A protest movement that began over the issue of corruption has grown into a challenge to all political élites, austerity measures, and the capitalist system as a whole writes Brigita Gračner

Right now, Slovenia is being shaken by the first massive uprising since it became an independent country in 1991. The protests are directed against all political élites, austerity measures, and the capitalist system as a whole. Since November 2012, there have been 42 protests in all major Slovenian cities, with more than 110,000 participants altogether. The protests are mostly peaceful and decentralized, but a few hundred people have been arrested, and many were injured.

The protests in Slovenia started in November 2012 in Maribor as a response to corrupt actions of Maribor’s mayor Franc Kangler, in a dispute over initially over the placement of new traffic enforcement cameras. The cameras were sited by the Municipality of Maribor, Slovenia’s second largest local authority, as a public-private partnership with a Slovenian firm. The project was believed to be corrupt and lacking transparency after Kangler had allowed a private company to set up cameras all over the city and collect money from speeding tickets instead of directing it to the city budget.

The protests started with small demonstrations in front of the city hall of Maribor in October, and escalated, on 21 November, into the first big protest. The protesters demanded Kangler’s resignation, chanting “He’s finished!” in the Slovenian Styrian dialect (“Gotof je!”). This would become the most popular slogan in all following protests. Kangler was accused of corruption by the official Commission for the Prevention of Corruption of the Republic of Slovenia and eventually resigned at the end of 2012.

In November, the protests spread throughout the country, particularly to the capital city of Ljubljana, but also to the towns of Celje, Kranj, Murska Sobota, Koper, Nova Gorica, and Trbovlje. On 21 December, the first so called ‘All Slovenian People’s Uprising’ took place in Ljubljana, followed by the second one on 11 January. One of the most important reasons for the protests to spread to other cities was a report of the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption that accused both the Prime Minister, Janez Janša, and the leader of the largest opposition party, Zoran Janković, of corruption. Neither of them was able to explain the source of some of his incomes in recent years. Janša is also suspected of being involved in a corruption scandal involving the supply of Finnish armoured vehicles. On 8 February (the Slovenian Cultural Holiday), two rallies occurred in Ljubljana. The pro-government “Assembly for the Republic” organized a protest in support of Janša, at which some 5,000 people gathered. In the afternoon, however, more than 20,000 people participated, in the same place, in the third All-Slovenian People’s Uprising to protest against the ruling political élite. This was the biggest anti-government gathering since the protests began.

Protest organisation

From the outset, the protests were organized with the help of social networks – mostly through Facebook. Later on, a coordination committee was formed, but did not act as an organizer. None of the protests had previously been reported to the police, as legally required. Apart from All-Slovenian People’s Uprisings, the Coordination Committee of Culture of Slovenia, which combines the organizations of Slovenian cultural workers, also organized “Protestivals” with a cultural program in protest against government cuts in the funding of culture. The movement is very diverse and consists of many social groups and initiatives: there are students and lecturers, trade unions, precarious workers, pensioners, anarchists, ecologists, socialists, and others, any they all demand deeper social changes. Among the new groups the most prominent are the General Assembly of the All-Slovenian People’s Uprising, the Committee for Social Justice and Solidarity, the Coordination Committee of Slovenian Culture, the Committee for Direct Democracy, the Movement of the Responsible, and Today is a New Day. There are also groups and parties which were active before, like the Federation for Anarchist Organisation (FAO), the Workers and Punks’ University (WPU), the student association Iskra, the Invisible Workers of the World (IWW), The Association of Free Trade Unions of Slovenia, the Pirate Party, and the Party for Sustainable Development. Among these groups, the Workers and Punks’ University has been prominent: it is a collective of students and activists who organize an annual series of public lectures and regularly intervene in the social struggles both with their theoretical analyses and political statements.

Austerity and severe recession

Although the protests started as a response to local anomalies, soon the protesters started demanding resignation of all political and economic élites regardless of their political affiliations. But the protesters are also targeting the austerity measures, and some the capitalist system as a whole, with Slovenia experiencing the second sharpest drop in GDP of any euro member as a result of the economic crisis. Janša and Borut Pahor (the former Prime Minister and the current President of Slovenia) have been meticulously following the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), imposing harsh reforms which cost many jobs and social rights, leaving people (especially the young) with no hope for a secure future.

The government has already imposed a reform that raises the retirement age, and wants to reform the labour market with the intention of reducing protections against layoffs. Public sector wage cuts are also being planned. Moreover, the Constitutional Court has found unconstitutional a potential referendum on the legislation setting up a so-called ”bad bank” and a sovereign holding company that would enable privatization of Slovenian companies and banks. In effect, the Court banned a popular vote on the matter. The government also proposed a constitutional amendment relating to the referendum legislation which would reduce the possibility of submitting a request for a referendum and reduce the potential to resort to this instrument of direct democracy.

The official response

The government, particularly Janša’s leading party, and their media support failed in criminalizing the movement by describing the protesters as “communist zombies” led by “the uncles in the background.” This evoked creative reactions at the second Uprising, at which many of the protesters participated wearing zombie masks. During the protests, however, the word “communist” grew from a definition of former officials and the presumed “uncles” to a label for any opponent to the austerity measures. Moreover, at the protest of the pro-government Assembly for the Republic, a speech by Janša recorded in Brussels was broadcasted in which the Prime Minister drew an analogy between the methods of his opponents and those of Nazis at the beginning of the Holocaust, calling the protesters “left fascists.” Regardless of Janša’s abuse of historical events and misuse of terms, it is the first time in twenty-five years that some of the media and groups participating in the movement have spoken of socialism in a positive way.

Janša’s attempts to criminalize and discredit the movement seem logical, since his two junior coalition partners left the government because of corruption scandals. This deprived Janša of a majority and may bring about early elections. On 22 February, the pensioners’ party quit the government, reducing Janša’s coalition to just 36 of 90 parliamentary seats. The opposition is now trying to agree on a new Prime Minister, but no official candidate has been proposed so far. Despite the fact that the situation will probably lead to provisional government, or to early elections which would postpone some reforms, the protests in Slovenia are to be continued. The fourth All-Slovenian People’s Uprising is to take place on 9 March in Ljubljana.

A precursor and organisational challenges

In a way, the situation is reminiscent of the one in 2011, when the so-called 15 October movement (15O) organized similar protests as a response to austerity measures. The movement occupied the platform in front of the Slovenian stock exchange for a few months as a sign of protest against the worldwide financial crisis. The government under Prime Minister Pahor had fallen a few months before, and the public was looked to the 15O protestors to produce an alternative. However, it failed in the end to offer any concrete solutions, and at the same time refused any kind of institutionalization in more formal political structures. Hence, although 15O gained great support from the public in the beginning, it was overshadowed by early elections in December 2011. Despite the new government, the political élite continued with austerity measures, with the only party that opposed the neoliberal reforms in its program completely defeated in the elections.

As there will probably be new early elections this year, it will be essential to consider new forms of organization. Although the movement seems stronger than the one in 2011, there lies a heavy task in front of it. It appears that some parts of the movement will attempt to form themselves as parties, but since the movement consists of many groups with different positions, it will be essential for the socialist left to argue for its positions within this process. This will give Slovenia the chance to prevent a forming of a government that would only continue with the planned reforms.

Brigita Gračner is from the Workers’ and Punks’ University, Ljubljana.

Slovenian Zombie protestor