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.

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.

Third Time Unlucky (Take-Aways Of A Referendum Defeat)

Now that the heads have cooled off, the gluttony of various light-related festivals passed and the sordid reality of yet another year finally sunk in, it’s time to take a long look at the can of whoop-ass that was opened on the same-sex marriage legislation on 20 December. As most of you know, the third iteration of the marriage equality bid failed. Spectacularly.

Final, albeit unofficial, referendum results. Chart via ChartGo

Namely, not only did the NO campaign clear the much-hyped quorum hurdle with relative ease (more than 20% of all eligible voters voted against the measure), it also added 100k voters to the cause in comparison to the ill-fated Family Code, the 2012 attempt to resolve the issue via a comprehensive legislative package. The result came as a rude shock to the YES campaign and as an (unwelcome) surprise to pollsters who are starting to see changes in voters’ behaviour that make predictions even harder. Still, a few take-aways are obvious.

Battles are won or lost before they’re started

Sun Tzu‘s quote, although obvious or useless (or both) seems rather apt for the occasion, as all the work by the YES camp resulted in exactly zero progress in the field. The total number of people who supported same-sex marriage this time around is almost exactly the same as the total number of people who supported it in the 2012 vote. They may be different people, but the reach of the progressive side effectively remained the same. This suggests a complete misreading of the field at the very start which led to an ineffective campaign which did nothing but get the vote which most likely had in the bag anyway.

Cultural learnings of the right for make benefit the glorious political option of the left

We all live in a bubble, and yours is smaller than you think. One would think that the progressive side had learnt that lesson the last time around, but apparently not. Srsly, people, the few hundred followers that agree with you don’t mean shit. There was a noticeable lack of dialogue in this campaign, as if neither side really wanted to engage the other. And while the YES campaign probably avoided contact to prevent itself getting drawn into needless fights, the NO campaign, hard at work since March when the law was initially passed, thus remained happily undisturbed at enlisting support and amassing troops. The NO campaign also understood exactly what was at stake and what it needed to do to shoot down the law, while the YES campaign (and, more broadly, the progressive side in general) apparently had little grasp of the opponents’ gameplan and at times seemed to hope things will take care of themselves.

Things don’t “just get better”

pengovsky realises that LGBT NGOs are probably thinking “what more could we have done” and, in all seriousness, the answer is “probably not much”. Theirs is a worthy cause and they’ve been at it for the better part of the last three decades. But that doesn’t mean things will suddenly fall in place. Not when there’s a substantial part of traditional left-wing voters who are, well, traditional and will vote against same-sex marriage regardless of their general political persuasion. Which explains the lacklustre campaign performance by both junior coalition partners, the DeSUS and the SD (with PM Cerar’s SMC putting only slightly more back into it). Just because something is right, or just, or just plain overdue, it doesn’t mean it will just happen. This sort of perception is a problem that has plagued the progressives for the last few years at least (and possibly longer than that) and is something they need to fix ASAP.

If anything can go wrong, it will

There seems to be little respect for the wisdom of Major Edward Murphy these days, but just like Sun Tzu’s seminal work, Murphy’s laws should (once again?) become required reading for political strategists. At least in this sorry little excuse for a country. Apparently the strategy regarding this law (insofar it existed at all) was based on the optimistic scenario of the law getting passed in the parliament, presuming that even if the NO camp collected enough signatures to call a referendum, this would be rebuffed by the Constitutional Court on human rights ground and even if that failed, there would be no way the 20% quorum would be reached. And even if this was a plausible scenario at one point in time, it is almost outrageous that no contingency was planned in the event that the worst-case scenario were to unfold. And when it did, the YES campaign was struggling to get its shit together.

Ground game matters, you can’t win by playing defence

You see, the NO side was hard at work ever since the law was passed. Not only did they have a basic network in place from the last time around, they had worked hard in expanding it. Arguably, they’ve more than compensated for the resources spent on defending Janez Janša during the Patria affair and the operation the right has in place right now is nothing short of formidable. The YES campaign and the left in general on the other hand failed spectacularly in this aspect. Reports from the field suggest that there were almost zero attempts at taking the game to the opponents’ side of the pitch. What little ground operation there was in the YES camp, it was limited to friendly environment and even there results were meagre.

Winning on the internets counts for nothing

Most observers agree that the online population was tilted heavily in favour of the YES vote. But counting on online support is almost like preaching to the choir. And even there the level of engagement was, well, lacking. This is where the inexperience of campaign principals (specifically, the United Left) showed in its entirety. For some reason, they were apparently convinced the key to the victory was the internets. Just how they came to that conclusion is beyond comprehension. Maybe they thought it was the key to their own political success in 2014 elections (it wasn’t). Or maybe they thought the NO campaign collapsed after that bizarre debate ten days before the vote (quite the opposite). At any rate, winning just the internets is useless.

The new referendum rules are not a game changer

Although the double-whammy of the new referendum rules seemed like it will take of the problem by itself, it didn’t. In fact, the United Left, which by virtue of sponsoring the latest iteration of the same-sex marriage legislation was running the show, at first apparently toyed with the idea of calling on people to boycott the referendum (which they wrongly assumed would not be allowed) but then came to the realisation that the only way to beat this would be to win a relative majority, fair and square. The lesson here being that although the new rules can weed out referendum antics the likes of Arhcive referendum, proper political fights are less affected by the new rulebook.

Even if you think rules favour you, you should study them in-depth

The NO camp was a bit nervous at some point regarding the outcome. That Aleš Primc bugged the State Electoral Commission (DVK) over the accuracy of voters’ registers and whether people who died in the last ten days before the vote (the interval between the date of posting invites to the vote and the vote itself) will count towards the quorum proves this. Now, at first, the commission told Primc to go suck a lemon but he managed to secure enough support in the supervisory body of the commission to have the rules on this altered to his advantage. Thus the final rule, announced just days before the vote, stated that the commission would update voters’ registers to reflect the number of eligible citizens on the day of the vote. Not that the NO campaign needed this particular tweak in the rules in the end, but the point is they did get their way. Because they knew the rulebook.

Get the vote out

No, really. I mean, if you make exactly zero headway in widening your reach compared to the last time around, you might want to go back to the drawing board.


Hopefully, someone will do the last item, at least. Pengovsky has no doubt Slovenia will legalize same-sex marriage. The trend seems to be both world-wide and irreversible. But it needs help and a well tought-out strategy. Because left to its own devices, Slovenian society, known for its glacial pace of accepting change (or accepting nearly anything else, for that matter), will, well, warm to the idea some time in the mid-2080’s, probably several years after Iran and Saudi Arabia will have already legalised same-sex weddings.