“Seventy”, he said with his distinct drawl. “At this moment I count seventy MPs who would support a proportional voting system.”
Franc Zagožen had just been elected president of SLS+SKD, a powerful new party that united both Slovenian People’s Party (SLS) and Slovenian Christian Democratic Party (SKD) in a single political player. Since SLS was a member of Janez Drnovšek-led coalition while SKD was in opposition, Drnovšek was forced to call a confidence vote which he tied to demission of ministers the new party. The way the proposal was formed the government was bound to fall either way which enabled SLS+SKD and Janez Janša‘s SDS (back then still known as SDSS – SocialDemocratic Party of Slovenia) to form a centre-right government with Andrej Bajuk as PM. Zagožen, however, despite becoming an interim leader of the party, remained an MP and their chief-whip. This turned out to be crucial.
Franc Zagožen (photo: Aleš Černivec/Delo, source)
Namely, two years earlier in 1998, the constitutional court decided in favour of the Slovenian Democratic Party which petitioned the court to change the results of the 1996 referendum on election system. SDS submitted a majoritarian election system, while the ruling LDS-led coalition formed a mixed-system proposal (close to what we have now) and the National Council proposed a purely proportional solution. Voters voted on all three in a single vote and none got over the 50% treshold. But majoritarian system 44%, by far the most of all three options and Janez Janša‘s party wanted the constitutional court to rule in favour of majoritarian system winning. Against all odds they succeeded.
Instrumental in this mathematical enterprise (where 44% is equal or greater to 50%) were judges Peter Jambrek, Tone Jerovšek and Lovro Šturm. All three became ministers in the first (albeit short-lived) right-wing government in Slovenia. And almost immediately, the government, led by Andrej Bajuk of Zagožen’s SLS+SKD but with Janez Janša as defence minister pulling a lot of strings, took the position that – due to decision of the constitutional court, majoritarian voting system must be adopted immediately, ominously adding that the current system had been invalidated by the 1996 referendum and subsequent court decisions.
This is where things got tricky. Postponing elections “due to irregularities” is an old trick used by autocrats, dictators and military juntas all over the world. Slovenia had a perfectly legal voting system even back then and it was Franc Zagožen who recognised that the threat to constitutional order and the stability of the country was starting to come from the government and not from somewhere else. The fact that his new party stood to profit handsomely from a mixed voting system did help, but in the final analysis it was about basic democratic principles: elections are held on time no matter what.
Once it became obvious that SLS+SKD MPs are not on the same wavelengt as the SLS+SKD & SDS government was, things began to heat up. More often than not, Zagožen would pace up and down the corridor next to the men’s loo, the only place in the parliament where one could smoke at the time. And when he wasn’t chain-smoking, he was in his office, fielding calls, taking the heat and keeping tabs on his MPs.
In the end, a solution was formed which surpassed the ruling of the constitutional court: the principles of the voting system were ensrhined in the constitution itself, thus changing the game completely. The SDS(S) went apeshit. Lovro Šturm even said that the parliament was exceeding its authority, for “above the constitutional court there is nothing but blue skies” (and thus ruined his reputation for ever). But to achieve this, a 2/3 majority of 60 votes was needed in the parliament. It all hung on MPs for SLS+SKD and with it, on Franc Zagožen. No wonder he (reportedly) fainted in his office more than once.
In the end, on a hot July day, the constitution was amended, providing for a mixed electoral system. The final tally was 70 votes in favour, just like Zagožen said months earlier. The Professor, as he was apparently known, managed to maintain a 2/3 majority in what was arguably one of the more intense moments of Slovenian political history, foil what for all intents and purposes was an attempted coup d’etat and save the democratic foundation of the country.
If there is one thing he should be remembered for by the general populace, this is it.
Franc Zagožen died last Saturday, aged 71.