Playing To Lose, Cerar Goes About Saving Private Mramor

Yesterday, finance minister Dušan Mramor offered to resign over a bonuses scandal that’s been overflowing for about two weeks now. In what was a somewhat unexpected move, PM Cerar did not accept the resignation. Instead he subjected Mramor to a mere slap on the wrist and then proceeded to extol Mramor’s track record at the ministry. Although the affair involved relatively modest amounts, the public and the media were indignant and the pundits were near-unanimous that Cerar will let Mramor go. Since he didn’t, the overall sentiment is that Cerar committed political suicide and will never be re-elected again. The truth, in pengovsky’s view, is somewhat different: Cerar has long since become unelectable, most likely on Day 2 of his tenure. It just took him over a year and two pan-european structural crises to come to that conclusion. Thus in terms of his own political future he has little to lose. He can, however, make the remaining three-and-a-half years count. And for that, he needs Mrarmor more than Mramor needs him.

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Miro The Man and Dušan The Man’s Man, some time ago. (source)

The gist of the story is that Mramor, while serving as dean of the Faculty of Economics in 2008, OK’ed use of special clause in labour legislation that provided for a 24/7 standby bonus. The clause was meant to be used to augment paychecks to various branches of first responders and similar services, but in mid-2008, apparently to circumvent the havoc wrought by the across-the-board austerity at the time, the faculty came up with this clause and, well, bent over backwards to expand its interpretation to cover university professors as well. The move worked so well that it was copied by nine out of eleven faculties, members of University of Ljubljana (Faculty of Theology and Faculty of Law being the notable exceptions).

Unmitigated disaster

Now, ever since the story broke, it has been an unmitigated PR disaster for Mramor and everyone else involved. This includes Minster of Education Maja Makovec Brenčič, former SD heavyweight and incumbent dean of the Faculty of Economics Metka Tekavčič and several other public personae. Especially daft was the feeble defence mounted by the faculty, now with Tekavčič at the helm, which only reinforced the perception of entitlement on the part of the academic elite. The fact that the whole issue centered on about half a million euros across nine faculties, did little to ausage the problem. Quite to the contrary. It is a known quirk of the Slovenian voter that the more he or she can relate to a number, the more emotional their response will be.

Case in point being Mramor who, over the years, accumulated around 45k euros in “standby bonuses”. 45,000 euros is not an unreachable amount of money. It’s about three-years-worth of average Slovenian wage. To put it another way, 45k will buy you an mid-to-upper-range BMW. Which is what makes the people so mad. They have an approximate idea about how much 45k euros actually is and they base their judgements on that. To put in perspective, only about a week ago, Slovenia was forced to pay 42 million euros (almost a thousand times more) to Croatia as damages for electricity not delivered from Krško nuclear plant between 2002 and 2003, when a political decision was taken to punitively and unilaterally withhold electricity from Croatia, even though the neighbouring country owns a 50% stake in the plant. Point being that the voters will more likely and more furiously take issue with smaller amounts of money. Doubly so if the payouts are legally dubious, as they are in this case.

Now, in the end Mramor has promised to pay back the whole amount, but only after being prodded by the media and – presumably – by the PM himself. Before that he somehow came to the conclusion that he would only pay back some 3000 euros. As if we learned nothing from the case of Gregor Virant in 2011.

Do-Goodnik becomes unelectable

But enough about Mramor. What he did was wrong, regardless of the motives. And while he’s not off the hook just yet, he does get to live another day or so and in politics a week is a lifetime. What is equally interesting, however, is why Cerar bailed Mramor out in the first place and squandered what little remained of the ethical platform the SMC ran on in 2014.

First, the already mentioned fact that Cerar has, in fact, been unelectable for some time. At the very least from the onset of the refugee crisis where he alienated a substantial part of the progressive vote by raising a razor-wire fence on the border with Croatia and empowering the military to police civilians. On the other hand, he only infuriated the right-wing which – although clamouring for these measures – predictably deemed them to little, too late, when finally passed. But in all likelihood, Cerar’s political demise began soon after he began his term, when the high-flying ethical do-goodnik platform met the bleak politcal and economic reality of Slovenia. After kicking ministers out for much smaller transgressions and having seen himself and Mramor brush with a similar affair, Cerar finally realized that it was in effect he himself who was pulling the rug from under his feet. Others were just helping.

Not that there was any lack of help. During yesterday’s press conference, Cerar took a swipe at SDS and SD, more or less saying that he will not have the composition of this government being dictated to him. That the SDS is making life difficult for Cerar is hardly news. After all, they’re the opposition, even if they’re being strangely blunt about that as of late. Namely, according to one source, the party openly threatened the SMC with making their life a living hell if the largest party does not support the SDS nominee for a vacant post at the European Court of Human Rights. The SMS refused to oblige. Hell did in fact commence.

SD ante portas

But the slap across the face of the SD was much more telling. The party, although still in relative ruin after its electoral flop, was given a new lease of life by Cerar’s strategic mistake of making them coalition partners. It soon started to re-establish its economic base and soon enough found itself in a massive brawl with the SMC over the sale of Telekom Slovenije. The SD lost that particular battle but stalled the whole thing just enough to derail the sale. Then came the beheading of the bad bank where SD gained a whole new range of informal power and – not unimportant – where Mramor lost. Which sort of made him the next target. And since he was apparently vunerable in the bonuses department… well, you now know the story.

From this point of view, had Cerar accepted Mramor’s resignation, the SD would have practically owned the government. They’ve squeezed a number of consessions out of Cerar as it is. The latest one being a shamelessly brazen creation of a party fief. officially known as the State Forest Company, it centralizes forestry management and falls under the purview of – yup, you guessed it – minister of agriculture, forestry and food, headed by leader of the SD Dejan Židan. Had Cerar allowed them to go any further, he would relinquish what little control he has on the home front.

Bond…. Sovereign bond

Ditto for the foreign front. Had Cerar relieved Mramor of his duties, Slovenia would in all likelihood start raising many-an-eyebrow of various investors all over the world. Until now, these were more or less happy to buy Slovenian debt precisely because Mramor and his predecessor Čufer handled the post-bailout situation adroitly and took the country of various watch-lists in Brussels, Berlin and Washington, even though (in all honesty) the pace of reforms and privatization has been glacial, at best. Bottom line, with the to-do list still being more or less the same as it was under Bratušek tenure, Mramor is Cerar’s best insurance against the possibility that the humanitarian and political crisis (in terms of EU issues) is joined by a resurgent financial crisis, too.

Thus, by protecting finance minister Mramor, Cerar conceded that he’ll lose the next elections. ironically, to win them, he probably has to play to lose, anyhow.

The Tomb Of National Heroes

Following snap elections on 13 July Slovenian parliament held an inaugural session on Friday which – if one attempted to describe it in full – would be somewhere between a Monty Python act, a wake and select scenes from They Live. In fact, what we had today was people an exercise in different planes of reality converging into the same point of the time-space continuum. The results were predictably ugly.

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Pahor and Janša make it to 9gag. That’s one off the bucket-list (source)

On one hand we had Janez Janša, the jailed leader of the SDS who was granted a short leave of his prison sentence to attend the session, providing for an extraordinary situation where a convicted criminal serving a prison sentence is elected and starts serving as an MP. On the other side there were a couple of hundred protestors in front of the parliament who demanded the release of Janez Janša from prison, called him a political prisoner and a martyr. Next, there was Janša’s SDS which refused to make nominations in a key parliamentary committee, vowing to do the same for every other parliamentary body until they are given assurances new elections will be held as soon as Janša is acquitted (as the faithful believe will and protest in front of the court daily to happen). Still further, however, are the trials and tribulations of PM-presumptive Miro Cerar who is paying a heavy price for his hardball tactics in the Slovenian EU Commissioner issue. Cerar has all but spent whatever progress he had had with Karl Erjavec of DeSUS and is, for all intents and purposes back to square one in coalition negotiations. If he ever left square one at all, that is. Oh, and then there’s the reality of President Pahor quoting Churchill again and (again) admitting he didn’t know his ass-hole from his ear-hole when he handled the outbreak of crisis in 2008.

You can’t always get what you want

The ugly part is that no-one got what they wanted and yet everyone got more than what they bargained for. Case in point being Milan Brglez, the man thought to be the brains behind Miro Cerar Party (SMC) and widely tipped to be the next foreign minister (on account of his international studies tenure at the Faculty of Social Sciences), was forced to accept the nomination for the Speaker of the parliament. This brings about an unusual situation where the Speaker of the Parliament, a post usually manned by the second largest coalition party, is a member of the largest coalition party which is now poised to occupy the upper-most levels of both executive and legislative branches. That it was Miro Cerar, the legalist and a man of high democratic standard, who had to break what little democratic tradition this country has, is especially ironic.

Having said that, it is possible that – regardless of his and Cerar’s statements – Brglez as Speaker is only a temporary solution. You know, just to get the parliament up-and-running. But for Brglez to make the switch to Foreign Ministry (a.k.a. Mladika, as the building is called), a lot of things must happen, chief among them being DeSUS actually joining Cerar’s coalition and Erjavec wanting to quite as foreign minister and take over as parliament chief. Either that or becoming EU commissioner (yeah, right 🙂 ). Brglez’s chances of clinching the top foreign-affairs job would increase greatly if his party boss were to cobble a coalition sans DeSUS. And if days ago Cerar and his people were wondering why they would make their lives difficult by not inviting Erjavec to the ruling gang, they’re probably starting to see that political life with Erjavec in tow is much more difficult than without him. But, as things stand, Cerar went from setting the pace to putting out fires in a matter of days. He needs to get his act together, fast.

The person who, amazingly, did hold her act together on Friday was Marjana Kotnik Poropat, an MP for DeSUS who, by virtue of being the oldest MP, chaired the inaugural session. Poropat, obviously coached and prepared, rejected every attempt Jože Tanko, head of SDS parliamentary group, made to derail the parliament from day one. Tanko made numerous procedural demands most of which had to do with MPs confirming the election results, thus finding they do indeed hold the mandate of the people and can start their work. The SDS, however, refused to appoint their members to the relevant committee and called for the parliament legal service to form an opinion on whether these committees can be established if not all parties appoint members. Further to that Tanko demanded time to stuy the legal service’s opinion, obviously trying to extend and possibly derail the parliament even before it would even formally establish itself. Poropat would have none of that and rebuffed Tanko repeatedly, much to annoyance of SDS masters of procedure and to amazement of the interested public (i.e. the Slovenian tweetosphere which had a field day yesterday).

Prison break

Whether Tanko was following a real plan or was just buying time for his boss remains a mystery. Namely, Janez Janša got a daily pass to leave prison and attend the session of the parliament to which he was elected. This predictably precipitated all sorts of false dilemmas on whether his mandate should be confirmed or not, whether he is fit to stand as MP or not et cetera. But the issue is indeed a fairly simple one. While an MP, sentenced to a prison term of six monts or more can be stripped of office (by a majority vote of his colleagues), there is currently no law that would prohibit a convict to stand for elections. Which is precisely the case with Janša. And since he was legally elected, MPs had no choice but to confirm his mandate, leaving it for later (and probably quite soon) to navigate the legal minefield of stripping Janša of his MP status.

Because as things stand now, the leader of the opposition gets to leave the prison every time he has stuff scheduled in the parliament and gets to complain that “even the old Yugoslav regime treated him better than Slovenian authorities do”. Which is bullshit, of course, but Janša and the SDS are forced tp resort to increasingly preposterous lies in order to maintain the enthusiasm of the faithful. But still, it must have been quite a downer to see only three-hundred people, mostly well beyond retirement age, chanting his name, cursing the communist conspiracy that runs the country and demanding Janša be released from prison. Which proved for a lot bizarre scenes where Janša went to meet his supporters during a break in session and the flock shouted that he should be let out of prison while he was there. In all honesty, factually, they are correct. But in terms of space and time, well… They funny 🙂

But the scenery was even more bizzare than the content. The Janša crowd gathered in a small park on the West side of the parliament and spent hours chanting to their hero, praising him as the saviour of the nation and insisting the country will not be free until he is. But long gone are the days when tens of thousands chanted Janša’s name in front of the parliament, like in 1994 when Janša was being removed from the post of defence minister in the wake of Depala vas Affair. From 30.000 to 300 people in twenty years is a sure-fire sign that Janša’s political star is fading. In a true Freudian twist, Friday’s pro-Janša rally was held only ten metres away from the tomb of national heroes. In the end, we’re all dead. Politically or for real.

Please, stop quoting Churchill

But stupidity, she is immortal. Case in point being President Pahor’s speech which was, as per usual, high on big words but low on actual content (but, admittedly, still much better than his Lorem Ipsum speech aboard Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior days ago). In his parliament speech Pahor invoked Churchill and said that “after years of trying to solve the crisis the wrong way we now finally know what it is all about and can do it the right way”. Now, quoting Churchill is one of Pahor’s favourite political activities. And to be honest, Churchill is a quotable man with much to be quoted about. But what President Pahor was alluding to, however, was supposed Churchill statement that one can count on America to do the right thing after it had done everything else.

Now, for starters, President Pahor freely admitted that all of his 2008-2011 bravado, long-as-fuck press conferences and moving small red and green dots on a magnetic board that represented reform attempts, he didn’t know shit about tackling the crisis. You know, not even an “oops, sorry”. Just more bravado to the tune of “we finally nailed it this time.” Unfortunately, he didn’t. You see, the quote is taken out of context. What Churchill was supposedly referring to was an intervention of an outside power in what was then still a European armed conflict. Which of course is somewhat different from “we finally know what to do now”. And just to add insult to injury: Churchill never actually said that. So much for knowing how to tackle the crisis, when you can’t even pick a correct Churchill quote.But hey, as president, you can do whatever you like, I guess. Even shake hands with a convicted felon. Figure the tomb of national heroes won’t be needing an expansion any time soon after all.

    Slovenian Elections: The Purge

    In what can only be described as a rout, Miro Cerar won Sunday Slovenian elections in a landslide, winning 36 out of 90 seats, with two of those being reserved for Hungarian and Italian minorities. Thus, the law-professor who in August will turn 51, is the new Slovenian PM-presumptive.

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    Miro Cerar, PM-presumptive (source)

    Having said that, the real work begins for Cerar only now. In the election campaign he notoriously avoided taking a position on any specific issue, clearly aiming for (and achieving) a catch-all effect. Even his victory speech on Sunday night was lacklustre, to say the least. It was more of his dalai-lama-meets-law-professor-meets-soft-populist rhetoric, nothing and everything at the same time.

    PM-presumptive meets the coalition

    On one hand, this is understandable. Cerar won, but if Zoran Janković, winner of the last elections is anything to go by, it is very easy to squander a relative majority by closing too many doors early on. On the other hand, it was Cerar who was given a clear mandate to rule the country so he needs to start taking positions and dictate the tempo. Until now, he was mostly re-active, for example excluding a possible coalition with Janez Janša‘s SDS only after Janša shot first and excluded a possible coalition with SMC.

    The main issue for Cerar therefore is to make sure he does not become a hostage to his coalition partner or partners. Most likely plural. Namely, if here were to form a two-party coalition, DeSUS is his only choice. Which means that every time a sticky issue would come up, Karl Erjavec would balk and threaten with leaving the coalition, thus forcing Cerar to give in. And Erjavec can be really persuasive. Just ask Janša, Pahor or Bratušek.

    So step number one for the PM-presumptive is to leave DeSUS out. Which already limits his options. Step number two will most likely be to make sure his is more than just a single-vote majority, again, for the above reasons. This means he will have to reach both left and right. With ZL not being a viable option, Cerar’s possible coalition partners include Social Democrats, Alenka Bratušek Alliance and the NSi. And mathematics suggests he will try to form a ruling coalition will all three of them.

    Such an approach would be advantageous for many reasons. Fist, it would put him at a comfortable 51 votes. Second, it would adhere to his pre-election “why can’t we all just get along” mantra. And third (and perhaps most important) it would leave enough room for manoeuvre vote-wise for any of the junior coalition partners to depart from the common line every now and then and still not endanger the 46-vote majority.

    Thus, for example, the SD could oppose further privatisation plans (and keep what is left of their electorate happy) while the legislation could still be passed, without endangering either the 46-votes majority or the coalition itself.

    And last, but not least, this approach would be reminiscent of the way the late Janez Drnovšek put coalitions together and it is always good to be compared to Drnovšek, even though Cerar right now doesn’t even come close to the legendary PM. However, while Cerar is mulling his next move, the exact opposite seems to be going in the SDS, as their shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach backfired badly.

    The purge

    That the SDS took a beating goes without saying. Sunday saw their worst performance in the last decade and only slighty better than their results in 1996 and 2000 elections. Even worse: when compared to the overall number of eligible voters, support for SDS in 2014 elections boils down to a mere ten percent of adult Slovenians. Granted, this says a lot of other parties as well, but is especially damaging for a party which promotes itself as the only one defending patriotic values and does a lot of flag-waving at every opportunity.

    After Janez Janša was admitted to prison due to a confirmed guilty verdict in the Patria Case, the SDS made their glorious leader the focal point of their campaign. SDS MP and one of party vice-presidents Zvonko Černač took centre stage and demanded Janša be released at every opportunity. No longer was their election platform important, they focused solely on Janša, claiming elections are not free and fair without him.

    After the results came in, Černač repeated the #freeJJ mantra and added the party will not be taking active part in parliamentary procedure. There were even reports about their elected MPs not actually taking office, but the plan was supposedly dropped as it became clear that in that case new elections would simply be called for vacant seats.

    Anyhoo, after the SDS openly threatened to derail parliamentary procedure, media back-lash ensued followed by what was reported as a fierce debate in the party Executive Council. As a result, Černač backtracked on the issue, saying he was “misinterpreted”. Now, let’s take a moment and reflect on this.

    What happens when the alpha-male leaves the pack

    For the first time on bob-knows-how-many years, the SDS made a complete and unreserved U-turn in a little more than 24 hours. This is the first example of what pengovsky projected the moment Janša was put behind bars. The alpha-male is out of the game on a daily basis and his replacement does not carry nearly enough clout for decisions and moves to go unquestioned.

    And there’s a lot of bad blood in the SDS right now. Some of their key people didn’t get elected even though they were thought of as fixtures of Slovenian politics. Cases in point being the above mentioned Zvonko Černač (which means he has even less clout in the party and his position as Janša’s point-man is in peril) as well as Jožef Jerovšek, who served as SDS MP continuously since 1996. Ditto Andrej Vizjak, who got elected for the first time in 2000 and held many posts ever since, including that of minister of economy (2004) and labour (2011).

    Moving away from the SDS, Franc Pukšič, the industrious former mayor of Destrnik, who held an MP seat continuously since 1996. Pukšič started as an SDS member but switched to SLS in 2008. Since the party didn’t make it above the 4% treshold, one of the more distinctive features of the parliament is gone. Just like that. Ditto for Pukšič’s much more mild-mannered party colleague Jakob Presečnik.

    Rout of the left

    The purge of course wasn’t limited to the right side of the political spectrum. Lucky for them, a lot of more experienced SD members decided to retire and had evaded the voters opening a can of whop-ass on them. But the purge of the SD is going on for quite a while now. In six years they went down from thirty (2008) to mere five MPs (2014).

    The purge, however, was complete for what was left of Positive Slovenia. The party of Ljubljana mayor Zoran Janković didn’t make it above 4%, reducing Zoki’s aura of invincibility to, well, sundust. Janković is in a lot of trouble right now (both legally and politically) and should start getting concerned with his plans for another term as Ljubljana mayor. His opponents smell and see blood and his tenure in the city hall is all of a sudden much more insecure. The party, however, is more or less dead in the water. It might carry on, but it will remain a mere shadow of its former victorious self.

    The caretaker PM Alenka Bratušek, however, fared slightly better. When her fight with Janković split PS down the middle and she and her supporters went to form their own party, her stated goal was to best PS in the polls. Which was kind of weird at the time as the consensus was they should be concerned with making it to the parliament first. But in the end, it turned to be one and the same goal. Bratušek can, in a sense, count herself as coming out victorious. But the price that was paid for her four MP mandates was extortionate. On the bright side, however, she can once again resume comparing herself to Brigitte Nyborg of Borgen 😉

    Skipping over the NSi which continues to take its rightful place in the parliamentary political spectrum, even increasing their result by one MP seat, this leaves us with the real surprise of the election Sunday, the United Left (ZL).

    The surprise

    The party of “democratic ecological socialism” was looking to Greek Syriza for a role model and is questioning the established order of things. In the end they got 5.96 percent which translates into six seats. They sport a three-member presidency, but it was Luka Mesec, the youngest of the trio of leaders, who emerged as the most recognisable face of the party. It was his appearance on a POP TV-held debate on Thursday, three days before the elections which sent the party rocketing from around 2.5 percent way above the parliamentary threshold, in the end nearly tripling their result.

    On a personal note, pengovsky got into a bit of hot water with ZL fanbase for saying that Mesec brought in votes of older women on account of him looking good and saying smart things. A rather tedious debate followed where accusations of mysoginistic statements were thrown in my general direction. But while further analysis did indeed show their voters mostly come from below-45 age group, a third of their vote still comes from 45+ age group. A third, meaning two out of six percent of votes won. Which means, 45+ age group was just as instrumental in pushing the ZL above 4% than younger voters.

    Additionally, another analysis showed about 50% of ZL voters decided to pick them in the last couple of days, emphasising the importance of Mesec’s appearance and performance in the debate.

    Now, anyone with any experience in campaigning will tell you that TV debates are not really about substance but rather about showmanship. You might have the best platform in the world, but if you’re not telegenic enough or if you make too many mistakes, you might as well throw in the towel. So the point pengovsky was trying to make is that while ZL platform is nothing to scoff at, it was Mesec’s TV performance (his telegenics) that made the difference. But, the fan-base insists it was the platform that brought in the entire six percent of the vote.

    Shifting the discourse

    Be that as it may, the ZL is in and is bound to shift the political discourse to the left. Which in itself is not a bad thing. Too many things in this society are taken for granted and thought of as set in stone, which is one of the reasons this country moves at a sluggish pace at best.

    But theirs is a hard task. They will inherently be branded as far-left, even though one could make the argument they are the only “true-left”, platform wise. Secondly, their set of ideas is only one of many competing sets in the parliament, all of which are perfectly legitimate, some more appealing to one part of the society, some to another. Thirdly, they are newcomers. Pushing your agenda has to do a lot with knowing your way around rules and procedures of the parliament. Fourth, they will need to hold their nerve and not lash out against more experience MPs patronizing them or even setting procedural traps for them, supposedly to “put them in their place”. The parliament is a tough neighbourhood and while everyone is smiling and wears a tie, backstabbing is often the norm. And lastly, the ZL need to be careful not to get smug too soon.

    A lot of people invested a lot of hope into them and while the some expectations are unreasonable by default, the ZL MPs were not elected to the parliament to be like other MPs but to be better than them. And that’s a benchmark others before them failed to achieve.