies on opinion polls mainly in the run-up to elections, which is why Hafner Fink is surprised by some initiatives to ban them before elections. Public opinion only really exists when it is measured, he points out.

It is the one piece of information that people have and can act on. How much influence polls have mainly depends on the psychological profile of each voter. Politicians also have the information to know how to act in debates, Hafner Fink notes.