Ex-comedian Sarec turns serious to become Slovenia's PM

Bojan KAVCIC
Marjan Sarec is a former comedian and satirist

Slovenian MPs approved centre-left candidate Marjan Sarec for the post of prime minister Friday, putting an end to weeks of political uncertainty after inconclusive elections in June.

The 40-year-old former comedian and satirist won a parliamentary vote by 55 to 31 and will become Slovenia's youngest prime minister since independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

He struck a pro-European note when addressing MPs during Friday's session, saying he was committed to seeing the eurozone member "remain a part of the so-called core states" of the EU.

Sarec's LMS party came second in the June 3 election, but he plans to form a government with four other centre-left parties, which will be supported by the far-left Levica party in parliament.

The biggest single election winner was the anti-migrant centre-right Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), headed by Janez Jansa. It won the most seats, 25, but failed to gather enough allies to form a ruling majority.

Jansa was criticised by Sarec and other more centrist parties for his strident anti-migration rhetoric, which was partly inspired by his ally, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Sarec told MPs on Friday: "I am aware of my faults and mistakes but I have courage and persistence".

He described Slovenia's membership of the EU and NATO as "two great achievements" for the country, drawing a contrast with Levica, whose platform included leaving the US-led alliance.

- Down-to-earth image -

After graduating from Ljubljana's Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television as an actor, Sarec started a succesful career as a comedian and satirist often impersonating Slovenian and foreign politicians.

But he has long since swapped mocking politicians for becoming one.

In 2010 he launched himself as an "anti-establishment" politician and unexpectedly won the mayoral race in the northern town of Kamnik on a left-leaning programme.

However, he began to tire of the limits placed on local authorities by central government and in 2017 ran for president to advance his agenda.

After his narrow defeat to incumbent Borut Pahor, Sarec announced his LMS party would run for parliament.

Since his entry into politics, Sarec has rarely made public use of his gifts as a comedian, instead cultivating an image of a down-to-earth Catholic family man, who prefers to spend his free time tending to his farm or working as a volunteer firefighter.

During the most recent campaign he was criticised for lacking a clear programme but recently told AFP that his party "has many things in common with (French President Emmanuel) Macron's position, a sensible, centrist orientation".

- 'More than just a comedian' -

Analyst Vlado Miheljak said that despite his relative political inexperience, Sarec has already shown himself to be pragmatic and has handled demanding coalition talks with unexpected efficiency.

"He is more than just 'a comedian' as his adversaries like to call him," Miheljak said.

He warned that Sarec may face particular problems with two of the other party leaders in his unwieldy new coalition who are themselves former prime ministers -- Alenka Bratusek and outgoing premier Miro Cerar -- and who may be tempted to be "patronising toward the newcomer".

There will also be the relationship with the far-left Levica party to manage, although Sarec has already committed to some parts of their platform, such as raising the minimum wage and pensions.

But Sarec's first order of business will be addressing more pressing problems raised on the campaign trail, primarily much-needed reform the health system.

Miheljak said that Jansa's attempt to appeal to anti-migration sentiment fell foul of a tradition of moderation in Slovenian society.

"Although a large number of voters are conservative and not open to migrant flows... they are not overly attached to these beliefs," he said.

Despite being a majority Catholic country, religiously oriented parties have struggled to gain popularity.

"Voters go to mass and then cast their votes for the centre-left," Miheljak said.