Get Me The President (Of The Parliament)!

It is against the backdrop of Phone-hacking scandal, the impending suicide of America’s public finances and the inherent inability to EU leaders to stop digging themselves into a Greek hole, that the Slovenian political crisis is unfolding in its own peculiar way. The government (or rather, the coalition) is only semi-operational, but is trying to mask this by hyperactivity. The opposition hasn’t got a clue what to do after if will (presumably) take power, but is trying to mask this by churning out amateur-night recovery plans. And the parliament is in shit-how-do-I-get-re-elected-mode, but is masking this by declaring a summer break.

Pavle Gantar, soon to be ex-president of the parliament (source: The Firm™)

After Zares quit the coalition and Gregor Golobič and Majda Širca returned to the parliament to serve as MPs (ousting Cveta Zalokar Oražem and Vito Rožej respectively) a rather unique situation was brought about in which the President of the Parliament was a member of an opposition party. Pavle Gantar of Zares was elected to the post as a result of a coalition agreement and since Zares quit, it is only logical that he should vacate the post toute-de-suite. Really? Not so fast. Initially, there was some level of confusion over this, with Gantar reportedly not committing to resigning while Golobič was already announcing it. Whether or not both top Zares men were of different minds is at this point almost irrelevant as Gantar only a day or so later announced that he is resigning as President of the National Assembly (the parliament), effective 1 September this year.

President of the Parliament (similar in function to Speaker of the House in US Congress and UK Parliament) is nominally the second-most senior elected official in the country. If for some reason the President of the Republic is incapacitated or otherwise unable to perform his duties, the President of the National Assembly steps in to take over in care-taker capacity until a new president is elected. All in all a powerful position, even if we neglect the usual separation of powers blah-blah such as the fact that the President of the National Assembly swears in all judges of the lower courts and so on. In short, being the top dog of the parliament is not exactly peanuts.

Which is why Gantar’s resignation created a lot of hoopla within the coalition (or rather, what was left of it). Whatever hopes Prime Minister Borut Pahor might have harboured about Zares not being entirely serious about quitting the coalition, these have now crumbled into sun dust. Even though both Gantar and Golobič maintain that the move was purely a question of political hygiene, the fact remains that the ruling Social Democrats led by PM Pahor now have another hot political potato in their hand. True, Zares MPs have woved to support whomever SD put forward for this position, but at the very least the parliament is up for yet another super-heated all-encompassing debate in September, one which is bound to raise levels of adrenaline and bad blood in the Slovene ecosystem even further. And there’s no shortage of either to begin with.

It all has to do with the epic #fail of the government on super-referendum Sunday last June. Just prior to the vote on pension reform, PM Pahor was making unmistakeable noises about requesting a confidence vote should the reform be defeated. But after the referendum defeat, these noises became increasingly muted and after it became obvious that Pahor in fact backed down from his political machosim it was a question of political credibility for Zares and Gregor Golobič (who resigned as minister days before that fateful referendum) to complete the cross-over to the opposition. Having done that, both the party and its president, proclaimed all but politically dead by some long ago, seized the initiative and are – for the time being at least – calling the shots in Slovene politics.

This, of course, will not last forever. But a number of things are working in Zares’ favour at the moment, not the least of them being the nonsensical hyperactivity of the government and its president, going about just everything, from health reform to solving the Greek debt crisis and everything in between. It is obvious that most of this is just smokescreen, trying to hide the fact that Pahor’s government is in retreat on all fronts and trying to cut losses. Case in point being the much-hyped law on media, which failed spectacularly at the very first stage of the legislative procedure by means of an orchestrated effort to kill it by (at least) a part of MPs for Social Democrats.

No need to go into too much detail (maybe some other time) but suffice it to say that a particular media baron wannabe had a particular interest to see the law killed as soon as possible and had apparently struck a deal with (at least par of) Social Democrats, to vote the law down, even though the government had approved the text of the law. The thing is that even though the MPs gave the man what he wanted, most of them will be outside of the parliament looking in some time within the next 16 months. But currying the favour of media owners is one thing (slightly OT: pengovsky predicts the SD will get screwed and that the favour will not be returned). It is quite another thing to sort out your own ranks and this is where PM Pahor is going from strength to strength in failing to do just about anything. The Capital Assets Management Agency is still going rogue, to the point of the PM actually calling in the anti-corruption commission to investigate, the project of Bloc 6 of Šoštanj Coal Power Plant just about got out of hand with costs now exceeding 1.3 billion euros (original estimates put the price tag at around 600 million) and the government still lacks four full-blooded ministers.

Add to this the urgent need to elect a new president of the parliament, possibly a referendum on the family code and you see that the situation is in total flux. Amid this a quiet by rather fast re-positioning is taking place. As said earlier, Zares is making the most of this and Gregor Golobič – having purged the party’s parliamentary group of unwanted element – is suddenly way more visible than he ever was as a minister. On the other hand of the spectrum, the Slovene People’s Party (SLS) distanced publicly flipped the bird to Janez Janša and his SDS, saying they will address voters by themselves and not via some astroturf initiatives.

These moves may seem innocent enough and it remains to be seen how the big parties (SD and SDS) will respond. Will SD get their act together and will SDS be able to stick to the point once for a change and not go on all-out rampage? The September vote on the new parliamentary chief will be a good measure of things. At any rate, the fun and the drama are not ending any time soon.

Enhanced by Zemanta

A Day Late And A Dollar Short

Hollywood is laden with epic “I quit” scenes, with pengovsky’s favourite still being the one in The American Beauty. But the cesspool that is the Slovenian political landscape can occasionally offer a gem or two regarding the style in which someone tells someone else to “take this job and… fill it!”, to put in the words of Abe Simpson

Gregor Golobič and Zares exit the coalition (original image here)

A moment like this occurred yesterday when Zares of Gregor Golobič officially quit the ruling coalition, leaving PM Borut Pahor to his own devices, with LDS leader Katarina Kresal by his side (for the moment, at least). Ever since Zares issued what for all intents and purposes was an ultimatum for a radical cabinet reshuffle, lest the party quits the coalition toute-de-suite, the PM either did not understand the message or thought Golobič was bluffing and did nothing which lead the three remaining minsiters of Zares to quit their posts. Thus Darja Radić, Majda Širca and Irma Pavlinič Krebs followed the example of Gregor Golobič who resigned his ministerial post on the eve of the super-referendum Sunday.

The Letter

To top it off – and probably to make sure that there is no doubt about who if the dumper and who the dumpee in this case – Golobič sent a rather longish letter to Pahor and Kresal, outlining the reasons for Zares taking the plunge. He puts the blame squarely on the PM, accusing him of being unable to rein in special interests and bad practices which this government promised to uproot but failed to do so, thus (says Golobič) affirming and continuing misdeeds of the government of Janez Janša. He specifically cites cases of Patria APCs (Janša in scheduled to stand trial over allegations of bribery and abuse of power over that one) where the government failed to take decisive action. Ditto for the case of Šoštanj coal power plant where the stand-off between Zares and Social Democrats was further complicated by a conflict between local and national interests and which caused a lot of bad blood within Zares as well, provoking open confrontation between Golobič on one side and Matej Lahovnik (former minister of economy) and Cveta Zalokar Oražem (former MP for the party) on the other. Neither Lahovnik nor Zalokar Oražem are party members any longer. And although he doesn’t mention it specifically, the list could be expanded to include the LDS-led fiasco with Draško Veselinovič as the CEO of Nova Ljubljanska Banka, where Katarina Kresal imposed Veselinovič as her man at the helm of Slovenia’s biggest (and state-owned bank) only to see him forced to quit over extending the credit line to Boško Šrot in his failed attempt to take over Laško Brewery (Šrot is standing trial for that one as well).

In other words, the list of grievances is long and distinguished. What is not explicitly mentioned (but is sort of a public secret around here) is the fact that Social Democrats often hijacked Zares’ initiatives, saying that they will gain support in the parliament only if SD is the one who officially introduces them and (by extension) takes the credit. But the real bomb-shell comes in the second part of the letter (Slovene only):

Instead of elementary decisiveness and responsiblity in taking the decisions necessary to ensure the well-being of the country and its citizens and looking for actual not just PR effects, we are increasingly faced with a hyper-production of senseless buzzwords about radars, trains, convoys, ships, throwing in towels and so on, all of which only goes to prove that this particular line of politics has emptied itself and is completely void of ideas.

Golobič then goes on to add

Rejection of our call to reshuffle the cabinet by the PM and leader of the Social Democrats was in our view a short-sighted move, one which opens the door wide open for ascent of the transition right wing with all its properties and effects. We will take no part in this. We do recognise our share of responsibility for the duration of our time in the government. However in the case of scenario which is (knowingly or not) unfolding, we will do no such thing.

In other words, Golobič is saying that Pahor fucked up royally, squandered the chance to make a difference and gave us PR fluff instead, thus rehabilitating the ways of Janez Janša who is already considered the new PM-apparent. Truth be told, Golobič on some other occasions gave credit where credit was due, especially in the case of the Arbitration Agreement and subsequent revolutionary thawing of relations with Croatia, but in terms of internal politics, the letter was about as strong a condemnation as they come.

Pengovsky believes that Golobič might be slightly off as far as ushering in Janša is concerned, but Pahor can take zero credit for that one. The leader of the SDS has crediblity problems of his own, including but not limited to Patria case, fake-grass-roots initiatives to call early election and – curiously enough – strange use of his Twitter account (where pengovsky even played an small and insignificant role).

Barely functioning government

Anyways: as a result, the ruling coalition barely deserves its adjective. The government has only thirty-three votes in a ninety-seat parliament, which makes it practically impossible to govern as the balance of power is now almost completely shifted towards the parliament. There is a gap twelve votes wide and bridging even once would be a political and logistical nightmare. Doing it on a per-vote basis is practically impossible. The government is bleeding as it is and pulling off a stunt like this (and doing it repeatedly) would require inhumane quantities of strength, politicking, horse-dealing and manhandling. It simply can not be done.

Even more so. With four ministers gone, the government is on the verge of being legally defunct. Namely, the Law on government specifies (Article 11) that the government is considered fully empowered if at least two thirds of ministers are appointed (ministers without portfolio notwithstanding). Since there are fifteen full-blooded ministries in this government, Pahor’s government is only two ministers short of being found operationally incapacitated. True, he can temporarily overcome this by assigning a sitting minister to take over another portfolio for a period of no more than six months, but this provision was meant to speed up the formation of the government, not extend the life of a nearly defunct one.

A day late and a dollar short

To put it graphically: when Golobič quit his post of science and higher education minister, PM Pahor entrusted the minister of (primary and secondary) education and sports Igor Lukšič (SD) to take over. He is reportedly poised to take over the ministry of culture as well, while minister of development and European affairs Mitja Gaspari (SD) is rumoured to stand in for Darja Radić in the economy portfolio. By that same token Aleš Zalar (LDS) is rumoured to take over Public Administration ran by Pavlinič Krebs. Given that minister without portfolio tasked with relations with diaspora Boštjan Žekš is already standing in for Henrik Gjerkeš, who was minister without portfolio tasked with local self-government until he quit for driving under the influence, you can see, that this is not even funny any more. Instead it’s bordering on ludicrous. That the government is mulling a reorganisation of the ministries, reducing them in number is just another case of PR spin and alleviating the symptoms rather then administering the cure.

In what is a glimmer of hope, reality seems finally to have caught up with PM Pahor as well, although he came a day late and a dollar short. Word on the street has it that he realised the gravity of the situation just prior to the official celebration of the Statehood Day Friday last and nearly had a melt-down. Whether that is true or not is basically beside the point but it is telling that it was Katarina Kresal who gave the initial reaction to Zares walking out yesterday and that the PM was seen only later in the evening at another official function where he gave a relatively impassioned speech. He is, however, expected to make an announcement regarding the new political reality in the next day or so.

What is this? Afghanistan?!

However, that the leader of the remaining junior coalition party said yesterday was also a relatively ill-conceived attempt at calming an explosive situation. Namely, Katarina Kresal more or less said that what is left of the government will first pick up the pieces, try to pass the remainder of planned legislation and then (this is the important part) work for an orderly transition to early elections, adding that they can’t just drop everything and walk out thus implicitly accusing Zares of doing precisely that. All fine and dandy, it sure as hell ain’t nice being dumped when you’re down and out although – mind you – it is entirely unclear what this will do to Zares’ ratings which leave a lot to be desired as it is.

But the bit about “orderly transition towards early elections” is just plain nonsense (and I’m being kind here, because I kind of like KK). What is this? Iraq? Lybia? Af-fucking-ghanistan?!? Slovenia has no need for “orderly transition” of any kind because save political hard-headedness of the current PM there is nothing that is out of order. Even more so: the constitution clearly provides for exactly these kinds of situation so there is no need to “work towards” anything. The scenario is very simple. If the government falls one way or the other, the sitting ministers and the PM continue in a caretaker role until a new cabinet is appointed. This applies even if the entire cabinet resigns tomorrow. Implying that the world will end if they all just let go is misleading at best. Doubly so since the government is barely functioning as it is.

Calls for early elections are mounting although few of them are genuine. It is a failure by the PM not to be able to tell those which were fake from those which weren’t. The one made by Zares was – well – meant for real.


Enhanced by Zemanta

Pension Reform Awaits Landmark Ruling And/Or Referendum

I know this is starting to look a bit like Groundhog Day, but I’m afraid it cannot be helped. As of tomorrow Slovene labour unions led by Dušan Semolič will be collecting 40 000 signatures necessary to hold a referendum on the recently passed pension reform.

Wars are not won in the battlefields but in the temples – Sun Tzu (Constitutional court, source)

So we will have not one but two referendum bids, the other one trying to kill the law on menial work. While both laws are a part of “reform legislation” the pension reform is obviously crucial, which is why the government is doing everything in its power to impede this latest referendum. And with good reason too, as the unions made it abundantly clear that they will draw no punches in this fight. As a result both sides are now tangled into a complicated multi-sided tug-of-war where a whole lot of players who have their own agendas might get sacrificed as pawns in a much larger game called The Relative Stability of Public Finances.

In fact it is quite possible that some sacrifices have already been made. The one thing PM Borut Pahor and labour minister Ivan Svetlik must avoid at all cost is to make the referendum on pension reform a referendum on the current government. Which is precisely what labour unions leaders are aiming to do. Should the succeed, the pension reform would be as good as dead, especially with the government’s popularity points being at an all-time low, barely reaching mid-20s.

So it seems (and I am being cynical here) that plan B, which is being implemented just in case, is to make the people vent as much anger as possible before the referendum on pension reform comes up and possibly make proponents of the referendum look bad for wanting the referendum in the first place. Case in point being the referendum on RTV Slovenia which PM Pahor basically fore-fitted and left minister of culture Majda Širca to fight her own battle. The same might very well go for the referendum on law on menial work, especially since both referendums will – should the proponents collect the necessary signatures – be probably held only a week apart, with a vote on menial work first and pension reform second, by which time the voters just might have vented enough. Combined with an effective PR onslaught the government might just barely make it.

So, this looks like plan B (if it exists at all, that is). What’s plan A? Not having a referendum in the first place.

Namely, the government has asked the Constitutional Court to rule whether the referendum on pension reform is constitutional in the first place. The argument goes along the line of pension reform being necessary if Article 50 of the Constitution (the right to social security). In other words, if the pension reform is nixed on the referendum, then the state cannot fulfil its welfare role any longer, hence an unconstitutional situation would occur. Additionally, the state will also try to argue that the pension reform is a question of state budged, as the law on referendums prevents holding a referendum on several issues, one of them being the budget.

Obviously the unions will claim the above is not worth a pair of fetid dingo’s kidneys, despite the fact that they will be told that the government increased the minimum wage when crisis struck for real and that it should be the unions who should compromise this time around.

Can the government pull it off? Unknown. This will be a landmark decision by the Constitutional court. Should it side with the government, this will really take the wind out of unions’ sails and pave the way for a speedy adoption of the rest of the reform package (or whatever is left of it). On the other hand, should the court deny the government and the referendum goes fort, then the government is back to plan B (insofar it even exists) and then hope that people will vote against their instincts and support the pension reform.

And while we’re on the issue, many people – including some whose opinion pengovsky values – think that the reform, such as it was passed is not really a reform. Which is probably true. What we have here is a very watered down version of the original proposal which probably ensures solvency of the pension fund for the next decade or so (that’s two-and-a-half terms) and then the whole thing will start all over again. But maybe combined with everything else, this might give this country just enough of a kick to eschew falling down. Whether this will be enough to break the gravity pull and go for the stars? Well, things and projects are brewing, but they have little to do with welfare state. That’s more of a innovation thing.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Referendum on RTV Slovenia: A Night To Forget

The final tally of Sunday referendum on the law on RTVSLO was disastrous, to say the least. The law was nixed with 72.64 percent votes against and only 27.36 percent in favour, with a criminally low voter turnout. The counter of voters attending the referendum stopped at 250 079 or only 14.56 percent. The good doctor rightly called it a fiasco. While the inevitable battle for interpretation of results ensued immediately, there are things that should not be overlooked.

(source: The Firm™)

Bottom line is that the law was quashed, meaning that the existing law on RTVSLO, crafted by SDS’ very own chief bulldog Branko Grims remains in effect. The coalition lost this round decisively and without reprieve. Well, without immediate reprieve, at least. Legislation stipulates that following a referendum, no change to a particular law can be attempted for a year. With PM Pahor’s government popularity points hitting the low end of the twenties, the defeat only reiterates what the opinion polls say. Furthermore, this is also major policy defeat for the coalition which put revamping of the law and limiting political influence over the institution high on its agenda.

Carte blanche

Rejection of the law threatens to open a Pandora’s box of pressure being brought to bear on RTVSLO once again. The existing law allows for it and the referendum result now gives the ruling coalition almost a carte blanche to shape the institution according to its own image, just as Janša’s government did after the 2007 referendum on the same issue (when the current law was confirmed). An overwhelming majority of members of Programming and Supervisory boards will still be appointed by the parliamentary majority. This means it is up to good will of politicians to decide whether board members will be people who know what TV and radio are, or people who will more or less faithfully follow party directives. And being dependant on good will of politicians is never a good thing. RTVSLO thus remains a state media and is eons away from becoming public.

However. While resounding, the defeat is not catastrophe for the coalition. Immediately after declaring victory, Janez Janša and his SDS called for Minister of Culture Majda Širca to resign. This was later (predictably) expanded to a claim that the entire government led by Borut Pahor should resign, since they are wasting time on trivial matters, such as the new law. Following government resignation, sayeth the SDS, early election should be called.

Same old, same old

Pengovsky will not go again over why it is next to impossible to call early elections in Slovenia. But constant calls for early elections are becoming really old really fast and only prove that SDS in fact has no serious alternative on how to handle the general situation Slovenia is in right now other than the fact that it is them who should be in power.

Which brings to the next issue at hand. Despite clinching a victory, the SDS can be far from happy. Having thrown shitload of mud in the general direction of Pahor’s government and in the specific direction of minister Širca, despite trying hard to galvanise the vote, less than 15 percent of people showed up at the voting booth and of that less than three quarters voted in line with SDS’ position (a no vote). Even if we assume that everyone who voted against is a SDS supporter (which is not the case), this means that the die-hard base of Janša’s party ammounts to less than 12 percent of Slovene voters. While still a number to be reckoned with, this shows a marked decline in both power and reach of SDS, which – this must be said – is leading the opinion polls for some time now.

So, in purely political terms the winner of the referendum battle is the SDS (or the opposition in general), but in the wider perspective both the coalition and the opposition will want to forget the episode as soon as possible.

Dangers ahead

As written above, the immediate result of the referendum is that RTVSLO remains state rather than public media. But bad news don’t stop here. Since it is obvious that – while legal – the referendum was (ab)used for specific political purposes and that the majority of voters (for one reason or another) wanted to have nothing to do with it, calls for revamping of the referendum legislation are becoming increasingly loud, again especially from the left side of the political spectrum. Indeed, a recent poll showed that were the government call a “referendum on a referendum”, a large majority of people would a) vote and b) vote in favour of restricting possibilities to call a referendum.

Appealing as it may sound, such a move would quite probably be a start of a very bad journey.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Honey, I Shrunk The Coalition!

My, how the tables have turned! A little more than eighteen months ago Zares of Gregor Golobič floated the idea of some fundamental changes to Slovenian referendum legislation. What on the surface looked like a noble idea, had way to many drawbacks, but for purposes of this post suffice it to say that among other things this junior coalition party wanted to institute a “Referendum Day” or two where all referendum bids filed until a certain date would be voted on (Read The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions if you want to jog your memory).

The Boy with the Flute is a mascot of RTVSLO ever since it was created as RTV Ljubljana (source)

Today the government of Borut Pahor and Zares in particular are in a situation where such provisions (had they been passed in time) would most likely kill one or more key pieces of reform legislation which the coalition somehow managed to squeeze through the parliament despite copious amounts of shit being thrown at it.

Notably this goes for the famed Law on Menial Work (which was, truth be told, vetoed by the National Council hours ago and will have to be voted on again by the National Assembly) and especially for the new law on national radio and television (RTV Slovenija) which was passed last week and which (again) brings sweeping changes to the institution and (according to the Ministry of Culture) is returning the now-state-run media back into the public domain.

State vs. Public

A quick but necessary digression: Soon after Janez Janša won 2004 elections (so soon in fact that the LDS did not yet have the time to fall apart) a new law on RTVSLO was passed by the parliament which turned the former into a full-blooded state radio and television, mostly through changes in composition of supervisory and programming boards and election of its members and (further down) by altering the way Radio and TV chiefs were appointed.

The changes, however, were sold as “more quality programming for less money” since of the more debated provisions of the law was the so called RTV-fee (which was set at EUR 12) held the most tangible value. Everyone who’s ever worked in media knows that you never get more (quality) content for less money, but since RTVSLO was, is, and will be a money-guzzling-bottomless-pit and since quality of programming already at that time left a lot to be desired, it wasn’t a hard sell. And even so the law was barely confirmed on a referendum.

Honey, I shrunk the coalition!

The new law was passed on 20 October with an ordinary majority and immediately caused a bit of a rift in the largest coalition party as Andrej Magajna (leader of non-parliamentary Christian Socialist party, elected as MP on a Social Democrats‘ ticket) broke ranks and gave the crucial thirtieth signature needed by opposition Slovene Democratic Party (SDS) and Slovene National Party (SNS) to call a referendum on the freshly minted law. Furthermore Magajna left SD’s club and declared himself an indpendent.

One vote less in a squabble-prone left wing coalition is quite a price to pay for a single piece of legislation. This proves that the law, which was drafted in the ministry of culture (a portfolio held by Zares’ Majda Širca) has such a strong backing in the government and PM Pahor personally that he was willing to see his majority in the parliament reduced to 47 votes. just a vote above the single-vote majority.

Cynics will obviously say that this is a small price to pay to have RTVSLO shaped according to Zares’ and Pahor’s wishes, and to an extent that is true. The true question therefore is whether RTVSLO will truly be returned to the public domain as the coalition claims or will it be further politicised as the opposition claims. Janez Janša’s SDS crying foul on political influence over RTVSLO is of course a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, but this does not automatically mean that the law is good. But it does provide some basis for gradual comeback of quality content and serious journalism to what supposedly wants to be the Slovenian BBC. But nothing will change just because there’s a new law in place. Just sayin’

Oh, the irony!

Wait. What? Who said there’s a new law in place? The referendum bid was successful, which means that the voters will have the final say in the matter. And this is where we come full circle to the beginning of the post. It is somewhat ironic that today it is the opposition which wants to institute a “Referendum day”, mostly on the grounds that there are numerous referendums being mulled (RTVSLO, law on menial work and pension reform among others) and “since we’re at it, we might just vote on them all in one go”.

We’ll neglect the fact that this is a rather poor attempt at shooting down Pahor’s government at the expense of an overhaul this country badly needs and rather focus on the fact that Zares responded fiercely to the idea. Not just because they see the referendum as a “waste of taxpayers’ time and money” (which is the official party position) but also because holding a referendum on 17 April would a) probably sink the law by default as it would not be voted on on merit but as a protest vote against the government and b) would – if it somehow survived – come into force on 1 January 2012, more than a year from now. Which is precisely one of the drawbacks of Zares’ idea pengovsky pointed out a year-and-a-half ago.

Yes, I am feeling rather smug 😀

Enhanced by Zemanta