2018 Parliamentary Election: Bells And Dog-Whistles

With only days remaining, the 2018 Slovenian parliamentary election campaign continues to underwhelm both in style and substance. There has been precious little movement in top positions in public opinions polls, but as time is running out nervousness is starting to set in, with subtle policy hints and dog-whistles giving way to veritable bullhorns in crude attempts to pick up an additional vote or two.

Best of the worst of campaign posters. (source, source and source)

Parties are promising everything and the moon to their voters. No commitment is too off-the-rails, no slogan is beyond the pale and no lie too bald-faced to serve the purpose. Sometimes it feels as if everyone involved just went off the rocker a bit. But given that between 20 and 45 percent of the electorate remain undecided (depending on which poll you look at), that is probably to be expected.

Public opinion polls are all over the place and strategists are probably pulling their hair out trying to figure out where the fuck their parties actually stand vote-wise. On the other hand, the PR people are having repeat field days by choosing a poll they like, pointing to it and saying “hey, look, we’re up three percent” or “oh, wow, we just made a 60% surge” or some stupid shit like that, because going from 2.4 to 3.9 percent is indeed a 60% increase but it still puts you below the 4-percent parliamentary threshold. Not to mention the fact that any result below 3 percent is – more or less – within statistical error.

However, polls are not entirely useless. They do give a rough idea of party rankings come Sunday and at least there all pollsters agree that for the past couple of weeks the SDS consistently led the pack, opening up an ever wider lead over lower ranked parties.

It’s déjà vu all over again

Whether or not this will hold until Sunday is, remarkably, still anyone’s guess. Namely, going on previous experience, situations like this tend to degenerate into a referendum on Janez Janša. This was true in 2008, 2011 and to a degree in 2014, even though the Glorious Leader was in jail at the time on corruption charges and the SDS wasn’t a clear favourite to win.

In all three cases, the election was decided literally in the last couple of days by that all-important subset of undecided and tactical voters who coalesced around the party most likely to challenge Janša’s top spot.

SD in 2008, Positive Slovenia in 2011 and SMC in 2014 all got a late-game push that either put them over the top (2008 and 2011) or turned a marginal victory into a landslide (2014), leaving Janša and SDS to lick their wounds in opposition.

If it worked before, the reasoning goes, why shouldn’t it work now? The media helped to create that particular frame by pressing party leaders into openly stating whether they would join a Janša-led government, making this one of the main themes in TV debates.

In addition – and again going past experience – the SDS is all too keen to shoot itself in the foot and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In 2008 they mucked about with public sector wages, enraging enough people to vote them out even before the financial crisis reached Slovenia in earnest. In 2011, Janša was raising hell about his opponents financial and property disclosures, only have the move blow into his face literally on the last day of the campaign when his own property deals turned out to be shady at best. And in 2014, the SDS overplayed their “Janša unjustly imprisoned” mantra and threatened not to recognise the electoral result, prompting a backlash on all fronts: media, voters and the party itself, thus causing a large chunk of undecided voters to side with then-nondescript Miro Cerar and his SMC.

Beware of Hungarians bearing gifts

So, what about 2018? Pengovsky doesn’t really know, but Viktor Orban might. Namely, it transpired earlier in the week that people in Orban’s orbit made new investments into SDS-controlled media ring.

To cut a long story short: Soon after it got off the ground, the much heralded SDS-led-and-inspired project of a right-wing TV channel Nova24 TV (think Fox News but with North Korean dedication) ran out of steam and would come down crashing were it not for some friendly Hungarians who invested around 800 thousand euros into the project. The editorial line promptly changed from “Janša über alles” to “those fucking migrants” and anything else that would be spewn out by the Fidesz propaganda machine, including Soros-bashing and borderline anti-Semitism.

Fast forward to 2018, when Janša gets caught red-handed for taking out a shady loan in Bosnia-Herzegovina, ostensibly to finance the campaign. But the plan hit a snag: foreign campaign financing is illegal and Janša was forced to return the money and (uncharacteristically) admit the error. Interestingly enough, while he was trying to get the story straight (it is still not clear whose money he was borrowing) he mentioned the Hungarian co-owners of SDS-ran media outlets as facilitators of the deal.

And lo-behold! It now turns out those same Hungarians have recapitalised these media outlets with another 800 thousand euros. Which, on the face of things, looks only like a bad investment since Hungarians already controlled a majority stake in most if not all of these outlets (and even if they didn’t, their influence on the editorial line was unmistakable). So, why pump 1.6 million into a media ring that is worth a fraction of the sum? Pride? Prejudice? Gullibility? Possibly all three.

However, those same media outlets are not only peddling the SDS agenda though their content (although it is often hard to know where SDS PR stops and their reporting begins) but, critically, are paying for campaign ads on social networks as well. Which suggests that Viktor Orban and his people are likely financing at least part of Janša’s campaign.

Whether or not this will register with the voters remains to be seen. Awareness of the effects social media campaigns tend to have these days is still very limited in Slovenia. Which is why things like re-hashing Farage’s Breaking Point poster or Ben Carson’s These Hands campaign are still attempted. Or, for that matter, The Left’s complete rip-off of UK Labour’s For The Many Not The Few slogan.

But fact of the matter is that Slovenians are prickly about money matters, especially when sums are not overwhelming. 800k twice over is a lot of money for a dubious media outlet, but it is still an amount an average Slovenian voter can relate to, if only just. Which is why no-one bat an eyelid for a long time in the 1.5 billion euro corruption case like TEŠ 6.

Anyhow, we’ll see if enough voters sour on Janša again to deny him an outright victory. With a distinct lack of any meaningful campaign message by almost everyone in the ring, an anti-Janša vote is the best most left-wing and even some right-wing parties can hope for, let the chips fall where the may.


Now, this has not been the subtlest of campaigns. Case in point, posters by SDS and SLS that would make Nigel Farage and Viktor Orban proud, whereas those by the SD made more than one person cringe.

True, not everyone is leaving everything to chance. Matej Tonin of NSi, for example, played the long game with a very pro-business, tax-cut platform, earning praise and salutations from many-a-business circle. To be fair, some of what NSi promises is sound entrepreneurial policy that Slovenia is in desperate need of. But then there are bits that would make supply-side economists have multiple orgasms and would not look out of place in a Donald Trump-led GOP dystopia.

But as time started running out and the NSi still didn’t make the breakthrough they expected after replacing Ljudmila Novak as leader in a late-night coup at the end of January, the new party chief Tonin replaced the dog-whistles with a bullhorn.

Gone were the hints along the lines of “tolerance does not mean all lifestyles and choices should be equally treated by the state”. Replacing them were shouts of “prisoners should pay for their own food” and “people on benefits are simply lazy and should be stripped of support”. Just in case anyone had any doubt as to where the party really stood.

And while we’re on the issue: the political left seems to have taken the SDS Hungarian connection a bit too far as they’ve started using Hungarian language and national symbols as anti-Janša slurs. I mean, it is one thing to draw a parallel between a Hungarian would-be autocrat and his biggest Slovenian fan and apparent financial beneficiary. It is quite another to pull an entire nation into this. Not cool.

Anyway, back to the NSi One thing that separates Tonin and his predecessor at the party helm, is the propensity to join an SDS led-government. NSI was always thought of as a natural ally of the SDS at best and a satellite party at worst. But while Novak usually played her hand close to her vest and parted ways with Janša publicly more than once, Tonin is just to easy to read in his eagerness to return the party to power, despite trying to play it cool. Ironically, a good showing by the NSi is in Janša’s interest as well as it increases his chances of achieving parliamentary majority. He can always screw Tonin over later.

Coal-ition partners

This does not mean, of course, that other parties would not be prone to joining Janša’s government. Pengovsky wrote on several occasions that just about every party that looks poised to enter the parliament will have a strong incentive to enter whatever coalition might emerge in the end, including one led by the SDS.

SD, in pengovsky’s opinion is still very likely to hop on Janša gravy train, despite their claims to the contrary. To put it simply, the party needs access to government resources if it is to prevent its implosion, especially after a disastrous campaign like this. And given that SD and SDS have in the past found ways to work together (think TEŠ 6 and Borut Pahor’s often inexplicable need to indulge Janša), the coalition between the two is not wholly unrealistic. Call it a coal-lition.

Ditto DeSUS which has been a member of virtually every coalition in the past 20 years. Karl Erjavec might claim he is ready for some down-time in the opposition but there is little a pensioners’ party in opposition can do for its core constituency.

SMC seems to have defied the odds and will return to the next parliament, albeit in a much-reduced capacity (one that is, it must be said, normal for a liberal party). But given that it will be cut down to size, the party will no doubt have to deal with internal fallout which will be much easier to handle if disgruntled self-important party apparatchiks and people thrown out of elected office can be secured plum jobs at various levels of the (para)state apparatus.

Then there’s LMŠ of Marjan Šarec. The new kid on the block looks poised to win a substantial chunk of votes. Not only will it be nigh impossible to cobble together a coalition without him, a lot of people would be asking why exactly did they vote for LMŠ if they remain in the opposition. Also, a fledgling party without a strong ideological glue but with a significant MP count will see those MPs poached more or less from Day One.

The only party that seems more or less content in opposition is The Left. Having gone though a reckoning of its own the 2014 Slovenian version of Syriza is trying to remodel itself along the lines of a Corbyn Labour Party. Success is limited, but as the party seems to have shed most of its anarchistic element, it seems to have compensated by managing to address a new set of the urban left, quite eating into SD voters.

Enter the president

However, another plausible scenario is that the vote breaks in a way that makes it possible for an anti-Janša coalition to emerge. This would be possible especially if the NSi were to underperform, leaving Janša with no obvious backup in the parliament and provided the centre-left parties were disciplined enough to form a united front.

This scenario is unlikely but not impossible. The biggest hurdle such a rag-tag coalition would face comes in the form of president Paho who already hinted that he will give the largest party (presumably SDS) first crack at forming a government. Now, while there is no constitutional requirement for him to do so, it does seem logical and could hardly be held against him. Because democracy and stuff.

However, if an anti-Janša coalition were to convince Pahor that not only will they not support Janša for PM but would be able to show their PM nominee has secured 46 or more votes, Pahor might be forced to reconsider from the get go.

Or so they hope. More likely, Pahor would still nominate Janša as PM-designate who would then do his damnest to cobble together the necessary votes. Should, however, all other parties resist Janša’s overtures, then and only then could they attempt to form a government.

The more one looks at this the more it is starting to look like a veritable clusterfuck where very few scenarios end with a stable government surviving the entire four-year term. And that’s before we’ve factored in the possibility of a number of smaller parties beating the odds and making it into the parliament. This includes SAB (Alenka Bratušek Party) and the SLS, both of which hover around two percent, the Slovenian Nationalist Party of Zmago Jelinčič rising from the dead and the Pirate party which still runs an outside chance of actually seeing its potential voters turn up and vote.

Stay tuned.

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.