Reforms modelled after a self-service shop

“People like me,” said Karl Erjavec, the president of the DeSUS political party, recently on one of TV Slovenia’s most watched programs. He was trying to change the pessimistic tone of the discussion and convey the message that things are not so bad, and that people do know how to appreciate some politicians. And he had no choice, of course, but to ingenuously point to himself as a shining example, drawing the expected laughter and even approval. This was not the first time he took refuge in narcissism, but the fact that DeSUS and its president are in fact doing quite well cannot be disputed. How did this anomaly happen? The ruling coalition appears to be a rapidly sinking ship whose very survival is at the time of writing (mid-November 2010) the subject of much discussion, yet someone who is an important member of the party is well-liked. A crisis of government is looming right at the second anniversary of its mandate. Is it possible that part of this crisis has been manufactured from within, and to what extent is the DeSUS party driving it through the way it acts?

Those who know nothing about Slovenia need the above information to get a picture of the situation – if the ratings of a particular party go up, and the ratings of the coalition to which it belongs go down, and if it’s all connected with meeting special demands which it has towards this coalition, then clearly there is some sort of suspicious discord somewhere. DeSus behaviour simply cannot be sincere, especially so long as it refuses to leave the coalition. A purely formal framework is thus sufficient evidence that we may justifiably harbour some scepticism towards Erjavec’s party.

When we explain to an interlocutor what the content of this dispute consists of, he will likely just nod in confirmation. At first he will be astonished when he hears that DeSUS is the party of retirees, and that it arose out of and functions purely as an interest group concerned with the welfare of the part of the population that is retired. Not only did Erjavec intensify the narrow field of interest of his party, he also gave the deliberate impression that he is interested only in the social and financial situation of pensioners. In this way we arrive at a paradoxical and conflicting situation that could arise within any party system: interests and motives are exclusive and narrow already by definition. Yet for politics to function there cannot be exclusivity tied to just one segment of the population, catering to and caring for the needs of the few, and following selective solutions.

When you accept a special interest party in a coalition, in particular one whose main protagonists have so little sensitivity, you have set out on a path carrying a time bomb. The current situation is thus logically predictable and creates an acute dilemma as to what exactly to do with the profiles of such parties, how to limit their influence and integrate their activity in the process of political decision-making. Since we have never thought about this before we are now faced with a political crisis.

The next question is one of content. The pension reform is indisputable, yet the basis for the conflict unavoidable. Forecasts about the years-long recovery from the current world-wide crisis only exacerbate the urgency of introducing reforms. There are models for introducing them gradually and as painlessly as possible. From this point on an aporia arises – although it is no longer possible to find a political party that opposes reform since demographic indicators and modest contributions to the pension fund from employment show an alarming picture. It is still difficult to come to a consensus. The entire reform, however, is not dependent on politics and its ability to explain the urgency of taking action convincingly enough to social partners and all citizens. For the government can try as hard as it might to persuade people that the burden should be divided fairly among everyone, both the working and the non-working population, but this will not be successful if it does not manage to inject a feeling of solidarity and collective obligation that the burden be born equally by all generations and classes. Since we live in a time of scandals and economic corruption, exploitation of workers and the destruction of large economic systems, it is all the harder to be convincing – and for this very reason all the more urgent.

But this is all wishful thinking. The rhetorical good intentions of the proposers of the reform will be successful only in conditions when we are willing to listen sincerely. If you have on the other side someone who defends the narrow interests of the very powerful group directly affected by the pension reform, and who refuses to consent to a freeze on pensions for the next two years – the starting point of the dispute and the complications – then this effort is quickly wasted. Although the temporary freeze on the revaluation of pensions is part of the set of measures that the government has prepared, a wider project of modernization of the pension system indicates that retirees will have to reconcile themselves to lower pensions in the long term, something which promises new conflicts that will lead nowhere.

There is no doubt that Erjavec’s arguments have a demagogic tone. There is even less doubt that his behaviour can be described as the logic of blackmail which will in the end be a losing strategy for all: first and foremost for retirees themselves. The political arena can be a space in which groups assert their interests only so long as they are willing to yield to the shared interests of all citizens and coordinate them all. It cannot become a self-service shop in which each selfishly takes what he wants and then refuse to pay the set price in line with the principle that the shop is for everybody. The principle of the self-service shop is similar to sawing off the branch on which you sit: enjoyment of short-term benefits will quickly vanish.

It is difficult to escape the impression that Erjavec is not entirely sincere in his advocacy of the interests of pensioners, that he instead is following his own personal interests and likeability among people. So long as he can boast about increased ratings, the quandary will continue, and he will be able to continue to advance his interests. Entertainer-style populism can last for as long as retirees themselves fail to recognize it for what it is. And even if Erjavec leaves the coalition, this recognition will probably not happen any time soon.

Even worse than Erjavec’s theatricals are the witticisms of other members of the government. Their oft-heard forced jocularity, as though in the long run we are all predestined to end up in DeSUS, is not that funny and is literally counterproductive. Our task should be just the opposite: to never become the prisoners of our personal needs and ambitions. Intergenerational solidarity must run in both directions. As a one-way street it will just lead us to our downfall.

Published 2 November 2010
Original in Slovenian
First published by Dialogi 10/2010 (Slovenian version)

Contributed by Dialogi © Boris Vezjak / Dialogi / Eurozine

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