The Mother Of All Referendums (Slovenia Twenty Years After)

Twenty years ago on this day Slovenes voted on a referendum on independence. The question on 23 December 1990 was straightforward: Should Slovenia become a sovereign and independent country. The decision, as we know, was also fairly straightforward. With record voter turnout (93,5%) as much as 88,5% of all voters voted in favour on what will turn out to be the mother of all Slovenian referendum.

Official Gazette of Republic of Slovenia publishes the law on referendum on independence (source)

Twenty years later the situation seems all but hopeless. The crisis is in full swing, politics and politicians have virtually no credibility left and referendums are a-dime-a-dozen. In the words of the Charlie Watts quartet: You can’t always get what you want.

But really, is it that bad? On one hand, yes. I’m sure people would vote “no” in 1990 if the question would be something along the lines of “Do you want Slovenia to become a country of ever increasing social inequality, political bickering and a seemingly endless supply of either real or perceived scandals and corruption)”.

On the other hand, things are not that bad. I mean, they’re not that bad if one looks at them from the standpoint of 1990s. The issues we are faced with today are nothing compared to the issues Slovenia was facing back then. Twenty years ago it was about survival. It was about whether the nation can make a right choice collectively and hoping that this choice will be proven to have been right some time in the distant future. Today we can, regardless of the despair and dejectedness a lot of people are facing, say that the choice was right. And although – with the power of hindsight – it looks today that it was the only logical choice, that was not the case. It could all have ended very very badly. But it didn’t. Thankfully.

Anniversaries are a welcome interruption to our daily routine and they often remind us that there are issues bigger than our daily problems. That anniversaries are often used or misused to promote a particular political goal is regretful but no-one will get killed over it. That myths are being constructed is also just a sad fact. That Slovenia will today witness not one, but two celebrations – one official organised by the governement of Borut Pahor, the other one organised by Janez Janša and people who claim they represent “the true values” of Slovene independence is a curious fact which serves some immediate political purpose of the opposition, but nothing beyond that.

Because (as the good doctor often says), what everyone keeps forgetting is that there would be no independence without the people of this country, who bit the bullet and leapt into the unknown. That a selected group of individuals today claims exclusive rights to interpretation of events around 23 December 2010 is demeaning to this nation.

Independence today is what we make of it, for better or for worse. Reminding us “what it was all about” helps, but only to the point where it saves us from making the same mistake over and over. Anything beyond that is counter-productive. And there seems to be a lot of that going around lately. And in times of crisis one shuns what is not helpful 😀

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One More For The Road

Q: How much must a Slovene drink to score .25 on a breathalyzer test? A: Nothing for at least three days.

Ex-minister Gjerkeš during an interview for The Firm™ (source)

Minister for local self-government and regional policy Henrik Gjerkeš resigned yesterday after being taken into custody by the police for driving under the influence at 4 AM on Tuesday whilst returning home from ministry’s end-of-the-year party. Apparently he scored .63 on breathalyzer test, which is not at all surprising if one takes into account the fact that the party apparently started at 2 PM on Monday. While it is not known whether Gjerkeš was there for the entire fourteen hours, one can imagine that he did put some back into it. Especially given the fact that he was pulled over for driving on a motorway with a flat tyre. Oh, and he was driving a government Audi :mrgreen:

Obviously, Gjerkeš had no choice but to resign immediately, putting additional strain on an already embattled government of Borut Pahor. That quick resignation minimised the media and political fallout is a no-brainer, but it has started a chain of events which will further drain energy and resources of the government in general and the prime minister in particular.

Techincally, Gjerkeš was appointed by the parliament and it is the parliament who will a) have to note his resignation and b) appoint his successor. This will apparently be Duša Trobec Bučan who until now served as state secretary in Gjerkeš’s ministry and was his right-hand woman. The mechanics of the transfer are relatively straightforward, doubly so given the fact this is in fact a ministerial position without portfolio and that the Ministry for local self-government is in fact a government office, elevated to ministry status on a per-government basis.

However, the new would-be minister will first have to attend a parliamentary hearing in front of appropriate committees and then she and PM Pahor will have to go though a special session of the parliament where you can be sure no punches will be pulled. Doubly so because this ministry is in charge of acquiring EU cohesion funds and the sight of €€€ being pumped into his/her constituency makes many an MP go rabid. Doubly so if they also serve as mayors in their respective municipalities.

Gjerkeš’s resignation might seem normal and the only decent thing to do – and it is – but the sad truth is that it does set new standards in Slovenian politics, since there are well documented cases of MPs driving under the influence and even causing accidents and yet they not only got away with it, they even got re-elected. Pengovsky knows of one other case years when a minister caused a traffic accident (no one was hurt) and not only did he get away with it, he even managed to put a lid on it and the media didn’t report it. He later bragged about it to pengovsky during (the irony) one of many end-of-the-year receptions.

Bottom line: this was a totally stupid mistake to make on Gjerkeš’s part. Especially since he turned out to be quite capable, regardless of his virtual anonymity before becoming minister. As it is, he is now only a statistic – the sixth minister PM Pahor will have to replace, the second in this particular office.

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Bye Bye 2010, Bye Bye Belgium

Another mighty fine post by Dr. Arf!

Over the past year, I’ve been more of a mainstay here on this blog as a guest than the previous three
combined. Or it at least feels that way. I recall the good Dr. Fil encouraging me to shed some light on the
political impasse here in Belgium, which enabled new elections followed by an even bigger impasse. Six
months post- election and we’re still not any closer to any kind of federal government.


Walloons keep demanding money from Flanders for Brussels, a shitload of money (half a billion) with
absolutely no strings attached. Flemings say this will not do, not even if hell, like Belgium these days,
freezes over and is covered in snow. We’re experiencing the longest snow period in this country’s
history (17 days and counting), while the political Big Chill is also breaking records. Honestly, I as well
as the real political analysts round these parts have stopped counting the days. Well, the federal
elections were on June 13th and we’re now December 19th. Six months and a bit, that’s close enough.
Meanwhile, it’s all about the money. As stated above, Wallonian politicians want more of it, their
Flemish counterparts won’t give it without written promises about a new state reform, a solution to
the B-H-V problem (which hasn’t even come close to being discussed) and more importantly, a new and
improved responsible federal financing law.

All the while, this political instability has made Belgium a target for stock market speculants, the next
domino piece in the European puzzle set to teeter on the edge of falling over after Greece, Spain,
Portugal and Ireland. The EU has just agreed on an emergency fund to give a signal to aforementioned
speculants, but to my mind, you may just as well signal a pack of great white sharks that there’s a big
school of succulent tuna up ahead, making for a feeding frenzy free for all. Since there is no governing
agreement, there also isn’t any budget for 2011, which is a really pressing matter, because the federal
government needs to do some necessary cutting in the next couple of years to maintain the three
percent Maastricht Criterion, which states that EU member states’ government deficits shouldn’t exceed
three percent of its GDP. (Oddly enough, I happened to be in Maastricht the day this treaty was signed,
although the reason for being there eludes me now. Oh, the sands of time…)

A valid question here would be why the incumbent resigning government – which I’m certain could
apply for a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records as being the longest acting resigning
government – couldn’t just go on taking care of business while the ‘victors’ (ha!) continue to battle
it out. The reason is that this is unconstitutional and doing so could set a dangerous precedent for
future elections, when resigning governments could use the transitional time to quickly pass laws and
amendments they otherwise couldn’t. And besides, this would need to be voted on, even if it were a
measure to be used only under special circumstances (like now), and a resigning government cannot put
up new laws and amendments for voting even if they wanted. So much for that theory…

All the while the public dissent concerning Belgian politics and more so Belgian politicians is growing,
but alas not to the point where a strong public signal is considered, but rather to a dangerous sense of
indifference which has set in. Also growing is a sense of tedium and fatigue, among both politicians and
constituents. Just about everyone is sick and tired of being sick and tired of this whole mess. Meanwhile,
our fellow countries wonder why we don’t hurry up, but like Prof. Carl Devos, political analyst, says, so

much time has been wasted already due to egomania and childish playground behaviour, that hurrying
up just for the sake of hurrying up because the neighbours want us to is a bad thing. As tiresome as this
whole political manure heap has become, he urges to apply a ‘festina lente’ approach, if this [freak]
show must go on for much longer. Prof. Devos also called for a Christmas truce, not unlike the truce
during the trench wars in WW I, to give the politicians a breather, gather momentum and start afresh
after New Year. He is of course wise enough to admit that this isn’t a guarantee to succeed after half a
year of failure and missed opportunities, but he is not wrong to say politicians are people too and hence
need just as much a breather now and then as us Regular Joes and Janes in order to continue.

Yes, in many cases this has been a year of records here in Belgium. The biggest victory ever for a
nationalist party, the longest governmental negotiations (another one for the Guinness Book), the
longest acting resigning government, the longest snow period at the end of the year, the most catholic
priests being officially accused of pedophilia and the biggest resulting load of cases against them being
blundered into legal purgatory by the courts… And all the while, I’m growing more and more pessimistic
about the chances of survival of this disjointed nation. Negotiations have become a staring contest
where neither party wants to be the first to blink and if they do they will cry havoc, leave the negotiating
table for good and we’ll be faced with another round of elections come early 2011, the result of which
will be more of the same, but even more stagnant. Federal politics in Belgium have as much leg room as
Al Capone in his cement shoes on the riverbed the Mafia dumped him into.

And to leave you with something non governmental, but every bit as cynical : at the start of this week, I
watched the president of Citibank Belgium defend the bank’s announcement they would only cater their
full services to clients with a minimum of 250.000 Euros on their accounts. Everyone else would just get
the absolute basics. He didn’t see what the fuss was all about, after all “People who can afford it fly first
class, and this is just as acceptable”. Of course it is, if you conveniently forget it was people with much
less than that who bailed those mofos out with their hard earned tax money when they put just about
the entire world into economic crisis. The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades…

I’ll try to set aside my cynicism for a second and wish my good friend P and all you readers of his most
excellent blog good holidays. See you on the other side of 2010.


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De Referenda

Once more unto the breach, dear friends!

In the wake of the fiasco that was the referendum on RTV Slovenia, both the ruling coalition as well as the opposition are (again) mulling changes to referendum legislation. This was of course expected but it is none the less a most unwelcome turn of events, especially since constant abuses of referendum legislation in the minds of what seems to be majority of the voters now warrant limiting legal possibilities for holding a referendum.

There are broadly three sets of proposals in this debate. What (hopefully) follows is their deconstruction.

Set a referendum day

Proposed by Slovene Democratic Party (SDS) of Janez Janša. What the largest opposition party proposes is that a specific day in the year be set by law in advance and on that day any and all referendums which were called early enough in the year are to be held. On the surface, the proposal is quite appealing: no matter how many referendums are called, all the votes are held on the same date and instead of spending four million euro per referendum, you spend four million once and be done with it.

However, there is a huge – and I mean galactic – caveat. Let’s say for argument’s sake that the referendum date would be set on 1 June and the decision to hold a referendum would have to come no later than 30 May, because a month of campaigning has to be allowed for. Technically this means that any law passed after 30 May on which a referendum is to be held, will be “on ice” for up to thirteen months. If there ever was a neat way to temporarily block a law, this is it.

As we know, calling a referendum is a piece of cake in Slovenia, especially if you’re a political party which can muster 30 signatures in the parliament. This was was the case with almost every referendum ever held in Slovenia, be they consultative or subsequent (legislative). If the proposed provision were to be enacted, a law – no matter how urgent or crucial or just plain practical – could be blocked out of sheer politicking just by collecting the necessary signatures. Add to that the fact that by the time the referendum will be held the debate on the issue will have died long ago ans with it all the niceties connected with either “yes” or “no” vote, and you get a situation where the electorate is even less informed about the issue once it actually comes up for a vote and – even more – has to vote on multiple issues at the same time.

Indeed, one can easily argue that the idea of a single referendum day (or even two) per year in fact decreases democratic standards in Slovenia which are not all that high to begin with. Furthermore: although the idea was floated by the largest opposition party it is a given that – despite being prone to losing crucial battles – SDS will in time again be the ruling party in Slovenia. When that happens, such a provision on referendum would work very much against them, especially if they would be still given to radically altering legislation across the board. Actually, pengovsky refuses to believe that SDS leadership is as short-sighted as not to see that and that the entire idea is simply a red herring or a tactical move which – after it will be rejected by the parliament – will enable them to claim that they tried to do something

Set a quorum necessary for validity of referendum

We’ve been over this already in some other setting. But the bottom line is this: if a vote is called and majority of people don’t bother to show up, how can it be that their decision to stay at home has more merit than decision of the minority (no matter how small) which decided to exercise their right to vote? Seriously, people…

Revoke the 30 MP signatures provision

Floated by the ruling left-wing coalition – notably Social Democrats led by PM Borut Pahor – the idea sounds, well, tempting. No doubt a lot of people would see it as taking candy from a spoiled brat. But not really. You see, the “30 signatures” provision is in the constitution for a reason. It is an essential element of a system of checks-and-balances. It provides the parliamentary minority with an instrument to prevent what de Tocqueville and Mills called “tyranny of the majority”. Because not all decisions are good or sensible, even though the majority voted in favour. So the provision goes beyond it’s current use as a political weapon of legal destruction.

Yes, the provision was abused many times under circumstances that -although perfectly legal – didn’t really warrant invoking it. But the parties currently running the show will inevitably come into a situation where they will be glad that the provision is in place. Even more: Slovenia may come into a situation where a question, vital to the future of the republic will be decided on and the only voice of reason will be a small, across-the-isle ad hoc coalition with the “30 signatures” provision being their only hope of preventing a decision of disastrous consequences.

And if you think this is a purely hypothetical scenario, think again. We saw that film a couple of times already. Or at least variations of it. In pengovsky’s opinion, the “30 signatures” provision was and is intended to be used in extreme cases. That it was abused doesn’t mean that it has to be abolished.

What to do?

Nothing. Direct democracy and checks-and-balances are not things you tamper with in a heat of a moment. Besides, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with current referendum legislation. It’s just that it is being abused beyond any sense of decency. But that is not a question of legislation but rather a question of political culture.

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SLS Saves The Pension Reform

A funny thing happened yesterday. A vital piece of reform legislation – the pension reform – sailed through the parliament almost without a hickup. It was confirmed by a majority of 49 votes and is as such a major success for the left-wing government of Borut Pahor. But the composition of the “yes” vote in the parliament is where the funny starts.

SLS president Radovan Žerjav (source)

Since this is pension reform we’re talking about here, it was kind of expected that – despite being nominally a member of the ruling coalition – DeSUS and it’s leader Karl Erjavec will give PM Borut Pahor an exceptionally hard time over it. Indeed, in terms of securing a parliamentary majority the main sticking point seems to have been the rate at which pensions will increase relative to increase in prices. And while Erjavec demanded parity between the two indices, Pahor and specifically labour minister Ivan Svetlik insisted on a .25 rate, meaning that for every point inflation rises, pensions goes up .25 percent. Erjavec was adamant to the point of other junior coalition parties, notably Zares and its leader Gregor Golobič calling on Erjavec to make up his mind whether he’s a part of the team or not.

In all honesty Erjavec has a couple of reasons for giving such a hard time to PM Pahor. First, he was more or less forced to resign as minister of environment. He was also indicted for his alleged role in the Patria Affair and just to top it off two of his MPs (Žnidaršič and Rezman) quit DeSUS and went independent. Also, Erjavec was perhaps overconfident from pulling this very same trick four years ago when then-PM Janez Janša agreed to re-institute price-index/pension-rise parity. So for purposes of this pension reform DeSUS de facto left the coalition. But then, seemingly out of the blue, Slovene People’s party (SLS) came to the rescue and chipped in the missing votes.

Pengovsky often wrote that he has a soft spot for SLS. Regardless of their general ineptitude and hypocrisy, they usually came through when push came to a shove. This soft spot exists since the constitutional crisis in 2000 when SLS provided crucial votes to avoid suspension of elections in what was increasingly looking like an attempted coup d’etat. Anyways, leaving bygones be bygones, SLS (just as in 2000) apparently put two and two together and found out that their primary voters’ base (farmers and the like) are quite well-off with this pension reform.

This is the first across-the-isle vote in this term, perhaps signalling complex two-years of the remaining first term of Pahor’s government (yes, I know what I wrote. Suck it up and move on ;)). The message is three-fold: First, Radovan Žerjav of SLS sent a message to Janez Janša that he’s not the only dog in opposition-town. Second, Karl Erjavec was told that he and his DeSUS can be replaced, if need be and that he’s is stretching it as it is. And lastly, SLS is saying that is it open to deals, preferably those which will a) benefit its voters and b) keep the party in the parliament. SLS is probably desperate to avoid the chaos its cousin-party, Christian Democratic NSi cannot really get out of ever since it dropped out of the parliament in 2008.

Should be fun. Especially, since there’s yet another referendum looming, this time on the pension reform.

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