This week the PM of the small and geopolitically almost irrelevant EU province of Slovenia declared his support for the incumbent US president in the upcoming US elections.
What kind of diplomatic illiterate does that? After all:
1) The US election isn’t Slovenia’s business.
2) There was no need to pick sides. A small country can always play the canny game of smiling and congratulating whoever wins and then going on about its business as before, because, y’know, it’s hard to find on a map.
3) Once you pick sides, people remember.
4) The Slovenian public is notoriously skeptical on the USA. Particularly on their Republicans. Particularly on the incumbent (i.e. Trump).
So why the heck would Janša, the PM of a sovereign EU province do that? Why would a career politician of over 40 years get on his knees and kiss hiney so flagrantly?
Last time I wrote about the coronavirus pandemic in Slovenia I focused on how the national taxpayer-funded media, weren’t dealing with it seriously enough*.
Now, let’s be clear, the two dominant media houses have been exceptionally hostile to the current SDS government headed by Slovenian prime minister J. Janša. Well, they’ve also been hostile to the man himself, Janša, for years and years.
Let’s also be clear, that hostility has been mutual. The PM has explicitly studied the playbook of rightwing populists and has been using Twitter and social media and a party TV station** to attack the established media and reporters (the so-called mainstream media), NGOs, activists, and every stripe of politician he disagrees with.
The PM’s party, SDS, came to power after the leftish cronyish coalition*** under former-comedian-turned-mayor Marjan Šarec**** collapsed in early 2020 on some maneuvers to … force early elections and increase their power within their coalition.
In March 2020 the PM’s SDS (there are very few other prominent politicians in the party, it’s very much a one-man-party) took power and managed to bring coronavirus under control. The whole time while engaged in a bitter struggle with the former PM and most of the media. Under their leadership Slovenia basically eradicated corona by May!
This was an excellent achievement and I applauded them for it. I also applauded the Slovenian people for being responsible and holding up through a two month lockdown.
Then they fucked everything up over the summer. And when I say they, I primarily mean Slovenia’s elites. The newly-opposition. The church. The business elites. The influencers. The media. But above all, the responsibility is also the government’s and Janša’s.
This was a test with little room for error. They were sloppy from the start. Posing with masks to show how serious they were, then taking them off for their crisis meeting. Caught screwing up social distancing protocols. Classic “one rule for thee” stuff.
Janša also failed to reach out across the aisle and build any kind of broader support for his government. Instead, he used the pandemic to bolster his standing among his partisans. He continued to attack, mock, and bully reporters on Twitter and other social media, emulating the Trump model.
Especially in a small country like Slovenia power and politics is about relations, and relations are longitudinal. Which is another way of saying people have long memories. And offensive nicknames don’t win friends.
Now, while Janša’s SDS may usually be the biggest party, regularly polling somewhere around 25 to 30%, they are generally isolated on the right, and particularly in their shift far right*****. This means that the second and third largest parties (generally around 20% each) in coalition with another kingmaker party or two easily outnumber them in nearly every situation.
So, they squandered the summer.
Meanwhile, everyone relaxed. Tourism did fine. Schools reopened. And now the winter wave of coronavirus is here and it’s a complete disaster.
Well, Janša’s big comeback this year was premised on getting coronavirus under control. And he did! Only, now the virus is out of control again, even more of the electorate is fed up with him, and everyone feels like the Spring lockdown was wasted.
After all, we had zero cases.
Now, again, it’s a whole-elite project to shaft a country this successfully in a pandemic. But, the buck stops at the government, and specifically the prime minister. And this buck is going to hurt.
So, if you’re even a little bit of a canny operator (and, I suppose, if you survive in politics for 40+ years, you must be), you realize that you’re fubared.
There’s no way to increase the number of people supporting your party after this kind of cockup. It’s back to the opposition wilderness as soon as the other parties find a halfway competent leader. All the smaller coalition parties in the current government are probably completely fubared. Likely out of parliament at the next elections.
But, in a proportional system, if you can stick to that core 10–15% of hardcore supporters, you can stay in a sort of power. You stay the leader of a minority. You stay “loved” and “praised”. In the currency of society, you retain status.
And how do you make your supporters love you harder? Polarize, polarize, polarize. Split, split, split. Make it us versus them. Make the differences bigger. Go for the outrageous, make the grand gestures, après moi le deluge, l’état should be moi.
And so, throwing in your lot with a man like the current US president, who looks on track to lose, looks like a canny hedge.
1) If Trump does actually win, Janša can win praise and support from the US government.
2) If Trump doesn’t win, well, Janša can ride the grievance wave and create a stronger sense of us-versus-them among his supporters.
But, no matter what, it’s a bad move for Slovenia. As the proverb goes, when Elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.
And PM Janša is leading the geopolitical mouse of Slovenia right into the grass.
*Some people responded that they are doing well on radio and tv, to which I’ll just say: it’s 2020. The web is where it’s at.
That said, in the last few weeks, at least the national RTV site has raised the priority on their pandemic coverage and started featuring more people in masks, which is good. The goal isn’t to frighten people, but to make hygiene (masks) and social distance normal.
On the other hand, the nominally most popular (my information might be out of date) tabloidy website of 24ur TV continues to be completely shit.
**Nova24TV, partly funded by the SDS party and largely funded by Hungarian sources aligned with Hungarian PM Orban. It very explicitly takes its style from Fox News, or possibly One America News. Frankly, it looks like Breitbart. A lot of its content is divise fear-mongering. Don’t even get started with how they approach topics like migration.
***Slovenia is a proportional democracy, so there are always several parties in the parliament and they have to make some kind of alliance to govern. It is sometimes revolting because we end up with obvious incompetents never leaving the scene. After all, if you can convince 5% of the people to support your agenda above other agendas, you’re basically in for ever, often wielding veto power and kingmaking. Like the retirees’ party under their-until-recently-eternal-president-and-sportscar-afficionado Erjavec.
****Who became famous for impersonating the late 1990s Slovenian PM and later president Janez Drnovšek. Seriously, you can’t make this shit up. Former PM Šarec became famous for … pretending to be a politician. So he was elected to be a politician. It turned out that he was pretty shit at governing. Shocking.
*****I mean, come on, Slovenia is a country where as kids we played partisans and nazis! Yes, we experienced communism, and it was shit; but godamnit, the nazis had a plan to wipe us out as an ethnic group (and often as physical living humans, too).