Virtually all over the map (both geographically and otherwise) political forces that be have a huge
political credibility problem. That in itself is hardly news. In Britain Tories and Labour alike are tripping over each other, trying to run away from Rupert Murdoch with whom they were schmoozing beyond any good taste only months earlier. In the US, Democrats and Republicans were playing chicken over country’s finances and en passant produced a needless crisis. In France, bombing the shit out of Ghadaffi was equally complemented by a would-be presidential challenger who has a problem keeping his fly closed and in Germany going after multi-kulti was the obvious answer to a lack-lustre economic recovery.
The list, of course, goes on and on. Hungary went from a government of fucking liars to semi-autocratic, press-muzzling and dangerously nationalistic rule. Italy and Belgium, we won’t even mention, while Slovenia went from deliberatly harmful to depressingly incompetent. This was all exasperated by the fact that the electorate, having succumbed (or adopted, whicever you prefer) to consumeristic dictum in all walks of life including politics, demanded ever quicker solutions for ever bigger problems without giving up much of the ever more comfortable life in return. In short, clusterfuck.
With the decline of political parties’ credibility, grass-roots organisations and pressure groups began gaining on prominence. Ranging from corporate special interest to NGOs, from environmentalist initiatives to labour unions and religious organisations, democracy was becoming increasingly horizontal.
The good old days
Slovenia, as always, is a bit of a special case. Civil society saw its heyday in the late 1980s, when existing mono-party channels becoming painfully insufficient to run (if not rule) the society. Things were happening which the ruling Communist Party – which appropriated for itself the role of the societal avant-garde – was unable to comprehend, let alone control. But since the Party in Slovenia on the whole opted for reform instead of oppression (although it wasn’t as clear-cut as the sentence might suggest), Slovenia of the time was replete civic organisations of virtually every flavour. You name it, Slovenia probably had it, chief among them being the Committee for Protection of Human Rights, which for all intents and purposes can be described as a text-book case of a grass-roots organisation. In terms of civil society, late 80s in Slovenia were as good as it gets.
With the advent of the nation-state, most of these initiatives either transformed into proper political parties or disbanded, their raison d’etre spent. But individuals from either of the two types were popping up in the political arena faster than you could say ‘multi-party elections’ and starting in 1990 it seemed that the civil society in Slovenia was non-existent in the traditional sense becuase it was in fact in power.
Fast forward fifteen years (give or take a few) and the situation was beginning to take shape it has today. Political parties, although still the only legitimate player in the political arena are fast losing the initiative in virtually every aspect and are for some time now looking to various supposedly non-political players for ideas and support. This, of course is nothing special. Think-tanks, lobby groups and NGOs do have a place in a democratic society and rightly so. In this respect, Slovenia is only coming up to speed with the rest of the developed world.
However. In addition to the above, political parties instead of trying to harness the flow of ideas that was at last being generated by re-emergence of the civil society started hi-jacking it. And in this the political right in Slovenia has built up an impressive lead. While a couple of think-tanks have emerged both on the left (most notably the Liberal Academy, widely connected to LDS and lately Forum 21, created by former President Milan Kučan) and the right (such as Jože Pučnik Institute) the right mostly went about artificially creating “popular” movements, either to gain legitimacy or to have them say and do things that were unbecoming to a mainstream political party. In short, we’re talking about astroturf initiatives (hat-tip to Cornelius for this one)
One of the earlies examples of political astroturf was (and still is) Aleš Primc, former member of Slovene People’s Party (SLS) who took to baricades when the law on in-vitro fertilisation was debated and which proposed that single women without a pre-existing medical condition were eligible for IVF. Until then IVF was the last resort for couples which failed to conceive children any other way. The political right saw this as an attack on everything that was holy, natural and traditional and Primc’s initiative was used to go below and beyond the level of what was considered an acceptable debate at that time (way back in 2001).
The same, but worse
Careful observers did not miss the fact that those same issues (holy, natural and traditional) were raised again recently as the Family code was debated and passed and is now awaiting the fate of a referendum bid initiated by – you guessed it – Aleš Primc. The only difference between today and ten years ago is that the right wing parties of today are using Primc’s rhetoric of a decade ago, while Primc is saying everything they think but can’t say today.
Much more civilised but no less artificial are various initiatives of “concerned citizens” who recently took it upon themselves to cut short the life of the incumbent government of Borut Pahor. The self-styled “resetters”, a group of more or less high profile individuals including Gregor Virant, Žiga Turk, Janez Šušteršič, Marko Pavliha, Matej Lahovnik and Rado Pezdir first called for “a reset of Slovenia”, later upgraded that with a web petition to call early elections and got around 19k signatures to date. All fine and dandy even you don’t agree with them, but with one caveat: four of those individuals are former ministers. Turk and Virant served during Janša’s government, Pavliha and Lahovnik served under PM Tone Rop, with Lahovnik returning for another stint under Pahor, but both of them becoming bitter opponents of the current government (Pavliha over Arbitration Agreement, Lahovnik over TEš6 power plant). Janez Šušteršič and Rado Pezdir, however, were connected to Slovenian Macroeconomic Forum (a proper think-tank) which provided Janez Janša with a ready-made neoliberal economic platform prior to his 2004 electoral victory. To sum it up – nothing remotely grass-roots here, only people with their own political agendas.
Ditto for the Group of Active Citizens, headed by Matej Makarovič who last month brought together Tone Jerovšek, Borut Rončević, Lovro Šturm, Matevž Tomšič and Andrej Umek and pointed out the need to return to the roots (sic!) of “Slovene Spring” of 1988-1990. Of six individuals three served as ministers (Šturm, Jerovšek and Umek) while the other three are professors at some of the newly formed Slovene faculties which came into being with in the last decade. But a special mention goes to the leader of this outfit, Matej Makarovič (whom pengovsky fondly remembers as assistant lecturer during his days at the social sciencies faculty) whose forays into the political include being president of the SDS youth organisation and later being named honorary president of the same. Again, rather than true grass-roots, this congregation is pure astroturf.
And last but certainly not least we come to the the Assembly for the Republic, currently headed by (surprise, surprise) Gregor Virant. This assembly was created before the 2004 elections to drum up additional support for Janez Janša. While it never presented itself as a genuine grass-roots organisation it did not fulfil its initial promise to watch over the government regardless of the outcome of the elections. As Janša ultimately won the 2004, the Assembly for the Republic almost died off, briefly re-appearing in 2006 to support France Arhar in his unsucessful bid for Ljubljana mayor (Zoran Janković won with a landslide) and then went dormant until 2008 elections where it acted in Janša’s favour much more directly but to little avail. The left wing won the elections and Borut Pahor was appointed Prime Minister, while the Assembly for the Republic went dormant yet again, only to re-surface recently as early elections were mulled.
Astroturfing in Slovenia of course does not end there but goes on and on and on. And it will continue to do so since political parties (mostly right wing) have long taken their fight outside the parliament and onto other venues, civil society being one of them. To an extent this is to be expected in a country as small as Slovenia, but what they fail to see is that they are in fact laying waste to the society as a whole. And at the end of the day, when they find out their ratings don’t match their expectations, their only reaction is to serve us with more astroturf.
9 thoughts on “Astroturf”
Small, but important remark: before 2001, the law on assisted reproduction and fertility treatments did not specifically mention anything about couples or singles, so any single woman could ask for treatment with artificial insemination and anonymus donor’s sperm. Needlessly to say, the number of applicants was very small (never more than 2-3 in one year and about 40 women in the whole period 1974-2001). The novel law in first version 2000 proposed the same attitude to single women, to which complete right-standed parties hysterically opposed, and, after the novel law succesfully went through the parliamentary procedures, demanded referendum – and the rest was history. Novel law with corrections so actually diminished already existing rights, although that only touched – for all practical purposes – very small group of citizens. This was, I guess, the second time in history of new Slovenia, when the majority brutally rampaged over – in this case microscopically tiny indeed – minority, the first being the “Erased” infamy.
Astroturf: “Astroturfing denotes political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but are disguised as spontaneous, popular “grassroots” behavior. The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.”
The activities related to the “Reset Slovenia” and “Early Elections” were not astroturf. I should know. I was there.
Funny to see also left leaning pundits finding hostile “Organizations” and puppet-masters behind everything that happens.
Thanks for that. Perhaps I should have put in a bit more background on that, but the post was getting longish as it were.
Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of this definition:
Astroturfing is a form of advocacy often in support of a political or corporate agenda designed to give the appearance of a “grassroots” movement. The goal of such campaigns is to disguise the efforts of a political and/or commercial entity as an independent public reaction to some political entity—a politician, political group, product, service or event. (source)
Nowhere did I write that your or any other initiative was conceived by a “single operational centre” or anything similar. Things are much more diverse than that. This is why I try to use the generic (if somewhat cliché) term “the political right/left” whenever I write about Slovenian political landscape in general (to use another cliché).
However, even if we take into account the fact that in a society as small as Slovenian it is hard to come by active citizens who do not have at least generally recognisable political preferences, there are limits to what you can call a proper grass-roots initiative. Given the high political profile of you and most of your colleagues, neither of the initiatives (I take it you consider them two separate issues) can in my view be considered “grass-roots”.
This does not mean they’re not legitimate (far from it), it’s just that presenting yourselves as “only” a group of citizens does not paint the full picture. Hence I believe it can be described as Astroturf.
Comrade, would you be so kind and enlighten us about the so called “right wing” parties you often write about. You may call me blind but I’m really doing my best to spot at least one, unfortunately without any success till now. So I would really be grateful if you manage to enumerate at least ONE still existing Slovenian right wing party. And don’t forget to explain why you’ve categorized it/them as “right wing”. Spasibo.
“Laying waste to the scoiety as a whole” WTF? I haven´t encountered such bullshit language much on this blog. You are slipping.
Wheether it is astroturfing or not, there should never be any doubt about the right of these groups to express their opinions.
Comrade! Do you really want me to give you the lowdown on Slovenian political spectrum? I mean, I could one of these days, but that would deserve a separate blogpost.
Obviously, I’m not saying these groups can’t voice their opinions (although Primc’s group is occasionally pushing the envelope). However, ‘laying waste to the society as a whole’ is quite to the point.
The problem is that with emergence of astroturf, legitimate (for the lack of a better word) grass-roots organisations lose out because it is increasingly difficult to tell who’s who. Think of it as the original vs. fake product.
Democracy is a delicate business, horizontal democracy doubly so. If groups, which normally belong inside the political arena insist on defending their cause outside, they enjoy an unfair advantage because they get to pick and choose how and where they will appear. In the end, the public is increasingly unable to tell the difference between astroturf and the real deal and as a result everyone looks more or less the same. And that, you’ll agree is not something one would desire.
Well, you seem to be avoiding to answer my question, so I’ll have to try and guess what you actually refer as Slovenian “right wing”. I will not focus on the parties’ self declarations but on their acts.
SLS? Defenders of the National Interest™ (remember the Litostroj case? and “protection” of the “sacred national soil”) and other “achievements” of the first incarnation of socialism. Continuous collaboration in all “left wing” governments between 1996 and 2004. Among their permanent fiefs were ministries of agriculture (forced membership in the Agricultural and Forestry Chamber!) and transport (construction of highways with favouring of domestic construction companies of the infamous Zemono Gang, “evaporation” of at least 2.2e+9€, all in the name of national interest!). Does it sound “right wing” like????
You mean SDS? Well, Janša was a prime minister for 4 years. Initially with excellent economic advisers. We all expected thorough economic reforms but (almost) nothing happened. A cosmetic tax “reform” (abolishing the so called “salary tax”) and abolished forced membership in the Commercial Chamber, it doesn’t suffice even for “r” of a reform! Employees of any kind are still expropriated more than 60% of their total income! Unlike the commercial chamber, membership of the Craft and Small Business Chamber is still compulsory. No prospects of a flat rate income tax, no privatisation of inefficient state owned companies (well, infamous messing with Mećkator doesn’t count) when they were worth much more than they are today….. Despite totally different reporting styles of the F571 “journalists”, the Janša’s governing pattern was exactly the same as at previous (and the current) “left wing” governments: wrathfully maintaining the Socialism 2.0™ with artificial monopolies, no serious attempts to transparently privatize at least a few pieces of National Champions™ and Family Silverware™, attempts to control media, flirting with selected tycoons (khmmm, the Mećkator case), political signing up in state owned/controlled institutions/companies etc. No public sector parasites were removed from the Common Bowl™, on the contrary, even additional bureaucrats (potential voters!) appeared, “bribed” by Virant’s prospective payment “reform” (from their perspective, of course). So, if SDS is classified as “right wing”, there’s no reason why the “old” LSD and SD wouldn’t be too.
Probably you would add NSi as well. Because they declare themselves as a christian party. Well, the only thing that counts, their stand on economic freedom and moderate taxation, that doesn’t differ at all from SDS or left wing parties. In 2000, Bajuk was a short term prime minister (for cca. half a year). Despite spending much of his youth in more or less normal countries (Argentina, USA) and a brilliant banking career he immediately managed to adopt the typical “left wing” pattern of administration of state owned companies and filled many executive and supervising positions with people loyal to him (remember Marjan Podobnik and Tele-kom?). Between 2004 and 2008 he was a minister of finance. Quite successful if you ask me (he even received several international awards), but he made one fundamental error. Belgian financial group KBC wanted to purchase a larger share of the NLB, so called bank, one of the most reeking state owned kolkhozes, but Bajuk rejected this proposal, again in the name of the National Interest™. And after all of this, some people still dare classify the NSi as a right wing party!
For sure you would mention SNS. By including Jelinčič you must have a weird sense of humour. First, he was an active informer of the communist security service, better known as the UDBA. Second, a list of his hate speech topics is regularly adapted to general public opinion but he constantly despises the Roman Catholic Church with christians and, despite his origin, Croatians (remember, “world’s most catholic nation”, continuously electing right wing governemnts with the only exception in 1999). Third, he has a statue of Tito even in his private garden. Yeah, an excellent definition of a “right wing extremist”!
So, what should a liberally minded citizen, searching for a “liberal right” (this term definitely doesn’t include any nationalistic and similar bullshit but liberal and open economy, moderate taxation, slim public sector etc.) choose? As far as I’m aware of, the closest approximation to these requirements are the Liberals (not to be confused with LSD!!!!!), if they are still kicking at all
Not avoiding at all, but I did have a hunch there was an underlying agenda to your question, so I spared myself the trouble 🙂 However in all honesty I must agree that platform-wise SDS does have the element of the social democratic to it and weren’t for their staunch anti-communism, their right-wing orientation would be much less prominent. As for SNS, which is what I call a ‘post-modern’ party, their platform being a patchwork of everythng that could possibly win fringe votes all over the spectrum. The other two parties you mentiones (SLS and NSi) are, however, hands-down traditional right-wing parties.
Libera!s? Perhaps. But as far as I know they first have to register the party and possibly make it to the parliament.
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