Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

With the last of the committee hearings slowly drawing to a close, the newly-minted Slovenian PM Marjan Šarec will submit his entire cabinet for parliamentary approval later this week and presumably get his government up and running. Thus a protracted three-month episode which culminated in a five-member coalition and a minority government, supported by the left-most party in the parliament, will finally come to an end. But, in the words of the worst British finance minister of the 20th century, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of an end. But it is, perhaps, an end of a beginning.

Marjan Šarec impersonating a PM (left) and being one. (source and source)

While this blog was mum due to vacay, pengovsky did a few media appearances on the coalition clusterfuck. Financial Times, The Europeans podcast and The Economist were among the victims (although, to the latter’s credit, apparently my bit got edited out). N1, a Croatian private news network, even had their viewers endure a 15-minute interview where yours truly bumbles along in Croatian. The gist of all this attention was two-fold: how come Janez Janša didn’t get to be PM and how come Šarec did?

The long and short of is that Šarec made it because Janša didn’t. It needs to be said that in a functioning democracy a character like Marjan Šarec would have no business running the government. Not only does he have limited public office experience, he has zero mileage on the national level. Sure running a mid-size municipality is challenging but running a country is not just a different ball-game, it’s a different fucking sport.

Amateur hour

Case in point the amateurishness with which Šarec led negotiations with his potential coalition partners which were more or less a set of sound-bites with every party leader basically saying what they wanted in front of the cameras and with PM-designate eventually giving them exactly that. Sure, his hand was limited and there’s only so many ways to skin a crocodile, but the feeling throughout this protracted ordeal was that we are witnessing a very public puzzle-solving where the protagonists had as much idea about what the actual image of the puzzle was as the public did.

The one thing that did surprise, however, was that the centre-left parties did honour their pre-election commitment not to join a Janša-led coalition. In all honesty, pengovsky did expect one of the parties to cave in (prime candidates included DeSUS, SD and maybe even the SMC, in that order) but nothing happened on that front. Either Janša was unable or unwilling to offer a sweet-enough deal.

It seems inconceivable that a politician with Janša’s mileage would be unable to come with something to entice at least one centre-left party to break ranks, which would presumably precipitate a rush by a few others, not wanting to be left out in the cold. That this didn’t happen is a testament to just how toxic Janša and his party have become to the Slovenian political landscape.

How Janša blew it

Not just the rabid anti-migrant rhetoric spewed out by the party and its Orban-funded media machinery. It’s the constant belittling of political opponents, attacks on journalists, amplifying hate-speech by other party members and/or social media troll accounts, claims of a deep-state conspiracy, stolen elections and so on ad nauseam which have electrified the party base but turned away many moderate voters.

In addition, virtually every party that ever joined an SDS-led coalition was left holding the bag and suffered immensely in subsequent elections. This was in part due to their own incompetence but also because Janša is a master of sucking out oxygen from his immediate political environment. He establishes himself as the sole centre of power and is quick to exploit and factional infighting within his political partners while demanding complete loyalty at the same time. Cases in point SLS and NSi after 2008 election when the former was reduced to a second-rate parliamentary party in the polls and entered a tail-spin it never recovered from while the latter was even thrown out of the parliament and struggled to get back in.

Thus Janša was becoming increasingly isolated on the political scene. And having depleted his party’s financial and human resources in fighting for his life, political and otherwise, trying (successfully) to get off the hook in the Patria Affair, he was left with a severely limited set of political options and rather than working on expanding them he chose to double down and reinforce the toxicity of his narrative, ultimately ending up where he is now: able to excite the base and have them show up at the polls but nothing beyond that.

It all goes to show that the failure to clinch the PM nomination after having won the most votes is his and his alone. As a result, the first minority government in Slovenian history is about to be sworn in on Thursday.

Crash-course in coalition building

As already hinted, Marjan Šarec did not get where he is just by standing idly at the side and watching Janša slowly drill a hole into his knee. Although he regularly gives the appearance of wanting to be somewhere else, he did hold talks with more or less everyone, including Zmago Jelinčič’s nationalist SNS although they soon discovered they’re wasting each other’s time.

Throughout the process Šarec was getting a crash-course in coalition negotiations and narrative-framing by SD, SMC, SAB and DeSUS as well as The Left. Needless to say he was taken to the cleaners on the whole front. With so many coalition partners and so many demands (some of them mutually exclusive) and his political position not all that much better than of the largest two coalition partners, he was forced to give out all the plum jobs to other people while he and his party have to settle for hard-work shit-shovelling no-glory portfolios such as finance, public administration, health and internal affairs.

In this respect, the person (and or party) who walked out of these horse-trading deals with by far the most was former PM Alenka Bratušek. Her SAB party adds mere five votes to the overall tally of 43 and yet she managed to land one of the most coveted portfolios this election cycle, the ministry of infrastructure. Given that this ministry will oversee some of the largest infrastructure investments this country has seen this side of the financial crisis, it is no wonder that everybody wanted it, but AB got it.

In addition SAB parliamentary chief Marko Bandelli is set to become minister without porfolio for local self-government and cohesion funds. Now, whoever managed to persuade Bandelli, an ambitious (now ex-) mayor of Komen to give up a powerful parliamentary post for what for all intents and purposes is a footnote government job, should get a case of beer from Bratušek. Delivered on a specially built railroad track over a bridge inside of a tunnel. Namely, by having Bandelli commit himself to nondescript status, she got rid of a potentially nasty leadership challenge within the party. Peter Jožef Česnik, SAB other minister without portfolio in charge of diaspora is of even lesser significance and is there only to provide bodycount.

Plum jobs

As small parties go, Karl Erjavec of DeSUS managed to get himself out of a bind as well. Having suffered a humiliating defeat and having been voted out of the parliament personally (not unlike Bratušek), Erjavec managed to squeeze back into the defence ministry, where one of his first jobs will be – surprise, surprise! – to oversee purchasing of yet another batch of armoured personnel carriers. While Erjavec, defence minister during Janša’s 2004-2008 government was cleared of any wrongdoing in the Patria Affair, the irony is strong with him. Still, even though he is returning to his old hunting ground, pengovsky doubts anyone is excitedly sending telegrams to the fleet. Not in the least because Slovenia has no fleet to speak of.

The mess Erjavec leaves as he vacates foreign ministry for the defence will have been inherited by outgoing PM and SMC boss Miro Cerar. This is by far the most logical appointment of the entire Šarec cabinet. Not only does it provide Šarec, who doesn’t really dwell on foreign policy issues with a minister of not-insignificant mileage in top-tier diplomacy, it also provides for at least a semblance of continuity in foreign policy as it is highly unlikely that FM Cerar will pursue radically different goals than PM Cerar did. That these goals weren’t very high to begin with is lamentable but could prove work in Cerar’s favour down the road as he actually might get to, well, craft foreign policy. Which is an activity Muddy Hollows was sorely lacking for the past decade and a half.

Which brings us to the weirdest appointment of all. Leader of Social Democrats, the second-largest coalition party in Šarec’s political patchwork, chose to take over as Speaker rather than continue as the perennial agriculture minister or take over another portfolio. This is strange because usually the name of the game is having all coalition leaders head important portfolios to add gravitas to their work as well as to keep the coalition conversation going within the government. As Speaker, with an office in the parliament rather than the government building, Židan is out of the everyday coalition loop. Obviously, this can be remedied in various ways and Sunday-evening “coalition coordination meetings” were the norm in Cerar’s cabinet. Nevertheless, mundane everyday contacts are a big part of governing and proactive policy crafting.

Imagination (or the lack thereof)

After NSi bailed from the coalition negotiations with the five centre-left parties (which ultimately led to Matej Tonin being replaced as Speaker by Židan), Šarec was forced to start negotiating with The Left for support. As pengovsky predicted, an actual agreement with The Five was a bridge too far for the party of Luka Mesec. However, The Left did show a surprising level of negotiating prowess and really ran the table on Šarec by extracting all kinds of concessions on taxes and other issues in return for just supporting the minority government and not actually joining Šarec’s administration.

This little episode showed just how brain-dead and lacking imagination the entire Slovenian political class is. Minority governments are neither a new invention nor are they all that special. They are simply a feature of representative democracies with proportional voting systems. And while it is true that Slovenia never had a minority government running the country until now, this was envisaged by the framers of the constitution and is dealt with in detail in both the basic law as well as the parliamentary rules and procedures.

And yet, most of the political class howled with resentment that such a deal would be made. Janša and his SDS lot predictably started talking about an illegitimate government (a narrative that subsequently morphed into a false claim of stolen elections) while The Five (or, rather, the four junior coalition partners) only then realised that their negotiating skills suck donkey balls and that they could have extracted much more from Šarec in terms of policies and platforms.

This even precipitated a short-lived stand-off between Šarec and Bratušek where the latter publicly wondered whether the party would be better off outside the government as well. Which basically answers the question of how did she manage to get hold of the infrastructure portfolio.

Impersonator of a PM becomes one

But the larger point is that by running a minority government, Šarec actually has more manoeuvring room than he would have with a fully fledged majority government. Think about it: most parliamentary votes are held on a simple majority rule. All you need to do to win is to have more “yes” votes than “no” votes. This is the way almost all legislation is passed. Which means that The Five can pass legislation as they please most of the time. And even if there is full attendance during the vote (which is rarely the case), The Left can support the government by abstaining, therefore bringing the quorum down and allowing the government to win a simple majority.

But what if The Left doesn’t play ball (and can indeed be expected not to on hot-button issues)? In that case, Šarec can always go back to his co-citizen of Kamnik and NSi boss Matej Tonin and try to hammer out a case-by-case deal in a way that would not have been possible if he were running a majority government. By doing this Tonin could always claim he was enacting the NSi pro-business platform, something he would be unable to do if he were to provide votes to a nominally majority left-wing government.

And, finally the most difficult reform packages such as health reform would quite probably tear apart any majority coalition as the special interest would simply be too powerful and cheap political points too alluring. It seems safe to assume that whatever the reform, it will be debated, chewed up, spat out and debated again to no end and will probably be passed by some sort of an ad-hoc across-the-ailse agreement rather than down coalition/opposition lines.

Which means that, as awful and shambolic as it sounds – and make no mistake, there’s every chance it will be shambolic – a minority government gives PM Šarec better survival odds than a weak majority government would. Which is almost as counter-intuitive as some political moves by the late Janez Drnovšek were.

Of course, this is not to say that Marjan Šarec is Janez Drnovšek reincarnate. Far from it. But it is ironic that during his life on the stage one of Šarec’s most successful bits was impersonating Janez Drnovšek. And look at him now.

Life imitating art imitating life.

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.