Of Morons and Ministers

After the parliament voted to dismiss defence minister with a 68-11 vote, Janko Veber’s very own Social Democrats predictably decided not to leave the ruling coalition, regardless. And while the debate, most of it held behind closed doors under the pretext of confidential information being used, proved that security issues were indeed secondary and that the real fight was about sale of Telekom Slovenije, the whole political clusterfuck amounted to little more than a storm in a very leaky tea-cup. Namely, the company in question is not as sought for as some wanted and other feared. On Monday, only one binding offer for Telekom was submitted and – adding insult to injury – it wasn’t the Jerrys. It was, in fact, a British investment fund Cinven.

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Telekom Slovenije (TSLG) share in the past year (source: Ljubljana Stock Exchange)

In all honesty, this was in fact more than just a political dust-up as tensions did flare high and the parliament debated Veber’s dismissal. The exact content of the debate is unknown, that being closed session and all, but word on the street has it that Veber and Cerar were ripping each other a new one. Which also explains why the public was excluded. Apparently, there was next to nothing confidential info mentioned in a five-hous-plus long debate but the whole thing was an ugly sight to see and the coalition, especially the SMC wanted to avoid that. But in the end, this was not the coalition-toppling earthquake many have speculated or indeed wanted it to be.

Implosion of Janko Veber

Politically speaking, this was a marginal victory for PM Miro Cerar. Not because he would have done a marvelous job of treading this particular issue, but mostly because Veber fucked up only days before the parliament session. Just as he was gaining some ground on Cerar, he threatened the prime minister with criminal charges on a count of destabilizing country defences, basically telling the PM he should be put on trial for high treason. With that Veber went into self-destruct mode, just revving up the rhetoric and not substantiating it with, well, anything. To put it in Top Fun terms, his ego was writing checks his body couldn’t cash.

Veber’s spectacular implosion overshadowed a just as equally embarrassing event. Namely, just as Veber moved to defenestrate Veber, the newly minted science, sport and education minister Klavdija Markež stepped on a landmine in the form of her masters’ thesis being mostly plagiarized. Which turned out to be true and prompted her immediate resignation, only five days after she had been nominated to the position. A huge embarrassment for Cerar as Markež’s predecessor Setnikar Cankar was dismissed for excessive earnings, tainting the clean image of PM Cerar and his party.

But in the end, it was the SD which blinked. And for good reason. If the party followed the path its VP had set, it would have found itself in opposition together with the United Left (ZL). Which would be bad news for SD as the ZL has the same number of deputies and are much better at being the rabid opposition party than the SD ever was. Not to mention the vast ground-network the SD has to maintain which costs money. Not to mention all the debt the party has incurred over the years and is now struggling to repay. And it’s much harder to do that when you’re in the opposition. Just as the once-mighty LDS. What’s left of it, anyway.

Minister for agriculture and defence

As a result, Slovenia is now in a mildly bizarre situation where it’s government in effect has a minister for agriculture and defence as Dejan Židan, SD’s main honcho temporarily took on defence portfolio as well. Technically, this set-up can last six months at the longest (three months, plus one three-months extension, as per law).

This is not the first time defence department was attached to another sitting minister, however. Years ago, under one of Drnovšek governments, the legendary PM, during one of his defence-minister-voes simply appointed science minister Lojze Marinček. An overall joyous character, the professor-turned-politician took the role in stride and went around official functions (which usually included then-president Milan Kučan) running around asking “has anyone seen my Commander-in-Chief?” and generally making light of the embarrassingly protracted situation.

To their credit, the SD said they will come with a suitable candidate sooner than in six months. although what passes as a “suitable candidate” in this day and age is debatable, to be honest.

Homo homini minister (of defence)

But as if one (former) defence minister making a fool out of himself wasn’t enough, his predecessor (many times removed) had to add his two cents. Or whatever the fuck his measure of monetary value is. Namely, while Veber, or more precisely, his social media manager was doing his best to make his case on Twitter (and failing badly), at some point he responded to a tweet by Janez Janša who accused Veber of lying with regard to secure locations used by the army. Veber replied with some sort of  rebuttal upon which Janša replied with calling Veber a moron. Literally.

While Janša might have actually had a point (at the very least is takes one to know one) the ease with which elected officials, senior political leaders at that, dig new lows in public communication is flabbergasting. Perhaps this is the result of Janša slipping ever more into irrelevance and being unable to do anything about it, but it does explain just why exactly fewer and fewer people want to have anything to do with him. Case in point being the NSi, which stands to reap benefits from what has since been dubbed The Veberkom Affair.

Last week Janša floated the idea of a shadow government, inviting anybody who would join, to well, join. The “everybody” was of course limited to the NSi, the only other opposition party on the political right-wing and the NSi said “thanks, but no thanks”. Janša took the rejection badly (as he always does) and threatened the rejectors will pay a heavy price for it. The truth, however, is that the NSi can in the long run only profit from its newfound spine. Indeed, they will most likely push for some sort of concessions from PM Cerar on issues dear to them. This will probably include but will not be limited to legislation regarding post-war grave-sites, an issue Cerar has already hinted he is willing to meet them at least half way.

And all of a sudden, nobody is in a hurry to sell the Telekom. Even the NSi, disappointed that there was only one offer (more likely: disappointed Deutsche Telekom did not bid), now say it might be prudent to halt the sale. The PM’s office, wisely, is not commenting on the ongoing procedures, but it seems that the political parties at large see the sale of Telekom in terms of short-term income, either for the budget or for party coffers and not in terms of what is best for the company.

For what it’s worth…

In fact, the current political elite is behaving as your average Slovenian small-time entrepreneur, valuing his business by the time and money he invested and not by what other people are willing to pay for it (i.e. it’s market value). As if we learned nothing from the numerous false starts of sale of Mercator retail chain resulting in the final price-tag being only a fraction of what it used to be or from the so-called Brewery Wars, which have led to rise and fall of Boško Šrot of Laško Brewery and, ultimately to the sale of the company for only good 50% more what Laško paid for Union ten years ago to monopolize the beer market in Slovenia.

Thus, the expectations that the value of Telekom Slovenije will rise on its own, are naive at least and the share price reflects that. It has been in a free-fall for the better part of the last two weeks and has rebounded slightly only today. A company which has not released an innovative product of its own for the better part of the decade, has spread itself too thin across the region only so see itself rolling back Balkan operations in the past few years and is being dragged through courts for allegedly abusing its market positions will require much more than just responsible management and ownership to increase its value. Since the state has, unfortunately, repeatedly failed to provide either (with a few notable exceptions far between), there is no compelling reason for the sale not to be realised, pending negotiations.

Unless, of course, the political elite suddenly wants to prove Janko Veber right.

 

 

April 15th, 2015, posted by pengovsky

Social Democrats Between Cerar And Veber-y Hard Place

in 1994, then-defence minister Janez Janša, refusing to quit office over Depala Vas Affair was removed from office by a parliamentary majority in what was probably one the most tense periods of Slovenian statehood. A defence minister using military spooks against civilians to his own needs is never a good idea, let alone in a fledgling democracy. And in an ironic fuck you by Mother History itself, twenty-one years later, almost to the day, Slovenia is again faced with a defence minister running amok and refusing to stand down. This time, however, it’s not Janez Janša, the now near-fallen leader of the SDS, but rather Janko Veber, of Social Democrats (SD) who directed OVS, the military intelligence service, to poke around the sale of Telekom Slovenije. Namely, he defied PM Miro Cerar and refused his calls to resign. AS a result, the PM will now ask the parliament to replace Veber.

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Picture related

Now, drawing parallels between Janša and Veber only goes so far, although a nasty one pops up on a seemingly unrelated question of handling the issue of Roma family Strojan some years ago. This time around, there is no danger of the select army units being deployed to “secure key installations”, no thousands of protesters in front of the parliament sporting pitchforks and shovels and threatening to do generally unpleasant things to deputies if defence minister goes. But one would think that the political class would have advanced both in style as well as content in the past twenty-odd years. Especially political veterans such as Veber who definitely have enough mileage to know better.

As a result, a clusterfuck of reasonable proportions is now brewing inside the ruling coalition. The SD is, for the moment, standing firm behind Veber with party boss Dejan Židan (who doubles as minister of agriculture) going on and on about Veber doing nothing inappropriate and that SD will defend ministers who do their work. On the other hand, Cerar’s demand Veber step down won him a round of applause from the opposition NSi and SDS, while coalition member DeSUS is apparently still calculating how to profit from this as of today on the same boat with Cerar.

The thing is that although technically his boss, PM Cerar cannot simply dismiss Veber. Because constitution. The ground law namely states that ministers are nominated by the PM but appointed to office by the parliament, hence it is only the parliament which can dismiss them. This stipulation has caused trouble more than once, with mixed results. Amazingly, back in 1992, during his second administration, Janez Drnovšek tried to replace Jožica Puhar of what is now the SD (!) but failed. Puhar later resigned of her own accord, while Drnovšek went on to become one of Slovenia’s iconic political leaders.

The same conundrum, albeit with much more melodrama attached, was faced by PM Borut Pahor in 2010, when he demanded that DeSUS leader Karl Erjavec resign as minister of environment due to a damning report by the Court of Audit. Teflon Karl refused, forcing Pahor to call upon the parliament to remove Erjavec from office. Only then did the man give in and resigned, saying he wanted to spare the PM further embarrassment.

And this is quite possibly the scenario we are facing today. Not unlike DeSUS in 2010, the SD in 2015 can, despite reportedly a strong faction in the party to do so, ill afford to quit the ruling coalition. Because resources. You see, the party is but a mere shadow of its former self. It won 30 seats in the parliament in 2008. Six years later it hardly mustered six. And it fared only marginally better on municipal level. The only asset it really still has is its organisation and ground network. But that needs to be supported somehow, mostly by influence exerted on various levels to either bring in financing or to please the right people. Preferably both. And you can not do that when in opposition.

So while PM Cerar might be faced with an undesirable prospect of a single-vote majority in the parliament (SMC and DeSUS combined can put together 46 votes), going back to square one, reopen coalition negotiations and try to lure Alenka Bratušek’s ZaAB to join in on the fun or even give a shot to a minority government rule, the SD is faced with a much more fundamental question of its survival. Of the party as a whole, not just survival of its current leadership set and the gravy train attached to it. The on

The only thing going in favour of the SD is the vast amount of experience it can draw from. The SMC is still well-versed in the intricacies of political maneuvering and is prone to trip over things that need not being tripped over. One such thing is the SD trying to shift the blame for the current situation on the SMC, saying the PM is not adhering to the coalition agreement by speeding through the motions to replace Veber. But Cerar really doesn’t have any other option. Even before the whole thing escalated to boiling point it was clear the PM can not simply let this one slide. There he was, faced with a minister who clearly stepped is bending over backwards trying to explain why, of all the possible agencies, bureaus and directorates did he have to pick army spooks to assess the sale of Telekom. Furthermore, why the bleeping bleep did that he, while claiming to have acted in the interests of national security, exposed the inner communication of military intelligence which – if nothing else – showed that the service was just as divided on the issue as the rest of the country. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a security risk. And Veber trying to explain all that was a textbook definition of a shitty job.

If Cerar ignored the issue or even supported Veber, he would have not only condoned Veber’s actions but – just as importantly – empowered the SD to the point of near-invincibility, because if you can get away with abusing military intelligence for political purposes, you can get away with anything. And before the faithful jump citing Veber’s concern for national security, we should not forget his party chief Židan who yesterday more or less plainly told the newsmedia the true casus belli was not national security as such but rather control of the Telekom. And this evening, Veber upped the ante, echoing Židan and even implied that while he was working in the interests of the country, Cerar wasn’t. Which is stopping just short of accusing the prime minister of high treason. And that’s a statement that’s very hard to walk away from. So the question do jour is whether the SD will walk away from Veber or from the government.

If pengovsky were a betting man, he’d bet on the former. Especially since there are other big companies for sale as well and if the SD quits the government, they relinquish what little influence they will have over the issue after the dust settles.

 

 

March 31st, 2015, posted by pengovsky

Referendum On Same-Sex Marriage Blocked But Not Over And Done With

Slovenian parliament yesterday voted to block the referendum on same-sex marriage by an overwhelming majority od 53 votes in favour nad 21 against. This comes after the SMC ironed out the problems they had with the move by the United Left, SocDems nad Alenka Bratušek‘s ZaAB, which called a special session of the parliament to block the referendum on the grounds that it would put a human rights question up for a popular vote.

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Final vote in favour of blocking referendum on same-sex marriage (source: RTVSLO)

The SMC initially said it would not impede the referendum, causing much furore in the LGBT community among the progressive part od the society in general, especially since they voted in favour of the law. But as pengovsky wrote days ago, there was much more to their misgivings than a simple flip-flop on the issue.

You see, the story does not end bere. In fact it is entirely possible that the referendum will be held nevertheless.

Namely, what happened yesterday was that a new constitutional provision allowing for blocking the referendum was applied for the first time ever. And now the ball is in the petitioners’ court, giving them a chance to challenge the parliament move in the Constitutional Court. Aleš Primc & Co. will obviously do exactly that. Especially since they’ve apparently already collected the necessary 40.000 signatures.

And as usual in Slovenia, this constitutional provision, enacted during Janša government 2.0 was not followed up with necessary legislation. This existing legislation on popular initiative is to be applied in analogy which leaves even more room for manoeuvre that there was meant to be in the first place.

So, the way things stand now, the whole same-sex marriage issue will land in front of nine judges of the constitutional court. The judges have 30 days to decide but they have anything but a consistent record on such issue. Both as an institution and as individuals. In fact, given past experience, it not at all unfathomable that they will allow the referendum to go forward, be it on procedural ground, be it on substance.

And if you’re not worried yet, try this on for size: in the constitutional court, the deck is stacked against proponents of same-sex marriage. Because technically the defendant is the National Assembly as an institution and not political parties which voted in favour of blocking the referendum. This means that the actual legal argument for blocking the referendum will be laid out by the parliamentary legal service. Which in itself is not a problem, since the said service sports some of the best lawyers in the country. The problem is that the parliamentary legal service can by its very definition only make a legal argument.

In all probability, the argument in favour of the referendum will be made by more or less the same legal team which is heavily affiliated with the NSi and by extension the Catholic church and which already has a couple of constitutional victories under its belt, most notably the case against the naming of Tito Street and, more recently, a case against discriminatory funding of private schools with regard to state schools.

But the question at hand is not just legal, it is also ideological and emotional. And nothing prevents the judges to look beyond the mere letter of the law. In which case the odds for green-lighting the referendum increase dramatically.

And should this happen, the petitioners will have been inadvertently given an enormously powerful weapon in the referendum debate. Namely, it goes without saying they would claim that even the constitutional court thinks that same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Which of course wouldn’t be true, but they would go ahead and say it anyway. Because the more doubt they can sow in the people’s minds, the better. And the proponents of same-sex marriage, an already wily heterogeneous group, would face even more of an uphill battle, demanding even more discipline and consistency.

All of that in a debate on an issue where emotions will ultimately decide. So, while the vote in the parliament was a politically bold move, the issue is far from settled. And until then, the law allowing same-sex marriage is on ice.

 

 

March 27th, 2015, posted by pengovsky

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