Storm In A Populist Teacup

For a few long moments on Thursday it seemed as if the government of Miro Cerar drew its last breath. The issue at hand was an agreement between the minister of health Milojka Kolar Celarc and the FIDES, the medical doctors’ trade union (not to be confused with Victor Orban’s Fidesz) which ostensibly put an end to the MDs’ week-long strike. The thing is that at the same time the other public sector unions were negotiating with the government on rolling back austerity measures and getting what they see is their due. On top of that the doctors, unusually, weren’t getting a pass by the public opinion which normally forgave their antics regardless of how baseless they may have been (because doctors and shit). All of this while the government was about to unveil a much-anticipated draft of health-sector reform, a move which by definition makes a lot of players with plenty of vested interest, mighty nervous. But in the end, it all amounted to nothing.

The Three Amigos (source, source and source)

Namely, while Karl Erjavec of DeSUS and Dejan Židan of SD were raising hell in the last couple of days on account of minister Kolar Celarc supposedly agreeing to exempt the doctors from a mechanism that regulates wages across the entire public sector, the true reasons for the entire circus were purely political and aimed at obscuring the fact that both junior coalition parties can ill afford parliamentary elections right now, for reasons both political and financial. And this, more or less goes for all political parties with the possible exception of the SMC.

Until recently, Slovenia was faced with several back-to-back elections which have depleted many-a-party’s resources, both financial and human. There’s only so many miles volunteers are willing to walk for free, only so many loans banks will grant, only so many favours and discounts sympathetic print-shops and other vendors are willing to grant and only so many euros that can be squeezed out from politically appointed CEOs in (para)state companies. Most parties view elections as a sort of an investment, hoping to cover the loans with the money they receive from state budget in proportion to their result. And when the latter fails to materialise in any meaningful way (as it did in 2014 for SD), there are only so many way to make sure the party doesn’t crumble under its own debt. Namely, to enter the government and hook up to the gravy train.

More or less the same goes for DeSUS although their good showing in the 2014 parliamentary election might suggest otherwise. But the sheer tempo of elections from 2008 onwards has stained strained the party and – financially speaking – they’ve only now begun to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

This goes even more so for the opposition SDS and NSi who, although they’re leading in the polls at the moment are in no shape for a bruising political fight right now, especially since they’re at each other’s throats ever since the NSi discovered it actually had a spine and started making its own decisions rather than simply playing the part of an SDS satellite party, much to the chagrin of the latter.

And so it may seem that the ruling SMC and the far-left United List (ZL) are the only ones who can actually afford to go to the polls right now. But even there the appearances are deceiving. The ZL, has most likely reached its zenith early on and will find it hard to repeat it’s maiden electoral result, not in the least because the funds it receives are split three ways (as it is in fact a coalition of three smaller) as well as the fact that they never really recuperated from the omnishambles of last fall. The SMC, on the other hand, while bathing in money, is tanking in polls and the last thing they want is another election without an actual platform. Sure, being without an actual agenda worked like a charm the last time around when they were the “outsiders” (Trump effect, anyone?) but now things are a wee bit different.

This is why all the talk of a government in crisis, a political grid-lock and inept leadership is just that. Talk. DeSUS and SD raised hell over the agreement the health minister signed and even voted against adopting it in a delayed cabinet session yesterday (this is a rare occurrence as decisions are usually unanimous and/or delayed until consensus is achieved). But this was all theatre, not unlike what Frank Underwood orchestrated in Season 2 of House of Cards when he had six GOP senators brought in to vote, seemingly against their wishes. The SD and DeSUS may have been kicking and screaming but they would have never endangered their positions in government.

Not yet, anyway.

Last July the government of Miro Cerar marked two years in office, making it the most stable government this country has had in the last five years. This also means that the countdown to new elections is slowly commencing and that parties are vying for campaign positions. This is especially true with the coalition parties as it will be their record that will be on trial, so to speak. Which is why we’re beginning to see ever more overtly populist moves being made while policy is increasingly taking a back seat (insofar it ever held the front seat to begin with).

Cases in point being the recently passed amendment to the constitution safeguarding the right to clean drinking water and the recently floated idea to reintroduce 2 January as a bank holiday.

The latter was scrapped under the austerity measures begun by the second Janša government in 2012, ostensibly as a cost-cutting and productivity-increasing measure. But since no one really does any work on that day while offices and business had to open regardless the actual effect of the measure remains very much in doubt. On the other hand, this does once again change, even if ever so slightly, the Slovenian business environment which badly needs some long-term stability. Thus the idea to reintroduce 2 January holiday is pure populism, a move to please the people and to literally buy their votes, since the argument goes that the country’s public finances have recovered so much that we can afford the reintroduction of the holiday.

But if the 2 January is an idea everyone can get behind, the constitutional amendment ensuring clean drinking water was an idea everyone did get behind and then bragged about it. In a nutshell, it is a declaration that in a country where both fresh water as well as laws regulating it are is in abundance, everyone has the right to clean water. Not that Slovenians act like model citizens when it comes to water management on household level, but hey, it’s always nice to know you’re entitled to something.

Only that they’re not. In fact, the newly passed amendment does nothing in particular although everyone who sponsored it would like you to think new ground was broken. In this Janša’s SDS were correct in claiming that the whole thing was just a charade. But it was a good-looking charade apparently, as they didn’t vote against it, realizing full well that they would be branded as having failed in protected the country’s natural resources. Thus, from a purely political and PR point of view, the move by the SMC which sort of hijacked the idea first floated by Alenka Bratušek’s Alliance and/or the ZL, will surely be paying dividends down the road. From a policy view, however, the only real achievement of the amendment is that it preserves the status quo.

Even though some (chiefly, the ZL) have heralded the amendment as enshrining water as a human right, nothing of the sort happened. The article in question (article 70.a) is not a human but a constitutional right, as suggested by its placing in chapter III rather than chapter II of the constitution. This means that even though the provisions of the article might be interpreted widely by the constitutional court, they cannot be implemented solely based on the constitution (unlike, for example, freedom of expression) but rather via the legislation, new and existing, which will have to take into account the newly adopted article over the next eighteen months.

The main achievement, if there is one, lies in the fact that the status quo was maintained at all. Had fresh water water gone the way of the forestry, where the SD rammed through a reorganisation of otherwise well managed sector, the end result would have been yet another political fiefdom managing natural resources. Most likely with disastrous results. Just look at the energy sector.

Anyhow, it’s populism galore, now. Which brings chances for an even marginally meaningful health reform, casus belli of the latest coalition fracas, almost to zero. On the other hand, as SD and DeSUS are locked in a bitter struggle for the same constituency (namely, senior citizens as the SD apparently recognised that their push for the rural votes yielded bupkis) – there is an off chance that the draft reform, will pass the coalition muster if it turns out to be heavy on shortening waiting periods and light on detail (i.e. where do we get the money to pay for it). Thus minister Kolar Celarc might yet live to see another day.

As for the government, expect this sort of flare-ups more often in the future. There is no imminent danger of a government collapse, but shots have been fired.


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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.

2 thoughts on “Storm In A Populist Teacup”

  1. “Stained” the party (DeSus) may well be correct, but I suspect you meant “strained” as in “strained the limits of their budget.”

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