Gold Rush

In a development that surprised a grand total of zero people, Marjan Šarec, mayor of Kamnik and erstwhile presidential candidate announced yesterday that he will take part in the parliamentary election. This comes on the heels of a host of new political parties announced or already formed and ready to enter the already-crowded arena. And with the vote six months out it is high time pengovsky takes a closer look at the lay of the land .


Slovenian ballot box (photo by yours truly)

Although reguraly decried by their more established and/or traditional cousins as attempts to con and defraud the good citizens of Muddy Hollows, new parties are by no means a purely Slovenian phenomenon. Case in point Czech Republic (or Czechia, as it now wants to be called in English) where a large majority of parliamentary parties have yet to celebrate their tenth birthday and one was established only two years ago. Or neighbouring Slovakia where two parliamentary parties were non-existent as little as three or four years ago. Or even France, where the right wing is currently billed as Les Republicains but used various acronyms throughout the decades as its (originally Gaullist) platform evolved. All this and we haven’t even mentioned Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique En Marche which was but a figment of imagination as little as eighteen months ago but has since opened a can of whoop-ass on the French political establishment.

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Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum (Policy)

It takes a special sort of naiveté to look at the last ten days in Muddy Hollows and see it as anything but a shameless run for cheap political points. The matter at hand is the issue of one Ahmat Shani, a Syrian refugee who ended up in Slovenia where the state is refusing to process his asylum application and is now facing deportation to Croatia.


Ahmad Shami (source)

Ahmad Shami was a part of the 2015 refugee exodus which – despite numerous warning signs – caught the EU more or less unawares and scrambling for stop-gap solutions, hobbling the Schengen area and inducing levels of panic and overreaction not seen since, well, the eurozone crisis. But Ahmad Shami probably cared less about that than getting to safety and making sure his immediate family could follow in his footsteps.

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The Aftermath Of An Election

The ordeal is finally over. Borut Pahor was elected to a second five-year term, fending off a second-round challenge by Marjan Šarec, the mayor of a mid-size town in central Slovenia. But although Pahor’s victory was expected, he had to work harder and longer for it and won with by a much smaller margin that generally expected at the outset of the campaign.


The runner-up and the incumbent (source)

Still reeling from the clusterfuck after the first round when a number of of prominent polling agencies called the race for Pahor even ahead of the vote, the pollsters were more or less on target this time around. Most of final polls coalesced around 55/45 percent for Pahor but the final tally showed Pahor won in the end by 53 percent to Šarec’s 47 percent. That’s a mere six-point spread.

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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.

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.