Mechanics of Coalition Building

It has been ten days since election in Muddy Hollows and President Pahor convened the inaugural session of the new parliament for this coming Friday. This means personnel decision are looming and with no coalition deal in sight nervousness is starting to set in.


What we have seen in the past week or so were polar opposites in approaching the conundrum at hand: One side there is the presumptive PM nominee Janez Janša playing his cards as close to the vest as possible, while on the other side there’s the nominal runner-up Marjan Šarec who is producing all kinds of chatter about “coalition exploration”, “platform compatibility” and other buzzwords du jour.

But first, as is customary on such occasions, a refresher course on government formation.

Coalitions 101

As per usual in a coalition system, no party won an outright majority in the vote on 3 June. And depending how things break, Slovenia could end up either with a centre-left, a centre-left or any other sort of government that would enjoy a 46+ votes majority. Failing that, Pahor could give it another go or let parliamentary parties take over the initiative. For what it’s worth, we could even end up with a minority government supported on a per-case basis by one of the smaller parties.

Right now, however, the ball is in president Pahor’s court as the Constitution requires him to put forward a PM nominee. Pahor already said his first choice will be Janez Janša, pending discussions with leaders of parliamentary parties.

While this has irked a number of people on the left and quite possibly prompted Šarec to scramble and start exploring the possibility of a coalition of his own, Pahor is well within his rights. Indeed, events suggest this may be the best course of action, as it shifts the centre of activities to the parliament sooner rather than later. It would be unseemly if the president were to hold out for as long as possible hoping for a particular result.

Authoritarian jolts to democracy

Namely, Pahor – who has bent over backwards to indulge Janša more than once – recently stated that times we live in require strong leaders and, trying to gloss over Janša’s authoritarian leadership style, said Slovenian democracy is strong enough to withstand a jolt or two.

With this in mind, it seems far better the inevitable horse-trading moves into the halls of the National Assembly where deals beyond Pahor’s immediate wants can be made. In fact, they will have to be made, at least provisionally, if the new parliament is to start its term.

Case in point election of a new president of parliament (think Speaker of the House) who needs 46 votes in a secret ballot to win the post.

The game before the game

Although most people view the vote on a PM nominee as a key event in formation of a Slovenian government, the vote on the parliament boss is often an tell-tale sign in with direction things are going. Or, to put it crudely, more often than not, a coalition that appoints the head of the parliament then goes on to appoint the head of the government as well.

Reasons for that are many, but the main one is the sheer prestige and power that comes with the position. Nominally the second most senior in the chain of command, President of the parliament is also Acting President of the Republic in case the commander-in-chief is incapacitated or otherwise unable to perform his or her duties. And while peers of the Speaker are limited outside of an emergency situation, they are not non-existent. As demonstrated by the outgoing Speaker Milan Brglez of SMC, who once flat out denied a technically valid petition for a referendum on the grounds it amounted to gaming the system. His ruling was upheld by the constitutional court making the post infinitely more powerful than it is often depicted. Therefore, when we know who gets the job we will very likely also know who gets to run the country.

Seeing as the political class of 2018 doesn’t seem to be overflowing with imagination and outside of the box thinking, we can make a couple of assumptions and see the broad contours of possible coalitions.

Speaker Cerar

One idea that was floated in the last couple of days was that of the outgoing PM Miro Cerar being appointed to the post of the Speaker. This would suggest a centre-left coalition led by Marjan Šarec’s LMŠ which would include SD of Dejan Židan, SMC of Miro Cerar, DeSUS of Karl Erjavec and SAB of Alenka Bratušek.

Crucially, such a coalition would also have to include The Left of Luka Mesec whose nine seats make them all but impossible to ignore in any coalition deal. They went on the record saying that a referendum on NATO membership would be a non-negotiable condition for the party joining any sort of coalition. If Mesec does not walk back from this plank (and at the moment there’s no reason for him to do so), this makes Šarec’s coalition ambitions infinitely more complicated.

True, there are ways to handle that, such as tackling the referendum straight on and then campaigning hard for Slovenia to remain a NATO member, but neither Šarec nor many of his would-be coalition partners have neither the stature nor the acumen to pull a stunt like this off without blowing right into their faces.

And even if Šarec managed to solve that particular equation (say, by Mesec folding), he would still head a coalition that would be heavy on egos and light on a common agenda. A six-party coalition with as many party leaders in it, of which two are former PM, headed by a n00b, would be a challenge to say the least.

Having said that, the division of labour in such a coalition would be almost too easy. SMC is said to expect the foreign affairs portfolio headed by Milan Brglez (who was *this* close to becoming foreign minister in Cerar’s government but agreed to the Speaker post to accommodate Karl Erjavec), Dejan Židan of SD would remain at agriculture, Alenka Bratušek would take over finance portfolio, Karl Erjavec probably Interior or Justice and Luka Mesec battling it out with SD for either Labour or Education.

Speaker Tonin

No matter which way he turns, Janez Janša it al least ten votes short of a majority. Which means that the next-to-senior status of Matej Tonin and NSi with their seven votes is not at all guaranteed in an SDS-led coalition. Ignoring that particular detail for a moment, however, the logic here is equally simple.

NSi presumably learned from their almost-fatal mistake in 2004 when under the leadership of the late Andrej Bajuk they took over the financial portfolio, instantly becoming a lightning rod for every labour complaint, social issue and public finance mismanagement (the fact they held the labour portfolio, too, didn’t help). As a result, and courtesy of some backstabbing by Janša, they were pushed out of the parliament in 2008 and barely made it back in 2011.

Therefore it seems safe to assume NSi will not be making the same mistake twice, opting instead for a prestigious position in the legislative branch. It is obvious that speakership for Tonin would be a huge boost both for the party and its young leader, not in the least since it would elevate Tonin above Janša in the constitutional pecking order (see above). But also because the leader of the NSi would remain outside of Janša’s direct control, heading his own branch and remaining Janša’s equal in terms of setting the coalition agenda.

Again, there are at least ten votes separating Tonin and the Speaker’s chair, but it would be highly unlikely NSi are going to agree to being Janša’s choirboys (pun very much intended) and submit themselves to the inevitable meatgrinder that is a Janša-led coalition unless they get something big in return. However, one of the ways NSi remains part of Janša’s coalition without Tonin getting what he wants is…

Speaker Han

So far, Social Democrats have been adamant in their refusal to even think about joining an SDS-NSI-SNS coalition. This did not, however, stop Janša from placing a call to Matjaž Han, the senior SD MP in this parliament. As the information about the call leaked, the party was quick to reiterate that it would not even consider Team Janša.

But the Glorious Leader knew full well what he was doing. By calling Han he was both making a low-key inquiry that can easily be brushed aside and throwing shade at SD leader Dejan Židan, by suggesting he is irrelevant and talking to Han instead. Sowing discord in the ranks of the adversary has long been one of Janša’s favourite tactic and dangling a possible promotion (say, a speakership) in front of a senior SD MP like Han, could get the ball moving in unexpected directions.

More likely, however, Janša was just blowing smoke and trying to raise suspicion among centre-left parties that SD could switch sides and make a run for it, which is something pengovsky has not been willing to discount since before the campaign. Again, by placing a call to Han rather than Židan, Janša was hinting at prior SD-SDS “collaboration”, specifically the TEŠ 6 affair.

Speaker Šarec

This option may seem a bit left-field, but it isn’t really. A coalition of the first- and second-placed parties would tick off plenty of boxes. Combined with the NSi it would release Janša of the inevitable pain bringing Zmago Jelinčič and his nationalist party on board would cause. Not only in terms of optics (there’s a reason why far-right parties are trying to rebrand nationalism as patriotism) but also because Jelinčič can be counted on to bail out of the coalition the very moment someone comes along with a better offer.

Additionally, Šarec represents a mix of conservative tradition, socialist drive for equality and a down-to-earth folksy attitude, often prone to oversimplification. As such, he would not be out of place leading a party like SLS or any other centre-right party, either. It seems that his rejection of a coalition with the SDS stems more from the humiliation Janša inflicted upon him in the final days of the campaign than listening to advice of others (which he reportedly stopped doing a while ago).

However, if his own coalition-building attempts fail to produce results, Šarec might find himself pressured into a country-above-party type of situation and be persuaded – in exchange for an above average list of concessions, including the speakership – to be the wingman to the Glorious Leader.

It would remain to be seen who would get to ride whose tail, though.

The Prestige

Both readers have noticed that pengovsky made almost no mention of neither Alenka Bratušek nor Karl Erjavec. That is because both will have to make do with leftovers. And while they may have a tiny bit of negotiating position in a potential centre-left coalition, the field there is so crowded both DeSUS and SAB leaders will have to get in line, their egos be damned.

But this is also precisely the main sticking point of the entire clusterfuck. The more party leaders insist coalition negotiations are about content and platform the more they are in fact interested in prestigious positions, platform be damned. And the smaller the party the more it needs prestige and visibility rather than actual platform concessions. Those are nice if they can get them but will mean jack shit if there’s no one to take credit.

How do we get there (wherever that may be)

Funny you should ask that. Namely, the more one looks at the above the more it becomes apparent that failing some advanced statecraft forming a government will be mighty difficult.
Even worse. With the current distribution of power in the parliament, putting together a ruling coalition should technically be a piece of cake. Were it not for the jokers who, for better or for fore, were tasked with representing the people this time around.

Once again we are faced with the fact that Slovenian politics has boiled down to What You See Is What You Get. There is literally nothing behind the façade. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Politicking is done in front of the cameras, positions are spelled out loud for everyone to see, backroom deals are virtually non-existent and – worst of all – almost no one looks more than one move ahead.
This necessarily means that rather than creating and shaping events, the Political Class of 2018 will become a mass casualty of those same events. As deadlines start approaching, windows of opportunity will start closing, room for manoeuvring will become ever more scarce until politicians, unable to make decisions while they still had time will be left with one, perhaps two severely suboptimal options.

Early elections versus national unity government

What these will be, remains to be seen. It can be anything of the above, including a minority government. But none of these spell stability. Therefore, the more things come to a head, the more early elections will become an option.

But, again, there will be a clash of principles and personalities, as at least 60% of the current crop of MPs would quite probably never again see the inside of the parliament. Which makes them highly unlikely to vote for their own dissolution. If a return to the ballot box is one of the two suboptimal options (see above), the other one is a national unity government. Granted, the way things stand now, it is just as unlikely as any of the above (if not more), but as time will be running out and if no one will break ranks either left or right, this will be the only other solution left.

A national unity government would, by definition, include all parliamentary parties and be headed by the boss of the largest party. Janez Janša would thus have to include every other party leader in his government which would enable everyone to keep everyone else in check. The one thing other party leaders fear would happen if they joined a Janša-led government is that they would not be able to provide any sort of balance or backstop if (or rather when) he goes off the deep end. Past experience suggests this fear is quite well founded.

Equally, however, party leaders (especially left-wing) are suspicious of one another, constantly eyeing whether anyone is preparing to break ranks and join a Janša government. The Glorious Leader knows this full well and is trying to achieve just that by placing well thought-out friendly phone calls, thus further fuelling suspicion.

The only way this can be overcome is if everyone were to join the government at the same time. Whether or not such an arrangement would be practical is another matter. But it would definitely solve the impasse for which Slovenian politics seem to be headed.

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.

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