In the blink of an eye, the coronavirus epidemic revealed to the world just how vulnerable global capitalism is: the stock market is in freefall, global supply chains are coming to a grinding halt as privatized healthcare buckles in an instant. The fallout from decades of liberalisation, privatization and financialisation is immense. Even the most conservative of governments are now busy meddling in private enterprise, admitting how otherwise hallowed market forces are in fact completely incapable of providing for people’s needs.
The coronavirus arrival in Slovenia coincided with the change in government from centrist to right-wing parties. Using the epidemic as an excuse, the new leading Slovenian Democratic Party, SDS – closely linked with Hungarian Fidesz – turned the change in power into an all-encompassing power grab. The country is thus facing an attempt to transition from a parliamentary democracy to a non-liberal authoritarian regime, following the Orban playbook. While people are banned from public gatherings due to the outbreak and usual political life is suspended, the peripheral capitalism of Slovenia is trying to consolidate with authoritarian means, amounting to a coup.
How did we get here
The last election held in Slovenia took place in June 2018, after which five centrist parties formed a governmental majority with the parliamentary support of the left-wing party Levica, following in Portugal’s footsteps. The chief binding element of the newfound coalition was the public pressure to keep SDS, a corrupt and increasingly authoritarian far-right party, out of power – despite the fact that it won the largest share of the parliamentary seats (25 out of 90). The historical memory of numerous scandals from their first, and brutal austerity measures from the second time they held office as a leading party was very much alive, as were their ongoing attacks on journalists on Twitter and in their own fake news factory Nova24TV, financed through media satellites around Orban.
For the first few months it seemed the political “formula” worked. After long last the country got something resembling a center-left government. Mostly on the insistence of Levica, the minimum wage was raised substantially as were welfare benefits, public sector workers got a long-awaited and deserved raise, the acquisition of armored personnel carriers for NATO operations was gutted, to name a few of the measures that were implemented.
Alas, this political arrangement was not meant to be. In March of 2019, the government took a sharp right turn, approving more military and police officers at the border, as well as more fences to be built, passed a tax break for the top 5% earners, announced new investments in military hardware, and privatized the remaining two state-owned systemic banks, at the same time failing to deliver most policy concessions given to Levica. Levica and the coalition parted ways in November of the same year.
A few months later the government imploded. Formally, around the bill to nationalise the private part of basic health insurance (still pushed by Levica), informally, because of internal squabbles of the “centrist five”. After the Minister of Finance stepped down and the Minister of Health threatened to follow suit, the Prime Minister, Šarec, resigned on January 28, hoping to cash in good ratings in snap elections. He was sorely mistaken.
The Corona government
Driven by abysmal ratings that would delete them from parliamentary representation should the snap election take place, and despite their electoral promises to the contrary, two of the “centrist five” parties, the Democratic Party of Pensioners DeSUS and The Party of the Modern Center SMC, entered into talks with SDS. The three parties joined by an additional right-wing parliamentary party Christian democratic New Slovenia, N.Si, made it possible for Janša to become Prime Minister once again.
By that time the coronavirus epidemic was the leading topic of public debate, as it had spread to Slovenia. The process of the government changing hands was overshadowed by the advancing epidemic. This made the appointment of the new ministers easy, as both their incompetence and their political views – in some cases straight out racist, such as is the case of the new Minister of the Interior, Aleš Hojs, who was also the chairman of the SDS media empire Nova24TV until he became minister – passed by largely unnoticed.
On Friday the 13th the epidemic had been declared by the outgoing government, shutting down schools and universities and urging people not to socialise and to stay home. Later that afternoon the parliamentary session to vote for the new ministerial cabinet was held. It lasted a mere two hours and forty minutes.
Immediately after the appointment of the cabinet, the first session of the new government was held, presumably focusing on actions aimed at containing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. In that session the heads of all key repressive institutions – police, military and intelligence – were unceremoniously replaced and outright criminals appointed into positions of power across the ministries. New Secretary of State of the Ministry of the Interior in charge of the police force, Franc Kangler, has had over 20 charges brought up against him in court including accusations of sexual harassment, corruption, and abuse of power. All the charges were dropped in court in suspicious circumstances due to procedural issues. Another secretary of the same ministry appointed a few days later, Franc Breznik, is an open supporter of the historical Ustaši fascist regime. The National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister became the 30-year old Žan Mahnič, a supporter of the Generation Identitaire, Generacija identitete, a far-right racist movement, who was not long ago caught threatening the police chief for investigating the funding of the SDS media network (and by proxy their party) from the Orban regime. The list goes on.
To further facilitate control, the new Prime Minister, appointed Jelko Kacin the official speaker for the government on the outbreak. This is the same man that was in charge of managing propaganda against Yugoslavia as Minister for Information when Slovenia was seceding from SFRJ, and that had been serving as an ambassador to NATO up until recently. The message was unambiguous: the country is at war and all the information is relative.
The most far-reaching decision, accepted in that first cabinet session, was a slash to public spending by 30% for investment, goods and services across all ministries, officially, to fight the coronavirus because of the lack of medical and protective equipment. This was a lie: the financial markets are lending to states at negative or close to negative interest rates, so money is not hard to come by – even if it was lacking. Given the economic collapse it would even be wise to take out loans without predatory interest rates and invest it to alleviate the inevitable recession. The Janša government, however, had no ambition to do that; the major halt in public spending was meant to forcibly trigger recession if need be, therefore prolonging the crisis psychosis brought about by the epidemic, and enabling SDS to lay waste to all the state and civil society apparatuses standing in the way of them consolidating power.
This is not a hypothetical. After the financial meltdown of 2008, the Slovenian economy started showing signs of recovery in 2010 and 2011. The following year the same SDS — under the same leader, Janez Janša — formed its second government, imposing brutal austerity measures, plunging the country into a second recession and deliberately sabotaging the efforts to acquire cheaper credit on international financial markets by publicly calling Troika into the country. His rule then was cut short by the 2012 All-Slovenian uprising (started by protests against Franc Kangler).
This attempt at triggering a recession was however stalled by the Keynsian turn of the EU. As the country became eligible for 2,5 billion worth of interest-free loans from ECB, 1,3 billion from ESM, and 400 million from cohesion funds, the government shifted tactics of transferring wealth from austerity to massive subsidies to the capital.
From this first night of the new government on it is clear how Janez Janša understands the epidemic: an opportunity. On the one hand the consolidation of power through authoritarian means and and on the other, a way to transfer additional wealth to the capitalist class; all facilitated by the use of the military and war rhetoric.
Undercutting the parliament
In the first three weeks the coalition granted the government complete and unobstructed control over the state budget, suspended parliamentary oversight and financial decision-making powers, followed by an attempt to abolish public tracking of government spending by the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption, KPK. When the idea of undercutting the parliament further through state of emergency ceased being feasible due to the limited spread of the epidemic, the coalition took over all of the relevant parliamentary bodies that conduct oversight, bypassing the rules of procedure in the process. Currently the government is seeking the suspension of “vacatio legis” and abolition of live and public sessions of parliament to tie the hands of opposing parties as much as it can. Simultaneously the opposition is under attack as treasonous for countering the deployment of the military as a police force (⅔ majority is needed), with prominent members of SDS publicly suggesting it should be jailed or locked up in gulags.
In its first seven days the new government secured both a tight grip over repressive apparatuses and unobstructed access to the financial pocket of the state. The prime minister then followed up with openly enlisting the far-right quasi-paramilitary formation, a self-styled Styria guard, Štajerska varda, that has been patrolling Slovenian southern borders in an attempt to hunt down refugees, into the military. The call came amid growing governmental pressure, to mobilize the army for domestic deployment with police clearance.
Even more dangerous are the new police jurisdictions, blatantly violating civil liberties. The police have been awarded additional powers to control the movement of citizenry under quarantine — making arrests, data processing, manhunt and roadblocks among them. Under the guise of the epidemic, every citizen can now be treated as a common criminal and police can deploy almost any tactic deemed necessary to exert control. In the same clauses granting police more jurisdiction, the government also pushed for mobile phones’ tracking, and free entry into households, but was partially forced back by the public outrage and the parliamentary opposition. None of these extreme measures are backed by expert epidemiologists or infectious disease specialists, and have been declared unnecessary by the National Institute of Public Health NIJZ.
The bolstering of the repressive apparatus is happening in spite of the populace dutifully adhering to the rules of the social distancing since the beginning, and even prior to their latest tightening. The current rules only allow for necessities supply runs, trips to work and prohibits gatherings of more than two people, travelling among municipalities is forbidden. Failure to comply with the restrictions of movement is being met with fines ranging from 70 to 400 Euro, effectively criminalizing the homeless, who simply have nowhere to go. The idea of the military relieving the police chasing refugees at the border, so the latter can be used inland and with enhanced powers, has nothing to do with the Coronavirus — the slow spread of the epidemic attests to the fact that these government actions are not necessary. They have to do with tightening control, fostering public fear and keeping people in submission, while preparing the terrain to handle the public outburst of malcontent over the coup.
The government has abolished the strategy of wide testing, contrary to the advice of the epidemiological experts. When the latter came forward, disciplinary measures ensued: the head NIJZ was replaced. And when the acting head spoke out against the latest measure of complete suspension of movement of citizens, he got sidelined as well. Additionally, three board members got replaced with party people. The senior epidemiological adviser to the government also left her position. 25 of the epidemiologists wrote a public letter of support towards their supervisor and lamented the government for disregarding their recommendations altogether, leaning instead on a right wing proxy medical group without specific expertise in the field of infectious disease control.
Limitations on testing have nothing to do with the epidemic or a lack of testing capacity, but are rather meant to keep even the non-essential industries running. While public life has come to a standstill in a rightful effort towards social distancing – schools, bars, public transport and all the other public spaces are closed, exits outside are severely limited – industrial production and construction work have continued unobstructed, even with confirmed infections present on the workplace. The factories have to keep spewing out metal pieces for western concerns; otherwise how are their owners to turn a profit? The class agenda of the measures is in stark contrast with the best interest of the workers and public health, and it is a direct threat to the working class. The new testing method underlines this: if you do not have a doctor’s note to prove that you tested positive to the virus, you do not get sick leave and paid absence from work. This means that workers have to continue working in factories no matter what, and the production process does not stop — even if some workers do eventually test positive.
While industrial engines keep turning and churning, the government wastes no time providing the business owners aid in form of tax adaptations, loan reprogrammes and direct subsidies, building on the course of action of the preceding government. The public aid is unconditional: the companies are not obliged to give raises nor prohibited from laying off workers. Despite public warnings and opposition efforts spearheaded by Levica, the workers – primarily the self-employed, but also students, culture workers and others – are left out of any real preferential treatment. The households indebted to the banks will still have to pay interest. All the other numerous other forms of labour and atypical forms of employment and working households expenses are likewise deliberately not being addressed.
On the one hand a peanuts’ worth of help for poor pensioners, some of the self employed and students. On the other generous non-refundable subsidies for the capital who bullies workers into non-essential, tightly packed production halls, with barely any protective measures, even at the height of the epidemic.
Controlling the media
After momentarily suspending their usual attacks on the media and journalists to secure another mandate for themselves without the usual public outcry, SDS and Janez Janša restarted their crusade in the form of Twitter attacks on journalists at the national radio and television network, RTV, accusing them of incompetence. From the 20th of March all government press conferences are held without members of the press allowed on-site and, thus, without unwanted questions — all the while direct verbal assaults on publicly owned RTV are mounting, signaling both a purge in personnel as well as a financial crackdown. Journalists in Slovenia have already started a petition and informed international media.
To help spread the far-right agenda and discredit their opponents, SDS has used financing from Hungary to set up its own web-portal and television station Nova24TV in recent years, producing racist propaganda and fake news daily. Even without its specially set up factory of lies, SDS has been busy controlling the media where and when it can. The most prominent attempt — but by no means the only — dates back to the first Janša government when a privatisation deal was struck: a national chain of stores, Mercator, was to be sold in exchange for political influence in the national newspaper Delo.
The measures that are put in place are aimed to further government powers over the state and to quell dissent among the population, following the suspense of democracy and securing massive amounts of funds to help large businesses, while the majority of the working class is left to fend for themselves.
Busy with pinning the epidemic on the movement of the people and attacking all the voices of dissent — fabricating lies and beheading the expert institutions to that end — the government failed to protect not just the social security of the people, but also their health. As mentioned, the factories are still in operation without adequate protection for the workers. The homes for the elderly have turned into the focal points of the spread, due to the decades of neglect and government disregard in the epidemic itself. While even some care and healthcare employees go without protective gear, scandals surrounding the purchase of such equipment are mounting — delays, overpaid equipment, goods undelivered.
Despite the public being taken aback by the boldness of the far-right overtake, the general course of action of the new government was not unanticipated. Even while the talks between the four coalition parties were going on, a protest was organized by some liberal non-governmental organisations. Around 1000 people showed up basically overnight, echoing the mass mobilisation against the second government of the same Prime Minister from 2012-2013. The principal ruling party, SDS, may hold a quarter of the seats in the national assembly, but short of their own dedicated electoral base it is widely and actively rejected by the people. The only reason that the streets are not awash with protesters this time around, is that new government’s dash for power coinciding with a global pandemic and quarantine.
Trade unions have been mobilizing for public intervention and legal support of workers’ rights in the epidemic. Unfortunately, they are weak; the level of unionisation in the country hovers around 20% due to decades of union apparatus’ substituting the class logic with guild logic and the ruling class crackdown, especially during the last crisis. But for once the union officials should be somewhat commended. Their response to the epidemic and governmental measures has been rapid, extensive and concise in legal advice. In the retail sales sector (large chain supermarkets) even going as far as threatening industrial action should the opening times extend on demand by the government.
Levica and the grassroots left organizing
The public and NGOs have been responding with online organising. Initiatives are for the rights of the self-employed, students, tenants, the homeless, and other hard-hit communities are popping up. Instagram and Facebook have become the main organisational platforms. The latter for groups, coordinating actions and petitions, such as the one for the rights and benefits of the self-employed. Critical Instagram profiles have been getting a lot more traction – notably Delozlom – posting people’s stories about terrible conditions in the workplace, home, general feelings about the system and the new government.
Peaceful protests have started (and have been growing) as well, such as the “balcony protest”, where people make banners to hang outside their windows and share the pictures on social media. Candles were also lit in front of the Parliament building presumably to commemorate the death of democracy in the country (and the perpetrators fined for littering). Songs and videos with political content are being made. However, what is still lacking is a coordinated left platform, capable of channeling the popular anger into effective political activity, harnessing and articulating these spontaneous moments of class consciousness brought about by the epidemic and horrendous exposure of workers to poverty and mass infection. The left outside of the representative institutions does not possess the capacity to go at it alone, and neither does Levica in its own right, despite good reception from the younger and urban generation.
Given the class nature of the response to coronavirus and the far-right overtake in motion, the parliamentary left has been responding with policies that favour the working- not the capitalist-class, mercilessly exposing the governmental measures for what they are: a coup d’etat.
The least entrenched and not the biggest of all the opposition parties, Levica, took initiative on what is becoming an anti-fascist struggle and an alternative approach to battle this epidemic. When the new cabinet was being voted in, Levica was the only party that straight out refused any dealings with the far-right government. Soon it followed with vocal opposition to any military mobilisation, state of emergency, and other actions of consolidation of power, demanding the reinstitution of parliament and medical expertise (including broad testing), and an immediate halt to the media attacks.
To face the coronavirus threat, Levica has been pushing for the shutdown of all non-essential industrial activity while helping the workers, especially leading the parliamentary charge of the precarious workers, the poor, the tenants, the pensioners, and those workers who continue going to work daily, despite the epidemic. It put forth the idea that the state should overtake the essential industries as a compensation for subsidies and other preferential treatment, priority protection for workers in essential operations and adequate compensation for their efforts and suspension of working-class household credits — with not a cent of further non-refundable aid for private capital. Some of its more visible representatives have also mentioned state requisition of production capacities that can be adapted to producing something medically useful and the nationalisation of chain supermarkets.
Flawed as the bourgeois parliamentarianism is, it is currently the only political framework in existence with any semblance of democracy. The fight to defend the liberal democracy against far-right authoritarian appetites will continue, as well as the idea that not the rich and powerful should profit from the epidemic, but rather that the health and wellbeing of the working class should be protected — and furthered. The least the left in Slovenia needs to learn from this is how quickly the society can slip into a far-right grip, how inadequately every single organisation or group is equipped for organized resistance, and how necessary the task of building alternative answers to the bankruptcy of capitalist parliamentarianism is, creating solutions that go beyond just defending it.