Election 2012 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS IN SLOVENIA: a demise of presidential politics as we know it?
On 2 December 2012 Slovenian citizens elected the fourth president of the republic in its short history as an independent and liberal democratic state. Although the presidential function in a system of parliamentary government (see Strøm, 1995) such as Slovenian is by constitution reduced to more or less ceremonial obligations with very limited executive competences, its significance is in fact far greater.
Published on balticworlds.com on januari 7, 2013
On 2 December 2012 Slovenian citizens elected the fourth president of the republic in its short history as an independent and liberal democratic state. After two initial consecutive five-year terms of the former communist Milan Kučan, one term of Janez Drnovšek — a deceased former prime minister —, and one term of the former diplomat Danilo Türk, the turn is on Borut Pahor to become the holder of the highest political function in the state. Although the presidential function in a system of parliamentary government (see Strøm, 1995) such as Slovenian is by constitution reduced to more or less ceremonial obligations with very limited executive competences, its significance is in fact far greater. It is the only directly electable state-level executive function which generates significant legitimacy in comparison with the function of prime minister — a powerful but indirectly selected figure. Another important aspect of presidential function is its moral authority which previous incumbents more or less managed to preserve by not being implicated in numerous corruption scandals that shook Slovenian political elite across ideological spectrum in the past two decades and by being somewhat detached from every-day party politics. As it appears, this is about to change. I shall take the recently held presidential elections to illustrate this.
Prepping for the battle
The process of identifying potential candidates is a show on its own. From the mind games of potential big guns who do not want to engage into a head-to-head battle with their strongest (within- and/or outside-party) opponents to attention-seekers who want to consume their five minutes of fame during this early drafting process. This folklore is becoming increasingly tasteless with each elections, especially presidential ones, as reality-show stars, starlets, vagabonds, alleged royalty etc. try to make a name for themselves without any sincere intention to enter the official presidential race. Namely, the threshold of candidacy so far proved to be to high of an obstacle for above-mentioned characters as an independent candidacy has to be backed by signatures of 5.000 citizens while a party candidacy imposes signatures of three MPs or 3.000 citizens.
It was no surprise then that the three candidates that managed to file an official candidacy were well established male members of the political elite. However, despite the anticipated ”cut off” of minor contestants this overture had significant — in a sense crucial — impact on the eventual result. To be precise, the incumbent president Danilo Türk, who was the leading contender for the throne, lost the backing of his main supporting party in the previous election cycle — Social Democrats (centre-left). Although their support for the president was more or less done deal, the surprise came at the congress of the party. At the event, which was marked by the selection of the new party leader, the defeated former party boss Borut Pahor — also demoted prime minister from 2011 — in spite of clearly expressed preference for the incumbent president by a large chunk of party members, announced his intentions to run for the post without any prior consultation with the party. This solo action — something inherent to Pahor’s political rationality — placed the party’s new leadership into unpleasant situation, which resulted in backing-up the party swellhead and renouncing the much anticipated support for the officeholder Türk. The latter eventually decided to enter the candidacy with the citizens’ support but also by having a clear public approval of the main opposition party Positive Slovenia (centre-left). Pahor later received also the support of governmental centre-right Citizen’s List, mainly because of his solo dissident actions as MP in which he bluntly supported certain governmental initiatives disregarding vigorous opposition of his party. Meanwhile, being discouraged by the two imposing candidates on the left, centre-right parties decided to play it safe and sacrifice Milan Zver — a Member of the European Parliament from the leading governmental Social Democratic Party. Zver, supported by governmental centre-right parties Slovenian Democratic Party and New Slovenia, entered the mission impossible not solely because two other contenders but also due to deterring fact that no centre-right candidate has ever won the office.
The first round
The three contenders
The first round of elections/campaign proceeded according to expectations. Since presidential elections in Slovenia could hardly be regarded as first-order since there is not much at stake, the election campaign was dull and foremostly cheap. In both sense of the word — of a low cost and of a poor quality. Small budgets are normal for less significant elections since parties rarely reach the officially allowed campaign spending (428.000 Euros in this case). In addition to pivotal free-of-charge TV debates provided by two main networks, relying on labour-intensive campaigning such as street canvassing, public speeches and opening ceremonies of various facilities has therefore been a common feature of all three candidates. The election posters — a usual folklore in presidential races — were very moderately scattered across the landscape and TV or radio commercials virtually non-existent. The candidates have, however, managed to set out three significantly different postures. Danilo Türk, the incumbent president whose support reached up to 70 per cent at the start of the campaign, assumed a discrete and kept-back position of a statesman in which a former diplomat looked to feel most natural. Borut Pahor, if anything a seasoned campaigner, on the other hand, had to perform an all-or-nothing stunt in order to cut into Türk’s support. He did just that by performing as manual-labour worker in different occupational settings. With this populist trick of being seen as hair-dresser, dustman, forester etc. for a day, he managed to impose himself as a credible candidate despite being frequently laughed at and critised for devaluation of professions inherent to his campaign. Pahor’s intentions to shake Türk’s dominant position were supported by Milan Zver’s campaign. As a nominee from the main governmental party, Zver frequently acted as government’s PR, which had two significant consequences. It hardly improved his small chances of being elected since the public’s support of government is at its lowest in the entire history of democratic Slovenia. What is more, as his party was in serious conflict with the president Türk, Zver primarily disputed the actions of the president thus creating favourable conditions for Pahor who was in fact the one who eating-up Zver’s pool of centre-right voters. As a result, Pahor seemed a more likely candidate to depose Türk to many of Zver’s traditional supporters.
Media, campaign strategies, and the final outcome
Taking all into account, this presidential campaign can be hardly characterised by superlatives. There have been several defects on various sides. First of all, due to declining public interest in TV-debates, producers of both main networks attempted to ”spice-up” the campaign in order to make it a spectacle. The result was a rokokoesque fiasco aired in subprime-time entailing vocal and frequently misconducting teams of supporters in the background, interrogations of candidates’ spouses, evaluation of their key supporters and most of all bad anchoring. To be precise, primarily the private network POP TV’s attempt to make elections a show backfired as their anchors had serious difficulties distinguishing between insults and ”hard-talk”. As presidential function lacks any real powers, anchors instead focussed on topics inherent to full executive powers ignoring function’s constitutional limitations. Actions of the government therefore overshadowed the almost absent debates on sophistication and feasibility of candidates’ programs. One would argue that such presentation of presidential campaign — which is not limited to TV alone — could hardly put a stop to rising alienation and/or cynicism of Slovenian voters. In terms of candidates, in addition to already mentioned flaws of Zver’s campaign strategy and Pahor’s lack of subtleness in his populist approaches, the most significant campaign error has to be the passiveness of Türk when confronted with declining support, fierce attacks of two other contenders and very debatable austerity measures of the government that demanded very clear stance from the president-in-office. The reactions were mild and the position Türk took very debatable. Majority of his supporters anticipated open resistance to all measures reducing the already shrinking welfare state but instead saw dithering and primarily taking over the populist narrative of ”uniting” from other two candidates. This seemed to be a vital dent in his campaign bid. The result of the first round was a surprise to many but at the same time a bitter reminder that elections are won and lost during the campaign. Incumbent president Türk was unexpectedly defeated by Pahor, despite being favoured in the last public opinion polls prior to election-day as well. In the context of low turn-out (48,4 per cent) — more that 10 per cent lower than the average for previous elections — Pahor obtained 40 per cent of votes, Türk 36 per cent and Zver surprisingly substantial share of 24 per cent. As Türk enjoyed a second chance to make things his way in the second round, Zver was left to regret the opportunity he and his supporters (primarily PM Janša) never really believed in.
The second round
The second round was marked by a totally different context. As a result of governmental attempts to impose new austerity measures, to introduce certain institutional solutions regarding management of state assets and banking debt, as well as to incite perennial ideological conflicts, the general social discontent with politics and corrupt politicians began to manifest itself in public protests across the entire state. Be it mayors, ministers, PM, or some opposition leaders, protesters rallied for their deposition and in favour of greater ethics and inclusion into the process of authoritative allocation of values. In such an anticlimax of general discontent with entire political elite, chasing runaway Pahor proved very difficult for Türk. Despite the fact that some grievances targeted him as well — after all, he was an incumbent president —, the problem was elsewhere. Firstly, a number of his strongest supporters belonged to the old regime’s elite or significantly gained from being close to it. Secondly, despite having the same ”godfathers”, Pahor managed to escape this trap by convincing voters that these ”uncles from the shadows” are to blame for poor records of his overthrown government. And thirdly, it was primarily Türk’s pool of voters that had higher expectations and demands and not Pahor’s who opportunistically managed to align with the same centre-right parties and voters who deposed him as PM in a series of referendums one year ago. In spite of significantly more sharp and decisive image Türk managed to put forward in the second round, it all proved too little too late. Pahor even extended his advantage from the first round to 67 per cent, in the event that was mainly ignored by the electorate. With only 42 per cent of voters coming to the polls — a sharp decrease from the already poor first-round turnout — the political elite received a clear warning that it became detached from the harsh reality the general public is facing.
On 22 December 2012 Borut Pahor was inaugurated as the fourth president of the republic in its democratic era. Inauguration was held in the National Assembly and under strengthened protection of special police forces colloquially termed ”ninja turtles” for their armour. They fenced of protesters — on this occasion primarily artists and cultural workers reciting works of famous Slovenian poets — making the square of the republic, a place where independent democratic state was declared, look like a ghost-town. A very meaningful message. To put it bluntly, it seems that the electoral games of the elite simply became obsolete and too exclusive for the average citizen. As regards to Pahor, he stands little chance of becoming the game changer since he held every important function in the state and is part of the top elite of politicians for the past two decades. One thing is, however, certain. The relation between the government and the president will warm up after him taking up the office. The newly knit partnership offers opportunity for significantly higher degree of cooperation Türk managed to facilitate. However, many relevant political commentators believe that such an alliance could remove the last bit polyphony in the state politics and total separation of rulers from the ruling. Let us wait and see.
Strøm, Kaare (1995): Parliamentary Government and Legislative Organisation. In Herbert Döring (Ed.), Parliaments and Majority Rule in Western Europe, pp. 51-82. Frankfurt: Campus Verlag.