Implosions Left and Right

While most of the English-speaking world Europe is watching in awe as Red Ken Livingston enters a tailspin, forgets to bail out and ultimately self-destructs, other meltdowns are taking place that are just as epic. Or sad. Or epic sad. And since the country is on autopilot for the next couple of days on account of the holidays and whatnot this is as good an opportnity as any to take a look rumblings on both sides of the political spectrum. It just so happens that a substantial part of both left and right-wing is imploding on an increasingly spectacular scale with some serious ramifications for the political spectrum at large.

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Animation obviously purely symbolic (source)

The spectacular meltdown of the IDS congress (one of three constituent parties of the United Left) was slowly brewing for some time now but the force with which the party leadership was literally manhandled into dropping its plans to, well, unite the united left into a single party did come as a surprise. At least to an outsider.

Theory vs. Practice

The basic outlines of the story are as follows: The United Left (ZL), in essence a coalition between three parties, IDS, TRS and DSD and a grassroots initiative (several NGOs and associations) has come to a point where it needed to decide whether to evolve into a single party or continue as before. Aside from financial and organisational implications (the monies received by the ZL are split three ways, any substantial decision must be debated and approved thrice, etc) of unification there were also ideological and theoretical misgivings. A single party means a single platform, a single leadership and – most importantly – subscribing to a singular, albeit imperfect, decision-making process of a parliamentary democracy.

This does not mean that the United Left (specifically, the IDS as its most theoretically fluent and ideologically pure member) is in the business of fomenting a revolutionary overthrow of the government but it does mean that they se the current model of representative democracy as inherently flawed and a part of the very problem it wants to correct (corruption, state-capture, income inequality, access to resources etc). As is usually the case in such matters, theirs was a party of a direct and participatory democracy and their decision-making process reflected that.

The fault-lines between the IDS (headed by Luka Mesec who doubles as a de facto leader of the coalition) and the other two parties (TRS and DSD, chaired by Matjaž Hanžek and Franc Žnidaršič respectively) became apparent pretty soon. Mesec was this theory-laden kid from an idealistic party while the other two were comparatively veterans of the political process, with Hanžek being a former ombudsman and an analyst at government’s Macroeconomic department while Žnidaršič was an MP for DeSUS before he fell out with Karl Erjavec and formed his own party.

But after the surprisingly good result in 2014 elections which saw Mesec and five other coalition candidates (including Hanžek) elected as MPs for the United Left, the reality of a parliamentary day-to-day life soon sunk in and Mesec apparently recognised the necessity of compromise and faster decision-making. The most elegant way of achieving that would, of course, be through party unification under a single banner with a single leadership (with Mesec at the top, of course).

The sell-out

The problem is that the IDS rank and file was not all that hot over the idea of running in elections in the first place. They (correctly) saw that the IDS would be unable to maintain an honest critique of the system if they were to enter the political arena themselves. Mesec and his supporters in the IDS, however, equally correctly recognised that, barring the storming of the Winter Castle, the only way to change the system is to change it from within. Because democracy and whatnot.

And when Mesec did indeed get elected MP, he was immediately branded a sell-out and an elitist by the ideologically pure wing of the party, this at the same time as he was branded an anarchist by the right-wing in the parliament.

Things hit a brick wall the other day during IDS congress in Krško, where Mesec wanted the membership to green-light the unification process but got heckled, browbeaten and literally manhandled by ways of being pushed up against the wall and threatened with physical violence into dropping (or, as he sees it, postponing) the plans. The whole congress was anything but an orderly affair and Mesec’s only way out was to orchestrate a failed quorum vote, thus ending the congress without a vote on the matter.
The fallout is pretty dramatic with the IDS – and by extension – the ZL in disarray and the future of the party, the coalition and indeed the “true” (genuine? far? rabid? pure?) left in general. This as much seems to be the consensus among the two main opposing factions within the IDS, with each accusing the other one of destroying what little chances the political left-wing has had to consolidate, refocus and revitalise.

The ZL is not yet out, but it is definitely down. And it was all by their own hand, falling into the pitfalls of electoral success, just as pengovsky had warned almost two years ago. And, watching from the sidelines, the Social Democrats will of course gladly welcome back all those disappointed voters who have switched to ZL. Old flames and all that. Expect the SD to get a slight bump in the polls in the next few weeks.

For Janez is an honourable man

But the ZL imploding is just an isolated incident compared to the clusterfuck that has engulfed the right-wing and where a full-blooded Shakespearean drama is unfolding. Namely, Janez Janša is rapidly becoming redundant. He is starting to see the writing on the wall and he doesn’t like it.

Until recently is was common to think of the right-hand side of the political spectrum as a more or less solid bloc, with Janez Janša’s SDS providing the bulk of the, well, building blocks while the ChristDem NSi provided the rest, usually almost identical to those of the SDS. In the good old days, there was the agriculturaly-minded People’s Party (SLS) as well, providing at least some colour, but those days are long gone. However, rather than expanding its base at the expense of smaller parties in the bloc, the SDS found its support dwindling and the breadth of the bloc diminishing. Not by much, but consistently, little by little, every election cycle. As a result, the NSi suddenly found it, too, can grow a spine and started following its own line. This was helped by the decapitation of the Slovenian Roman Catholic Church (RKC) ordered by Pope Francis in the wake of the financial collapse of Maribor diocese. Until then the RKC leadership considered Janša their chief political ally but the new Church leadership is evidently less political, a fact which hugely benefits the NSi as it can organically build on its Catholic pedigree. This was especially evident during Janša’s incarceration on account of the Patria Case and was already causing unrest and nervousness within the SDS, as it focused all of its resources on getting its leader out of jail.

The price Janša is going to ultimately pay for this will be bigger than he ever imagined. He has surrendered so much power and was out of the picture for so long that other people have made their own power bases on his turf. Specifically, this goes for Aleš Primc of the same-sex marriage referendum infamy, who led the daily (now weekly) protest gatherings in front of the Ljubljana courthouse. While the main goal was to get Janša out of the joint, an unintended (?) side effect was that Primc had cultivated an always-on protest movement which is currently still protesting against the judicial system, but is able to pivot and change tune virtually at a moment’s notice. And while Janša is their idol, this movement is controlled by Primc. And when Primc announced he intends to form his own party, things started to fall apart pretty quick for Janša.

The illustrious leader of the SDS has grown testy, offensive, self-destructive and willing to pick a fight with anyone who will dare criticise him in the slightest possible way. Not unlike the Republican primaries. But that’s another story. He is acting like a schoolyard bully who senses that no-one really fears him anymore and can only maintain dominance by harrasment. Thus Janša has in the past few weeks implied two journalists of TV Slovenia are prostitutes, told all those celebrating the uprising against WWII Nazi occupation to fuck off (literally) and had a fallout with an ex-spy-cum-con-man-cum-amateur-historian Roman Leljak who until now was dutifully digging up dirt on Janša’s enemies but has now apparently gone rogue.

In the good old days, Janša would have been able to deal with such challenges to his authority swiftly and with extreme prejudice. Most likely, other people would do that for him. But good old days are long gone, indeed. Janša had no choice but to support Primc’s initiative, lest he risks Primc siphoning off rank-and-file support. But those with acute feeling for the direction of wind blowing are already shifting course and Janša apparently lacks the power and authority to stop them. Which is why he’s actually trying to cajole and browbeat them into toeing the line. More or less unsuccessfully.

Death by a thousand cuts

After Dimitrij Rupel threw Janša under the bus in July, Janša’s spook-protege Damir Črnčec did more or less the same (albeit more gently) last December by calling for the old guard to make way for fresh faces. Then comes the Primc who not only takes over the street but also Janša’s pet media project, the Nova24 TV (think Fox News under North Korean production) where he installed himself as the programming director, basically controlling the project content-wise. Then there are incessant rumours about a couple of SDS MPs looking to jump ship and switch parties, mostly because the SDS and its leader have grown so radicalised. And to top it off, a few days ago SDS parliamentary group chief Jože Tanko defied the party, the boss and the entire right-wing by voting in favour of a new and heavily watered-down law on same-sex unions (more on that subject soon).

Meanwhile, the NSi is successfully rebranding itself as a modern, business-oriented centre-right party, actively courting the media and putting together the media-political event of the year with its own hashtags and all. It seems they plan on going far.

Pengovsky always assumed that if Janša ever goes, he will go out with a bang. Now it seems it will be more of a whimper, brought on by a slow but unstoppable bleeding of support and authority. A (political) death by a thousand cuts.

April 29th, 2016, posted by pengovsky

Axing Minister Of Culture Threatens To Disrupt Coalition Balance Of Power

Culture minister Julijana Bizjak Mlakar (DeSUS) is about to get the can. PM Cerar said so (although not in as many words) when he asked her to resign no later than noon yesterday lest he initiates demission procedures. And since Bizjak Mlakar told the PM to go fuck himself (not in as many words, either), the scene is set for yet another ruffling of the proverbial feathers in full view of the public.

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Julijana Bizjak Mlakar (source: The Firm™)

All things being equal, the government would be in a state of mid-level panic right now. Bizjak Mlakar is a part of the DeSUS contingent of ministers and Karl Erjavec, leader of the second-to-senior coalition party as a rule doesn’t look kindly on his people being treated this way. At the very least, he’d threaten to walk out of the coalition and get a raise in pensions out of it. You know, just to stay on the good side of his core constituency. That nothing of the kind is taking place, is speaking volumes.

A shit job if there ever was one

You see, culture is a shit portfolio to run. At least in Slovenia, where people working in culture industry are a-dime-a-dozen and that’s excluding the media, archives, religion and heritage, all of which fall under the purview of the said ministry. In fact, back in the day then-minister of culture Sergij Pelhan was even slapped by a hot-blooded director Vinci Anžlovar over some financing disagreement. So on one hand you’ve got all of these people telling you how to do your job and on the other a lot of brainiacs who scoff at culture and creative industries in general as a waste pf taxpayer’s money. Unless, of course, they can claim a tax deduction. Despite evidence that investment in culture industries can create as much as four-fold return.

Anyhoo, it is against this climate that the individual at the helm of the ministry at any given time must fight for a slice of the country’s EUR 9.5 billion budget. Currently, that’s EUR 146 million, of which 50 million is spent on maintaining heritage sites and 85 million on financing various programmes. And when the going gets tough (as it tends to do in this day and age) the ministry of culture is among the first ones getting squeezed.

Pengovsky told you it’s a shit job. And yet, Julijana Bizjak Mlakar was (technically still is) spectacularly inept at doing it.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was management and financing of restoration of the Idrija Mercury Mine, a UNESCO heritage site. The nuts and bolts of it a rather boring and not really pertinent for the entire picture, so suffice it to say that the whole project requires the cooperation of many state, local and non-government players. (link in Slovene). But this Idrija Mercury Mine thing, where Bizjak Mlakar obstinately refused to execute a decision by the government charging her ministry to attend to the urgent situation is only the latest in a series of gaffes and misfires that have plagued the department almost from the day she took it over.

Media law fiasco

Chief among these was the media law fiasco, which started last summer and ended a month or so ago. Back then the already embattled minister proposed to amend the existing media law which (this needs to be said) is hopelessly outdated, does not address the situation in the industry nor does it tackle the issues with which both content producers and content consumers are faced with on a daily basis. But the first draft law was so poorly done that not only did it not address the pressing issues of the industry, it even fucked up those tiny bits that sort of worked. Like the quota system for Slovenian music. As a result, the draft has had such a hostile reception (pengovsky included)  that it was withdrawn, completely revamped and tabled again. The redux fared only slightly better, however (both links in Slovene). In the end, the watered-down provisions were passed but only after the national radio received assurances by the SMC that an additional amendment will be passed soon, providing for some leeway regarding the new and harsher quota system. And lo-behold, within weeks, the ministry of culture launches a series of public debates aimed at creating a strategy for developing and regulating the media sector.

That’s right: after it had already spent a considerable amount of energy and political capital (of which it had precious little to begin with) at shoving an amended media law down everyone’s throat, they went about putting together a media sector strategy. Aren’t these things usually done the other way around? Anyway, the point is that things are a bit chaotic over there. Which is why state secretary (minister’s second-in-command and chief operative) Tone Peršak, himself an accomplished writer and a former mayor of Trzin, was on the verge of quitting his post, reportedly citing impossibility to work with Bizjak Mlakar.

So how was it that a person who is uniquely ill-suited for the post end up handling the culture portfolio? Well, the way her party boss Karl Erjavec threw her under the bus may provide a hint or two. You see, Bizjak Mlakar was elected to parliament in 2014 which was somewhat of a surprise even for the party insiders and her maverick attitude was not exactly what DeSUS’ big kahunas had in mind for the party’s parliamentary group. So she was “promoted” to minister of culture where she could do the least damage. Or so the party leadership thought. The actual result was more akin to a slow-moving traffic accident, where the onlookers couldn’t really believe what we were seeing but couldn’t avert our eyes, either. Case in point being the issue of financing of KSEVT (Cultural Centre of Space Technologies), where the ministry demanded that the museum returned some wrongly attributed funds. The manager Miha Turšič refused, claiming everything was in order and although a subsequent audit proved ministry of culture right, Bizjak Mlakar handling of the issue only escalated tensions with Turšič at one point embarking on a lengthy hunger-strike.

Going down in flames

To put it succinctly, the politics of Julijana Bizjak Mlakar are grief no one really needs. And rather than adjusting the tone and the pace (if not the course) of her actions, she keeps doubling-down on her positions, surrounds herself with yes-men and dubious PR specialists, as if she wanted to go down in flames.

And so she will. The problem (for DeSUS and potentially for PM Cerar, too) is that she will land right back in the parliament and oust her replacement Jana Jenko. And since DeSUS parliamentary group is expected to support demission of Bizjak Mlakar, she would then have to work with the very same people who helped shoot her down. Rather awkward.

One way out of this conundrum is that Bizjak Mlakar forefits her MP seat and exits top-tier politics completely. This would be the preffered outcome for both Erjavec and Cerar, as the former would keep his parliamentary group intact while the latter would – by extention – get to keep his parliamentary majority of 52 votes intact.

The more probable outcome, however, is that the soon-to-be-ex minister of culture returns to the parliament as an MP and declares herself independent. After all, the MP’s monthly salary is nothing to scoff at. Apart from the opposition, this scenarion would probably be welcomed by the most junior of coalition partners, the Social Democrats who, incidentally, used to be Bizjak Mlakar’s former political home. Namely, with an independend Bizjak Mlakar, the SMC and DeSUS could only muster 45 votes in the parliament, a vote short of the absolute majority. With this, the SD would suddenly become a relevant coalition member once again and could again run the table against the coalition parties more aggressively.

A week is a very long time

So, while the case of Julijana Bizjak Mlakar at first glance seems like the Prime Minister is simply getting rid of some dead weight, a closer look uncovers a much more delicate picture. The MPs are expected to debate and vote on Bizjak Mlakar’s demission in begnning of May. That’s almost three weeks from now. And in politics, a week is a very long time.

 

April 20th, 2016, posted by pengovsky

Danilo Türk Eyeing To Be (S)elected UN Secretary General

The selection of the next Secretary General of the United Nations used to be a pretty dull affair. At least from the viewpoint of the general public. The big five states, the permanent members of the Security Council would, after a bit of behind the scenes wrangling and horse-trading, agree on the least-undesirable candidate. This time around, however, things are a bit more fun. And that’s not just because there’s a Slovenian entry, too.

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Danilo Türk during “informal hearing” (source)

Former president Danilo Türk made it no secret that he eyed the position soon after he lost the 2012 re-election bid. In fact, his entire diplomatic career, save the five years he spent serving as president of the republic, was connected to the United Nations in one way or another. Be it the country’s ambassador to the organisation and later a non-permanent member and (at one point) even chair of the UN Security Council or, further down the road, serving as Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs during the tenure of SecGen Kofi Annan. Add to that his mileage as professor of international law, his charity work and work in various forums and NGOs as well as contacts he developed around the world during this time, he’s a pretty strong candidate, at least on paper. Perhaps second only to Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova, the head of UNESCO and widely touted as the frontrunner of the field consisting of eight candidates. Besides Türk and Bokova these include Srgjan Kerim, former foreign minister of Macedonia, Igor Lukšić, foreign minister of Montenegro, Vesna Pusić, former foreign minister of Croatia, António Guterres, former Portuguese PM, Helen Clark, former PM of New Zealand and Natalia Gherman, former foreign minister of Moldova. Did pengovsky say eight? Sorry, he meant nine. Namely, on the eve of the first day of “informal dialogues” with candidates Serbia submitted former foreign minister Vuk Jeremić as their entry, bringing the number to nine, with five of those coming from countries of former Yugoslavia.

Indeed, the fun part of this (s)election process is the sheer number of ex-YU candidates. All that’s missing now is a Bosnian candidate (or three of them) and we could have a rotating presidency, like in the good old days. But since we all know how that ended, maybe it’s best not to go down that road.

Anyhoo, while it was much fun to watch the candidates “informally present themselves” in a rather formal and organised manner, it was also fun to watch the representatives of UN member states and various groups somewhat struggle with the new process. While some questions to the candidates were specific to the point of crafting policy, others were outright duds, as if the representatives of member states didn’t exactly know what to do will all this (informal) power vested in them.

This goes for Türk’s hearing as well. He was asked a couple of hard questions, mostly on UN evergreens such as the Middle East conflict and misconduct of UN peacekeeping forces and he sailed through those pretty smoothly. But then again, he got a few softballs that were like “Dude, why are you even asking this?!”, but there, too, Türk fared pretty well, not coming across as patronising or condescending, an oft-repeated criticism during his stint as Slovenian president (full disclosure: pengovsky was involved with Türk’s 2012 reelection bid).

But the best part of today’s hearing was Liechtenstein asking Türk about his commitment to accountability and transparency. Liechtenstein and transparency. Now there are two words you don’t usually see in a positive correlation. But hey, if Arab countries can pretty much choose to ignore the various wars and conflicts on their own soil, if Israel can shift the blame for the shituation at home solely on the Palestinians and if Saudi Arabia can chair the UN Human Rights Council, then poor little Liechtenstein preempting the transparency issue any way it can is perfectly legitimate.

After all, this is the UN. And this is where Türk seems most at ease. Internationalist, but not interventionist. Recognising the sovereignty of member states, but not isolationist. Reform minded but recognising that different groups have different priorities. Good with buzzwords (people first!) but mindful of the reality and the UN’s heritage.

And this is where Türk probably nailed his presentation: When asked by te UK’s representative what the purpose of the UN is, Türk responded with one word: Peace

So, all in all, the man did good. Definitely better than a lot of people in Slovenia are willing to admit. In fact, a considerable amount of energy is being spent by his detractors back home to paint him as unsuitable for the job. Mostly on account of his supposed divisiveness, asking how can he unite an international organisation if he can’t even unite a country.

First of all, it’s kind of hard to unite the country where a major political player with a substantial following (who is now on the outs, but more on that in the coming days) is painting you as the devil incarnate and working actively to undermine any possible consensus in the country, political and otherwise. And secondly, despite their name, the United Nations were most likely truly united only once in their history: When the original 50 members signed the UN charter. From that point onwards it was about geopolitics, own interests and alliance-building. Which is a part of the reason why the organisation’s top position is “only” a Secretary-General and not a full-blooded President. The UN is not about unity, it is about building a consensus, i.e. the smallest possible level of disagreement, one issue at a time. And this is something Türk knows how to go about. At least in a UN setting.

And when people ask, what will Slovenia gain Türk if gets the job, the answer is “not much”. After all, the government to date spent a ludicrous amount of EUR 7514 (that’s right, 7k euros) in relation to his bid. So why should there “be something in” for a country in what is essentially a private individual’s campaign (true, the government did endorse him and formally put his name forward, but still). What is at work here is the unhealthy tribal instinct of Slovenians where a Slovenian who – against all odds – makes it out there in the big, big world, is somehow morally bound to help his fellow compatriots with jobs, pet projects and free money. They don’t realize that the primary concern is that of the employer. Just as the EU commissioner from Slovenia has to take care of European policies and not those of his/her home country, so is the UN Secretary General tasked with running the UN smoothly and not with promoting the agenda of his country of origin. One of these days we’ll all learn. But not today, apparently.

Anyhow, for all the bravado of the new selection process, the fact remains that when all will be said and done, it will be down to the permanent members of the Security Council to come up with a name. Which means that the back-room dealing is far from being over and done with. And it is entirely possible that a completely different name comes up on top.

Still, one would hope that the entire process will be slightly more civil than the upcoming Republican convention.

 

 

 

April 14th, 2016, posted by pengovsky

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