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Marjan Šarec poised to tap into voter discontent

Ljubljana, 10 April - Slovenian voters have turned their discontent against mainstream parties in favour of newcomers in two previous general elections. Disillusioned again, they now appear to be willing to embrace Marjan Šarec, a comedian-turned-mayor who nearly defeated the favoured incumbent in the 2017 presidential election.

Ljubljana
The party of Kamnik Mayor Marjan Šarec (pictured) heading the polls ahead of the general election.
Photo: Daniel Novakovič/STA
File photo

Šarec, a 40-year-old serving the final year of his second term as the mayor of Kamnik, has been ahead in the polls since declaring his intention late last year to take his Marjan Šarec List (LMŠ) party to the general election due in late spring.

The party, founded four years ago to contest local elections, is yet to unveil its manifesto and candidates at a congress on 14 April, but Šarec has set out some of his ideas, the gist of which is that the system of government should be reformed to make it more efficient and to enhance accountability.

Heading into the presidential race as an outsider with no experience in national politics, Šarec surprisingly forced President Borut Pahor into a runoff on 12 November to secure 47% of the vote after outstripping candidates of established parties in the first run.

His presidential bid, seen by many as a preparation for the general election, was not unlike his first foray into local government in 2010; mounting an independent bid for Kamnik mayor, he surprisingly defeated a favoured candidate and went on to win a second term in 2014 with 63% of the vote.

Šarec first made a name for himself as an imitator in radio and TV satire shows, excelling as the voice of late President Janez Drnovšek, opposition leader Janez Janša and Foreign Minister Karl Erjavec. One of his standard acts was Ivan Serpentinšek, a grumpy old farmer with a penchant for jokes about women.

Many dismiss him as a populist offering oversimplified ideas, but Šarec says that simplification and a more practical approach to politics is what is needed, from the way government is appointed to how public procurement or waiting lines in healthcare are handled.

If elected to parliament, his party plans to push for a constitutional reform to amend the electoral system so that people can vote for individuals rather than parties. Šarec proposes a preferential vote based system modelled on the Euro elections, a list of candidates without electoral districts.

He suggests scrapping the upper chamber of parliament and giving the prime minister-designate a full mandate to form government as well as the power to replace ministers without having to seek support in parliament. He wants to introduce provinces and financial police.

While some of these proposals are similar to those sought in the past by the centre-right Democrats (SDS), Šarec's positions on privatisation, public healthcare and education are more akin to those advocated by the outgoing centre-left coalition.

A practising Catholic, he considers religion a private matter and advocates the right to abortion. He would remove the fence from the border with Croatia and says that his party plans to test universal basic income as a pilot project.

He sees himself slightly left of the political centre, but he is careful not to commit to any alliance or state his coalition preferences ahead of the election. He merely says that he does not like extremists.

Critics from the right say that Šarec is the latest protege of former President Milan Kučan after he cast aside outgoing PM Miro Cerar and his Modern Centre Party (SMC), and, in an earlier attempt, Ljubljana Mayor Zoran Janković.

"Such accusations prove that a new kind of politics, a new person in charge is needed ... If we always wonder who's Janša's and who belongs to Kučan, we won't get anywhere," Šarec says.

But he does seem to be tapping into the same vein of discontent as the SMC did four years ago. The Vox Populi poll commissioned by the newspaper Dnevnik and public broadcaster TV Slovenija, has shown than half of his supporters voted for the SMC in 2014. A further 10% have turned away from the SDS and 6% from the Social Democrats (SD).

Some pundits say that Šarec's ratings may soon turn downwards once election debates start, or when some dirt is dug out against him. Philosopher Tadej Troha believes the one thing that can put his victory in jeopardy is Cerar's recent resignation, which the public mostly interpreted as a resolute, principled and brave move.

"As a form, the Marjan Šarec List is a repetition of the SMC project. They both apply the same formula in which a publicly recognised and popular leader gathers around him a handful of experts and a group of ordinary, apolitical people who are supposed to know spontaneously, from experience, what needs to be done.

"Šarec portrays himself as a new politician who will in fact do what Cerar was only promising. By contrast, Cerar is addressing voters as someone who has been prevented from succeeding by external opponents (coalition partners, opposition, trade unions, Supreme Court), so he needs another term to deliver on his promises.

"Considering that Šarec's ratings have begun stagnating after Cerar's resignation, the one thing certain is that Šarec's victory can no longer be taken for granted," says Troha.

After Cerar, who promised a more ethical politics, and Janković, who cast himself as a doer, Šarec appears to combine both. In Kamnik he is known for his work ethics, but he has also faced accusations of mobbing. To avoid a conflict of interest, he sent his two daughters to school in another municipality.

For a short while Šarec headed the local chapter of Janković's Positive Slovenia before it split in half in 2012. Janković failed to build a government after winning the election in 2011.

Asked whether the same could happen to him, Šarec says that unlike Janković he did not command a majority in the local council in his first mayoral term. "This required quite some coordination, so I'm no stranger to that and I've learned my lesson."

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