Designated Survivor: Slovenian Edition

Shocking journalists around the world Europe who after more than a decade again had to struggle with the difference between Slovenia and Slovakia, prime ministers of both countries tendered their resignations yesterday within hours of each other. Pengovsky being pengovsky, however, we’ll skip Slovenia Slovakia and just do Muddy Hollows where Miro Cerar resigned on the heels of a court annulment of results of the referendum of the second line of the Koper-Divača railway.

…with apologies to Kiefer Sutherland

The gist of it is that while the government won the vote back in September of last year, it failed to win the constitutional challenge of the result, owing to some very weird and novel interpretations of the constitution and referendum legislation. Be that as it may, the Supreme Court, following the decision of the Constitutional Court, decided that the campaign was not fair (specifically, the government’s role in it) hence the result is invalidated and the vote should be repeated. However, there’s more to that than meets the eye.

In the good old days the going should have been easy for Miro Cerar. The economy is chugging along nicely at rates that seemed unreachable but a few years ago, unemployment and public deficit are down and consumer confidence is up. But these are not the good old days. People are still pissed off by the austerity-imposed cuts, labour unions want their piece of the growth pie now rather than down the road while the country still has to tick off many an item from the to-do list that sort-of got us off the hook from the don’t-call-it-troika back in 2013. In short, it’s not just the economy any more, stupid.

The impostor

Cerar’s problem, specifically, was the fact that he was and still is viewed as an impostor by the traditional political parties. Sure, both centre-left SD and centre(?)-right SDS would occasionally try and throw around accusations of Cerar being a stooge for the deep state, remnants of UDBA or filthy multinational corporations. But these slurs were mostly used to a) divert attention and b) (unsuccessfully) try and rebrand themselves as forces of new. But by far and large, Cerar was viewed as the new kid on the block who didn’t earn his spot at the grown-ups table.

Mind you, this was the same attitude given to Zoran Janković in 2011 and Alenka Bratušek in 2013. And while Bratušek did manage to hold on just long enough to sort through the largest and most stinky pile of crisis-related crap (mostly due to the fact that all the macho politicos ran for cover when shit hit the fan and she was the only one willing to take the job), Janković failed that particular test in 2011 and was out-manoeuvred. Cerar didn’t repeat that mistake in 2014 and managed to cobble together a ruling coalition after 2014 election but in the end it didn’t last all the way to the finish line.

For there is one aspect of this “Cerar the impostor” charge that has some merit to it. Namely, throughout his tenure there has been this lingering feeling of Cerar and his team governing in a learning-by-doing fashion. There were simply too many missteps, walk-backs and jumps on bandwagons to treat everything this government did as a serious policy initiative.

The in-coalition fights for the lucrative positions in the larger para-state sector of economy also got ugly and public fast. Then there was (and presumably still is) the fact that Cerar’s own party SMC does not have an expansive and well-rooted network on the ground and cannot draw on either tradition or local expertise in terms of either closing ranks or keeping a finger on the pulse of the people, as it were.

And last, but not least the party and its leader had a huge PR problem. Not just because of all of the above but also because the communication strategy (insofar there was any) was mismanaged, inconsistent and repeatedly put Cerar in situations where he wasn’t able or didn’t know how to project the power that came with the office.

Fuck this shit.

All of this changed yesterday evening, however with Cerar calling a dramatic late-night press conference where he lashed out at everyone, saying that the court decision was but the last straw that broke the camel’s back, that’s he’s fed up with the backstabbing by the coalition partners, opposition conspiracy theories, and the insults by the labour unions, that he’s had it and is returning the keys to the office. Basically he went “fuck this shit” and left. Well, almost.

Muddy Hollows is due for elections in three months (now even less than that) and somehow as late as two weeks ago no one seemed in much of a hurry to get there. As if parties weren’t really all that keen on going to polls in the first place and were merely going through the motions, hoping to stave off the actual start of the campaign for as long as possible.

This has undoubtedly to do with finances (elections cost money, there are local elections later this year to think of as well and most parties are on a shoestring budget) as well as the fact that there is precious little there can be served as meaningful political content. Most parties don’t even have a fully developed platform yet and even those who do ended up mostly with boilerplate promises of a competitive economy and social fairness for all with local varieties of Making Slovenia Great Again added as needed. Nothing we haven’t seen hashed and re-hashed about a zillion times in the past few years in this part of the world.

Cerar on the other hand has been plagued with a rebellion of the public sector unions who demand a raise in pay and have been putting pressure on the government for months, with DeSUS and SD openly admitting that they’re coalition-members-in-name-only, with seemingly no end to SMC self-harm (the botched public tender for a model of the controversial railway was just the latest example) and failed policy initiatives (think vague promises of bringing Uber to Slovenia or the health reform clusterfuck). No wonder the largest parliamentary party was languishing in single digits in every public opinion poll.

Designated survivor

His resignation was in fact a calculated move several orders of magnitude above what we’ve been used to in the past couple of years in this sorry little excuse for a country. With it, Cerar has put a sudden end to a string of events that have hampered and tied down his party’s campaign preparations, set the tempo of the campaign and – most importantly – started to control the narrative. Contrary to his usual modus operandi, the leader of the SMC has indeed started to lead and has staked a lot (if not everything) on this move. It is all a bit like the episode of Designated Survivor where President Kirkman transforms from this do-goodnik bookworm to the bad-ass leader of the free world who is willing to go down in flames if it comes to that.

First reactions seem to indicate the gamble paid off, at least in the short term. Cerar’s competition looks like it has been caught off-guard and is either running for cover or blaming everyone else or both. Party leaders yesterday were barely coherent or gave away way too much. Social Democrats for example said that Slovenia needs a functioning government as soon as possible, coming across as a bit too eager to form a new coalition while the corpse of their previous one is still warm.

Janez Janša and his SDS on the other hand are uncharacteristically on the defence with Janša saying that 10 June was just fine as an election date and that he sees no reason to move the date forward. Translation: he is in short supply of both time and money.

Even president Pahor who generally enjoys the limelight dove for cover as his office stated that “failing an agreement on a new candidate for prime minister early elections will happen”. The translation here is literal, if awkward. Pahor used passive voice which is both atypical for his self-centred persona as well as not exactly kosher use of Slovenian (again, atypical for his usually well-crafted rhetoric). This seems to betray a certain uneasiness with the situation which prompted his trademark skirting of responsibility. Namely, elections don’t just “happen”, calling them is the president’s prerogative (within constitutional bounds) and arguably the most important part of his role as head of state. But I guess posting about your lost luggage on Instagram is much more up Pahor’s alley.

Speaking of Instagram, the only thing Karl Erjavec was able to come up with was a quip that “he’s gone for just one day and things go wrong”.

So much for the art of politics.

Overplaying the hand

But if you really want to see just how wrong-footed everyone was, look no further than Cerar’s predecessor Alenka Bratušek. Even though she, nominally at least, has her own party she was a keynote speaker at SMC congress this past weekend in Maribor, prompting speculations that the two ALDE parties might merge sooner rather than later (months ago Bratušek was rumoured to have been in talks with SD to join them). But as Cerar made his move she was apparently left out in the cold, accusing Cerar of “party first, Slovenia second” approach. Possibly, but her stock just nosedived.

So did the stock of Marjan Šarec, erstwhile presidential candidate who forced a second round against Borut Pahor and whose party LMŠ (Lista Marjana Šarca) was consistently leading in public opinion polls in the past few weeks. As Cerar took the initiative and set the narrative, all the attention will be on him which means less limelight for Šarec. Moreover, as the centre of gravity will now shift to the parliament and procedures to call early elections Šarec, too, will be left out in the cold as he has no parliamentary representation.

Also wrong-footed were labour unions who reportedly came close to closing an agreement on a wage increase but something went wrong at the last minute and the deal fell apart. Cerar used his resignation speech to blame the unions for getting greedy and declared that they will have to take it up with the new government. Some unions reluctantly realised this and put their already-planned strikes meant to increase pressure and create problems for the government during the campaign on hold. Others still plan some sort of industrial action but this will definitely miss its mark and may even backfire. Talk about overplaying one’s hand.

Newton’s Third Law

One thing that was noticeably lacking in the last fifteen-or-so years of Slovenian politics was a leader who was willing to put all of his or her chips on the table and call the other players’ bluff. Ever since Janez Drnovšek did something like that in 2000, when he engineered a fall of his own government only to win elections in a landslide six months later, his successors hadn’t the courage to follow suit until it was too late. Cases in point Pahor in 2011 and Bratušek in 2014 (and then some).

Had Cerar pulled a similar stunt three months ago, he’d arguably be in an even better position. But even so his competition seems to have been so surprised by the move that he might actually reap benefits beyond a simple PR blitz. If the SMC enters double-digit territory in public opinion polls in the coming weeks then we’ll know the manoeuvre worked.

But then again, Newton’s Third Law applies to politics as well. For every action there is an equal opposite reaction. And if Cerar’s playbook doesn’t extend beyond what we’ve seen yesterday and today it will all have been in vain. What he’s looking for, therefore, is a bit of, shall we say, quantum politics where the competition is unable to ascertain either his position or his direction. Basically, he needs to stay one step ahead of the game. And that is a tall order.

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    Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.