The Legacy of Janez Drnovšek, Ascetic Giant of Slovene Politics (Feature, Videos)

By , 23 Feb 2018, 08:55 AM Meet the People
President Drnovšek in Poland, 2006 President Drnovšek in Poland, 2006 Wikimedia

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The lasting influence of a man who died ten years ago today. 

STA, February 23, 2018 – Janez Drnovšek, the former president and prime minister who died on this day ten years ago, is considered a towering figure in Slovenian politics. People who have worked with the ascetic man consider him a great politician, and a great humanist.

Born in Celje in 1950, Drnovšek, holder of a PhD in economics with a career in banking, was catapulted to the political scene in 1989, when he was elected the Slovenian representative to the Yugoslav collective presidency at a time of mounting tensions in the former republic.

The cerebral and cosmopolitan Drnovšek was elected over Marko Bulc, a stodgy member of the Communist establishment, in what was at the time seen as a major upset.

Though hardly in line with modern democratic standards, this was the first of many elections he would contest in his career - and he won every single one.

He chaired the Yugoslav presidency between May 1989 and May 1990, a crucial time for Slovenia's independence drive.

After Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Drnovšek left the Yugoslav presidency and became the chief negotiator brokering the withdrawal of the Yugoslav People's Army from Slovenia after the ten-day independence war. He described his view of the breakup of Yugoslavia in the book "My Truth" in 1996.

Drnovšek initially held back from daily politics, but he entered the scene again in 1992, when he was elected in March the leader of the newly-formed centre-left Liberal Democracy of Slovenia (LDS), a big-tent party created from a smogasbord of smaller leftist and centrist parties.

Part two later in this post

Gregor Golobič, Drnovšek's top staffer for years, says that Drnovšek was the author of the only true political integration of multiple parties into one in Slovenia.

Only a month later he became the second prime minister in independent Slovenia, a post he held for nearly a decade with the exception of a six-month period in 2000, when he sought a no-confidence vote due to squabbles in his multi-coloured coalition.

Drnovšek was always considered a pragmatic politician who shunned ideology. Indeed, the no-confidence vote proved a stroke of genius, as the LDS won the 2000 election in a landslide, mostly due to the perception that what had come to be called the "caretaker government" of centre-right parties was incompetent.

That year Drnovšek went on to form his fourth cabinet, only to announce in 2002 that he would give up the post and stand for the presidency, a largely ceremonial post. He hand-picked his successor, Anton Rop, then finance minister, much to the dismay of many senior figures in the LDS.

The decision would ultimately prove disastrous for the LDS, which lost the 2002 election to the centre-right Democrats (SDS) and started falling apart, due mainly to fierce infighting that Drnovšek had managed to hold back as president.

The outcome would also show the prescience of his statement from 1998, when he faced a vote of no confidence: "What would my resignation bring? Gentlemen, all of you who are egging me on to resign, all of you attacking me, gentlemen from the opposition: you will kill each other fighting for my succession."

Drnovšek won the presidential election in the second round of voting in December 2002, defeating prosecutor Barbara Brezigar, although by a smaller margin than he would have liked.

His presidency was marked by a major personal transformation in which he turned from a pragmatic, technocratic politician into a vocal advocate of healthy living and positive thinking after medical tests showed that a kidney tumour doctors had removed in July 1999 reappeared.

Surprisingly, Drnovšek announced that he had stopped following instructions of traditional doctors and instead changed his lifestyle. Always ascetic, he sold his house in Ljubljana, moved to small chalet in the village of Zaplana and started eating healthy, vegetarian food and baking his own bread.

The change in lifestyle also brought with it a change of attitude, and Drnovšek walked out of the suspended membership of the LDS in January 2006 and instead formed the altruistic Movement for Justice and Development, with the aim of making the world a better place.

Even though he insisted this was a non-political forum with noble goals, many politicians saw it as a move back into active politics.

The new attitude also created unease when he unveiled in late 2005 a plan for Kosovo independence that the government knew nothing about, and launched an international effort to broker a peace deal for the restive Sudanese region of Darfur in early 2006, which turned out to be in vain.

The new Drnovšek spent the most part of the last year of his term on a collision course with the centre-right government of Prime Minister Janez Janša, culminating with his refusal to attend in 2007 the main state ceremony marking Slovenia's independence. In the final months, Drnovšek was rarely seen in the public.

Drnovšek first signalled his departure from politics when he announced in mid-2006 that he would not seek a second term as president, but would instead focus on his Movement for Justice and Development, and write another book on top of the best-selling "Misli o življenju in zavedanju" (Thoughts on Life and Awareness). In 2007, he published "Pogovori" (Dialogues).

In what is widely considered as an indication that his sickness was serious indeed, Drnovšek rejected the public belief that he favoured alternative medicine over conventional when he inaugurated the new premises of the Oncology Institute in October 2007.

"I was not helped by healers as I often get to hear or read. The best help came from nature, which I think is the best healer," he summed up what had become his philosophy in life.

Just before Christmas 2006, in perhaps the most unusual move in his long career, and one that would show he truly underwent a personal transformation, he personally visited Ambrus, a village where locals were on the verge of trying to lynch a troublesome Roma family, to deliver shipping containers.

"We cannot let them freeze out here over Christmas and new Year's ... Let's help them as people," which elicited "let them freeze!" calls from the locals. "Are you people? What are you?" he retorted, in what would become one of his best remembered political statements.

In general, Golobič says Drnovšek was an extraordinary politician with an open-mindedness unparalleled in Slovenian politics.

This was evident not only in his ability to steer two ideologically diverse coalitions, he also maintained his moral authority without flirting with authoritarianism.

"When he was at the apex of his power, the indisputable ruler and serial election winner with increasing power and influence, nobody feared him. Not in politics nor in business or the media," Golobič told the STA.

Ten years after his death, Slovenian politics remains just as bitterly divided and restive as it was in the early 1990s, but back then Drnovšek was able to use his considerable authority to keep a lid on the divisions, even if they bubbled under the surface.

In a twist of irony befitting the acerbic Drnovšek, Slovenia looks set to welcome a politician who made his name on TV by uncannily imitating the late president.

The party of Marjan Šarec, the Kamnik mayor who started his career impersonating Drnovšek and a host of other politicians, is currently ahead in the polls and could conceivably cruise to election victory.

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