A Preliminary Guide to Slovenia’s Presidential Elections

Slovenia’s presidential elections are scheduled for the end of the year. Will incumbent #instapresident Borut “Barbie” Pahor emerge triumphant, or will Slovenia lurch nativist right wing, becoming the EU’s next Poland? Our Slovenia correspondent Pengovsky takes a look at the state of presidential play in Melania Trump’s homeland, with illustrations taken from President Pahor’s own Instagram account.


With 2017 fully settled in, it is high time pengovsky takes a look at the biggest political event scheduled this year in Slovenia. Namely, the presidential elections. While unimportant on the larger scale of things, especially with looming French and German elections and whatnot, the popular vote on the largely (but not completely) ceremonial post is still interesting as it will function both as a large scale public opinion poll as well as a prequel to the parliamentary elections, expected to take place some time in 2018. So, to get one’s bearings and to provide some light entertainment, here is the lay of the presidential land in Slovenia.

In Slovenia, the President of the Republic has limited powers. Arguably, his biggest role is nominating candidates for top positions in the state apparatus. Specifically, he nominates candidates for prime minister, constitutional judges as well as governor and vice-governors of the Central Bank. However, his nominations require the approval of the parliament which often-times means that the president is (at worst) merely rubber-stamping horse-trading between parliamentary parties or (at best) is actively involved in finding a consensus candidate, which usually does not translate into the best possible candidate. But such is life.

The one area where the president does have considerable discretion is the appointment of the leadership of the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption. The anti-graft body has been in the news quite often in the past five years, not least because it contributed to the political downfall of both the former president of retailer Mercator Zoran Janković and former Prime Minister Janez Janša in the Winter of Discontent (2012-13) as well as for its transformation from a fearsome agency treading uncharted waters to a toothless tiger within months, courtesy of some (intentionally?) bad decisions by the incumbent now-Independent president Borut Pahor.


The other area where the president actually has a final say are appointments of Slovenian ambassadors to countries around the world. There were flare-ups and and power plays on more than one occasion between the president and the government, usually when the government wanted to dole out ambassadorships as rewards for political loyalty while the incumbent president saw it as an embarrassment-in-the-making and refused to sign the appointments.

On the other hand, the president is required to sign promulgations of laws regardless of whether he agrees with them or not. Again, there were a couple of high-profile cases in the past quarter-century where the president voiced his opposition to a specific law or was petitioned not to sign it to prevent it from being enacted. The latest such case was the amended Aliens Act, which gives the police sweeping powers in shutting borders to all foreign nationals. In what is essentially a Slovenian version of a potential Trumpian #TravelBan, tensions ran high, accusations of violating the Geneva Convention flew, the Council of Europe and Amnesty International got involved and a fierce row within the ruling SMC between Prime Minister Cerar and Speaker of the National Assembly Milan Brglez erupted. President Pahor himself voiced concerns over the amended law (albeit ever so mutedly) but signed it unceremoniously.

State of play

So, it is against this backdrop that the players are slowly entering the field. That the incumbent president Borut Pahor will run for the second and final term of course came as a surprise to no-one. Even though Pahor every so often hinted at not running again (most notably in an interview in December 2015), no one in their right mind took him seriously. Being the drama-queen president that he is, he has developed a habit of doing mildly outrageous things every so often to make sure he doesn’t ever drop out of the media cycle for long. For example, he’d call out “Hey, doll!” to an attendee at a high-school graduation event or post a locker-room tweet just prior to a decisive women’s basketball game saying that he will “be celebrating victory with the girls in the locker-room“, making it sound as if he planned to be there, while still making sure said tweet could also be read as if he will simply be celebrating at the same time as the “girls celebrating in the locker room”. Parallels with Donald Trump will now be entertained. And as if that wasn’t enough, his Instagram account provides for hours of embarrassing fun, case in point this particular shot taken in Cairo:

Domotožje v Kairu. #Pahor #president #Egypt #Slovenia #homesick #homesweethome #ljubodoma

A post shared by Borut Pahor (@borutpahor) on

This momentarily sparked an internet craze collectively known as #boruting but also showed just how well Pahor understands the old adage of foreign policy being merely a continuation of domestic policy. This was again demonstrated last month when the Prez went on a much-heralded tour that took him to Berlin, Moscow and Kyiv, and where he used big words and painted himself as an unlikely peacemaker in the Ukrainian conflict. At least that’s the spin that Politico bought. Obviously, nothing came of it. Not that the Prez actually gives a shit.

Don’t get me wrong, President Pahor is of course interested in achieving peace on Earth and good will towards men, but so is Miss Universe. What both of them lack is any sort of gravitas in the field. However, these sort of things always sound nice and that in reality was all that Pahor was aiming for. A bit of prêt-à-porter statehood for domestic consumption, while he signed some 400 million euros worth of business deals with Putin in Moscow and floated the idea of Vlad and The Donald meeting in Melania’s fatherland. This to which the Russians responded with an amused but non-committal “maybe”. So much for foreign policy. But at home, these sort of stunts sell like hotcakes and combined with the president spending much of his first term campaigning for a second one (in essence doing the Trump years before Trump), Borut Pahor is wildly popular and at this moment seems virtually unbeatable. His only problem is that at this exact moment five years ago, then-President Danilo Türk seemed virtually unbeatable as well.

Barbika, a ne baraba. #pahor #president #presidentpahor #slovenia

A post shared by Borut Pahor (@borutpahor) on

SMC – Storm in a Modern Cup

One person who was thought to be an early challenger to President Pahor is Speaker Milan Brglez. Even before he fell out with PM Cerar over the Aliens Act he was seen doing an increasing number of photo-ops and unveilings which led the professional tea-leaves readers to conclude that he would be mounting a presidential bid. Not so fast. Brglez’s forays into the limelight sooner fell into the category Malcolm Tucker once famously described as “roll some tits up the flagpole and see if anyone gets wood“.

Well, turns out the prospective candidate himself never really warmed to the idea. And when the fracas threatened to spiral out of control, one possibility was to “promote” Brglez to President. But the election result is, of course, far from certain, and if it was, the whole thing would look like the highest office in the land is being used for petty politics (which would be true) and Brglez likes it in the parliament anyway. So, no dice.

At any rate, cooler heads prevailed, PM Cerar backed down while Brglez ate some humble pie and the two unlikely machos buried the hatchet at least for the time being. Whether there was some deal involved, wherein Brglez quits his Modern Center Party’s higher echelons after the elections citing the wish to continue academic work remains to be seen, but that’s already another story.

Korak. #step #moment #president #pahor #slovenia🇸🇮 #slovenia

A post shared by Borut Pahor (@borutpahor) on

The Nut Brigade

So, just who might be willing to go and challenge Pahor? There are the usual suspects, most notably Zmago Jelinčič of the Slovenian National Party who never wastes an opportunity for some free publicity. Once a force to be reckoned with, even sporting his own version of a brownshirt in the early nineties and later on almost making it into the government, the voters threw him and his party out of the parliament at the beginning of the millennium and he never recovered. That said, he still manages to loiter at the outskirts of the political landscape, primarily at the local level. Expect Jelinčič to do his version of #MAGA (heavy on walls, anti-refugee rhetoric and nativism) but to little effect. Especially since we can expect several members of the Nuts Brigade to run as well. Some of them we’ll remember from past appearances when they won fewer votes than they have family members, others will be new to the ring, but most of them will have a platform so convoluted they’ll make Jelinčič look normal.

And since we’re on the margins of the political landscape: the once all-powerful Liberal Democrats (LDS) who have deteriorated into little more than a logo, recently held a congress where they announced a comeback but at the same time said they will skip the presidential race. This basically writes them off forever (no news there) since the presidential campaign is an excellent opportunity to increase visibility (case in point Jelinčič and the nutcases above) without actually having to deliver results. And if a candidate of a once-powerful party would win, say, somewhere between four and eight percent, this could give the party something to work with as the threshold to enter the parliament is set at four percent. Admittedly, the numbers are not directly translatable, but still. So, no LDS. Not now, not ever again.

As far as mainstream players are concerned however, pengovsky wrote some time ago, some place else, that the only two people who could potentially give Pahor a run for his money are Karl Erjavec of the single-issue Democratic Party of Pensioners of Slovenia (DeSUS) and Janez Janša of the centrist Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS).

TL;DR? Both have comparable political mileage as Pahor, both are battle-hardened, can fire up their base, and in a potential second round face-off, either of them would be a formidable adversary to the incumbent president. On the flip-side, however, neither Erjavec nor Janša would want a high-profile defeat. For Erjavec it would mean grief he just doesn’t need, especially since he has successfully framed himself and his party as king-makers for the last three elections running. Sure, Karl would love to have a crack at the top job, but he is quite happy as foreign minister right now and might be tempted to have a go at the premiership first.

Delfinček, obliž na poškodovano ramo. #pacug #president #pahor #summer #temptattoo #slovenia

A post shared by Borut Pahor (@borutpahor) on

At the same time, Janez Janša is facing an upsurge of discord within the party ranks and could be looking for a way out. What better escape hatch than to get elected to the top position in the country and in the name of impartiality that the position implies (but does not explicitly demand), leave the party to others. But if he were to be defeated, Janša would find himself bereft of the aura of fearless leader. even among his most ardent supporters, practically inviting a leadership challenge. So, he is most likely taking a pass, too.

On a mission from GOD

But the problem with Janša’s position is that it is precarious even if he doesn’t run against Pahor: a new political movement is slowly emerging on the right side of the political spectrum, eating away at his base and undermining him. Formed on the heels of the anti-LGBT campaign which successfully shot down the bid to legalise same-sex marriage, the Movement for Children and Families (Gibanje za otroke in družine – GOD) is pursuing a radically regressive agenda, including (but not limited to) a ban on abortion, abolishing the separation of church and state, the promotion of nativism and thinly-veiled racism combined with some seriously populist demagoguery regarding social injustices, the plight of the working man and the daylight robbery that supposedly is big business. It is, in essence, nationalism and socialism combined. I wonder why that sounds familiar…

Anyhow, even if Janša doesn’t realize it yet, GOD leader Aleš Primc has already taken over control of much of his operation. It was Primc who organised the crowds in front of the court while Janša was on trial in the Patria Affair. For those unaware, the Patria Affair was a political controversy involving charges by prosecutors in Slovenia and Austria that Slovenian officials had engaged in bribery in an effort to secure an armoured personnel carrier order from the the Finnish company Patria. It was Primc who kept the movement going even after Janša was released from prison. It was Primc who installed himself as programming director of Nova24 TV (basically, a shoddy SDS cable news outlet) and Primc who mounted the last two successful referendum bids (both on same-sex marriage). In short, Primc is the chief political operator on Slovenia’s right wing, and when he goes rogue, Janša and much of SDS will be in deep shit.

With that in mind, it seems prudent to expect that Primc will put forward a presidential candidate, most likely himself. While this is based on little more than a hunch, it does have several upsides: As already noted, a presidential bid is free publicity, a trial run for the party’s platform and – if all goes to plan – it sets up the narrative for the parliamentary elections. Because after the 2014 campaign with its anti-corruption theme, Primc & co. would love nothing more than a values-themed 2018 parliamentary elections. And what better way to make that happen than a 2017 presidential campaign, where he is expected to make merely a credible showing. However, should he pull off the mother of all upsets and win, then all bets are off and the possibility of Slovenia becoming the next Poland in two year’s time is suddenly very real.

Projection

Again, the above is merely speculation at this point, despite some early murmurings. It seems logical to expect that every major political party will field its own candidate in the first round. Combined with the Nut Brigade, the field will get quite crowded. But right now, most parties are still mulling over how exactly to approach the conundrum. They have to put forward a credible name lest they look as if they don’t care about the presidency (which for the most part they don’t) but they also have to make sure they don’t burn people who could make a good showing a year from now in the parliamentary race.

This, of course, plays well into Pahor’s hands and makes the probability of him getting re-elected that much higher. And that’s before we’ve factored in the fact that he’ll be using to the fullest extent possible, every photo-op from here until election day as well as overall brand name recognition which none of the potential challengers can even remotely match. The Force seems to be strong with him.

But then again, Hillary Clinton was expected to be a shoo-in too. And look how that turned out.

The original version of this piece was published on pengovsky’s personal blog, Sleeping with Pengovsky. He has generously given us permission to republish it here.

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Aljaz Pengov Bitenc
Aljaz Pengov Bitenc

Aljaž Pengov Bitenc a.k.a. pengovsky runs Radio KAOS, a multimedia radio station based in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He's also a resident blogger/columnist for the web edition of Delo newspaper. In addition, he also publishes his own blog, Sleeping with Pengovsky (www.pengovsky.com).

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