In what can only be described as a landslide, voters in Muddy Hollows on Sunday rejected amendments to the Waters Act by an overwhelming margin. Voter turnout reached 45 percent, the highest in recent years. 86 percent voted against and only 13 voted in favour of the law. The voters effectively doused the government of Janez Janša in cold water.
The proposed changes to the legislation were fairly technical. But they were controversial enough to galvanise the opposition, a wide array of experts and – crucially – the civil society. The referendum was also the first chance for the electorate to show how they really felt about the Glorious Leader and his administration. And show they did. By flipping them a giant finger.
The parliament passed the amendments to the Waters Act back in March, while the pandemic was still very much on. On the whole, the changes loosened the restrictions for construction alongside bodies of water. Moreover, the responsibility for deciding construction plans was kicked down the food chain and left in the hands of mayors and mid-level bureaucrats. This made a lot of people nervous.
On the off chance that you want to do a deep dive, this Twitter thread does a decent overview of a fairly convoluted issue. It is in Slovenian, but the machine translation is surprisingly good.
But while the issue at the ballot box was technical, the sentiment was anything but. A lot of people saw the new law as a prelude to banning the great unwashed from all the best beach-fronts. Many were also concerned with overall degradation of coastal areas by relaxing construction rules.
In addition, the referendum was first run at the ballot box since Janez Janša came to power. Indeed, since the 2018 parliamentary election. Looking back, the can of whop-ass the voters opened on the Glorious Leader could hardly have been bigger.
Doubly so given that the result was distributed almost uniformly across the country. Even SDS strongholds saw more than 70 percent of votes cast against the law, which probably has the Party Chairman at least a bit worried.
To be honest, the government side ran a shit campaign. It often seemed as if the law was more of a pet project for environment minister Andrej Vizjak than a well-designed government policy. But then again, this goes for a lot of legislation passed under Janša government, so there.
But while Marshal Twito’s heart may not have been in it, he did use the opportunity to test-run a couple of voter-suppression tactics. These may come in handy soon.
Specifically, as the turnout in the early vote was record-breaking, Janša tweeted out a thinly-veiled accusation of election fraud. He stated that “he hopes that all early ballots will be kept safe and not tampered with until the count on Sunday”. Hashtag just saying, or something.
In the end this didn’t matter. The result was so overwhelmingly one-sided that any claim of voter fraud would have simply been laughed away.
However, the intention is clear: if and when the vote is close – in an upcoming parliamentary election, to give an example at random – early ballots and voting by mail will be litigated to no end.
And slightly off-topic: this is also why Wednesdays’ rejection of Supreme Court judges is more than just playing politics. The Slovenian Supreme Court rules on any and all election challenges. If Marshal Twito is indeed coming up with a nefarious plan to challenge the 2022 election result, he needs people he can control on that court.
Again, sounds familiar, although there is this thing about the best laid plans…
Anyway, speaking of vote by mail, there were an unusually high number of complaints from Slovenians abroad. Apparently they did not receive their election material in time despite registering to vote by mail well in advance.
On top of that, residents of retirement and nursing homes complained about having been notified to register to vote by mail on the very last possible day. While the government blamed human error, the explanation was lacking as vote-by-mail for residents of these facilities is part-and-parcel of every vote.
Lastly, the very fact that the referendum date was pushed into the summer was a blatant attempt to lower the turnout and prevent proponents of the referendum from reaching the quorum to make the result valid.
When all was said and done, none of that mattered. People queued in blistering heat, sometimes for hours, to cast an early vote. Nursing home residents got some unexpected help from taxi drivers. They transported about 800 senior citizens to their polling stations. Free of charge. And while Slovenians abroad couldn’t do jack shit about their mail being late, others changed their travel plans to cast a vote they didn’t plan on casting.
But make no mistake. Even if some of that can generously be attributed to human error, voter suppression scenarios were being tested.
Trouble in populist paradise
That these scenarios did not work apparently has Janša and his base worried a bit. Had all things been equal, the Glorious Leader would have celebrate his defeat at the ballot box by one of his signature post-voting Twitter meltdowns. He would again be going a bit cray-cray. blaming the Deep State, George Soros and fake-news lame-stream media. You know, the works.
However, things apparently are not equal and even Marshal Twito’s instinct to see the world burn was overshadowed by the urgent need to calm frayed nerves. He rejected calls for resignation, uncharacteristically commended the large turnout and even rebuked his base for not showing up at the ballot box. Apparently, there’s trouble in the populist paradise.
It is as if Janša ran out of things and people to blame for his government’s poor performance. Instead, he turned on his own base for not loving him enough. All the hallmarks of a truly democratic leader and whatnot.
That said, things were different this time around.
In defeating the Waters Act, a plethora of NGOs and activists joined forces with celebrities and experts to mount an unprecedented grass-roots campaign. And what it lacked in clarity of message (their slogan was for access to fresh water, but they had to convince the people to vote against the law) it made up for in enthusiasm and authenticity.
In doing this, the campaign managed to unlock that holy grail of modern-day politics, the “youth vote”.
The demographics of the vote are yet to be published. But it seems beyond doubt that the turnout among Millennials and Gen-Z’ers was larger than anything Muddy Hollows had witnessed to date.
Partly, this is a function of youngsters getting, well, older. But partly, this is because the issue transcended partisan politics. Voting against the law (or against the government, for that matter) did not require a vote along party lines or in line with a particular world outlook.
It is also a direct result of campaign tactics that were never seen in this part of the world. At least not on this scale.
This included campaign activists directing people to early-voting places, giving out “I voted against” stickers when people left the polling place, a mostly online campaign which activated many other people. In essence, these young people rewrote the campaign playbook for Muddy Hollows.
Luckily, the opposition political parties sensed this. Or perhaps they were told to get the fuck out of the way and take the back seat. True, they mounted the first line of defence trying to defeat the law in the parliament back in March. But when that failed, they happily played second violin to a more credible set of campaign organisers.
Credibility and the lack thereof
Because credibility is something even the opposition is in critically short supply of. Especially when it comes to environment and sustainability issues.
Of course, there are differences between the parties. But Levica’s brand of eco-socialism may not be to everyone’s liking and SD’s track record is downright criminal, having saddled Slovenia with TEŠ 6 power plant and whatnot. The rest of the pack is somewhere in between those two positions.
That did not stop some opposition leaders from indulging in some self-love. Case in point LMŠ leader Marjan Šarec who unwisely trdid a bit too much of first person plural. As in “we won” and “we have shown the government”. It didn’t make him look good.
Luckily for Šarec, his parliamentary group chief Brane Golubović is made of smarter stuff . He conceded on Sunday that the result is the work of young voters, volunteers and activists.
If the left-liberal opposition is to even dream of tapping the electoral potential that evidently exists in Muddy Hollows then it must get cracking.
The worst it could do right now is to try and muscle in on the action, saying “we got it from here”. The second worst thing it could do is to expect the kids to do all the heavy lifting.
Neither of these assumptions are even remotely correct. The youngsters don’t feel they owe anything to anybody. And they are right.
What the opposition can do, however, is to build trust and take more cues from grass-roots level. Then they can use every rule in the parliamentary book to foil government’s plans over the next nine months.
And that does not include yet another no-confidence attempt, no matter what SD leader Tanja Fajon thinks.
No-confidence vote is not a no-brainer
Removing Marshal Twito from power nine months before the election would be devastating do opposition’s electoral prospects
Sure, it would rid Muddy Hollows of a self-destructive leader and the insignificunts in his orbit. It would also release the EU from a cringeworthy presidency and reduce the illiberal club by one.
What it wouldn’t do, however, is magically repair all the damage done over the last sixteen months. Nor would it do overnight all the work that should have been done but was not.
The effects of panedmic management fuck-ups, dismantling of public media and the rule of law, the limping vaccination campaign – it would all still be there. Not to mention the ballooning budget and reputation deficits.
The Glorious Leader is in an especially precarious position right now. He is running a minority government and is unable to pass major legislation. And when he is not playing useful idiot to Višegrad countries, he is drawing criticism from EU institutions. Not a good place to be in.
Moreover, Janša’s coalition partners (what is left of them, anyway) are fed up with his antics. Specifically, word on the street is that NSi wants to see minister Vizjak’s head on a pike for making everyone look bad with the referendum fiasco.
Therefore, releasing Janša from this clusterfuck via a no-confidence vote would be ideal for him right now.
Getting all the blame
Nine months of a caretaker government is precisely the right amount of time to fix absolutely nothing and get blamed for absolutely everything.
Janša would settle back into his natural habitat (that is, the opposition) almost immediately. Then, he’d be coming down on the new government as if he never saw the inside of a PM’s office in his life.
Muddy Hollows needs a a new government. But to get there, it first needs early election, and soon. The sentiment is there, as is the voter’s engagement, in case anyone doubted that.
Sunday’s referendum result proves that.