The term “hot political Autumn” is a staple of post-holiday media diet in Slovenia. It’s supposed to represent the exact opposite of the Silly season and signal re-entry of many-a-player into political orbit. Only that the Silly season was not really happening the past few years. In fact, until this Summer, Slovenia has been experiencing one long, drawn-out political and economic re-alignment, making the period between 2010 and 2016 one big political blur. Just think about it: four governments, just as many elections (on national level only) and seven referendums, with one being a 3-in-1 special. And then there was the euro-crisis and the migrant crisis and the Patria affair and a whole range of clusterfucks large and small. Thus many people were befuddled when the government of Miro Cerar declared a collective holiday and got the hell out of Dodge for most of August. Maybe it was the Olympics, maybe it was real, but no one really missed them, except for a few warning shots from the media and the opposition, but most of those were catching a few extra z’s around that time, too.
Mateja Vraničar Erman, FinMin-to-be (source)
Mabye the government going on vacay in a 24/7 news cycle seems a bit archaic, but on the upside the “hot political Autumn” is once again appropriately termed, as PM Cerar suddenly has to deal with three of his ministers being hauled before the parliament in a no-confidence vote (or interpelation, as it is known in Slovenian political lingo) while he has to plug a gaping hole left by sudden departure of finance minister Dušan Mramor just before the summer lull kicked in.
But while Mramor left more or less solely on account of poor health, ministers Gašperšič, Kolar Celarc and Makovec Brenčič (infrastructure, health and education respectively) are being targeted as they are thought to be the weak links of the government. This goes especially for Gašperšič and Kolar Celarc who have few people to blame but themselves for their current predicament. And, as per usual, it mostly has to do with money.
The third rail
In the case of Peter Gašperšič, the key issue is Port of Koper, specifically, the second rail track between Divača and Koper which – according to its proponents – is needed “immediately” to maintain the competitive edge the port has with regard to other ports in the Adratic, especially nearby Trieste (Italy) and Rijeka (Croatia). Gašperšič has been kind of flip-flopping on the issue ever since he was nominated for the post in 2014. He started out saying that the second rail track was not needed, only to walk back that comment when all hell broke loose and his confirmation suddenly seemed questionable. He’s been hovering between yes/no/maybe/other-option ever since. The project seemed dead in the water when his ministry failed to submit a proposal in a massive EU transport infrastructure investment programme and Slovenia got only 130 million euro instead of close to a billion euro of EU funding for its transport infrastructure.
The second rail track is, in fact, the third rail of Slovenian politics. Case in point being Gašeperšič’s initial flip-flop on the issue and the fact that he was this close to being hung out to dry this time around as a couple of SMC MPs from Primorska region said they will not be supporting the minister but will rather abstain. Luckily for Gašperšič, the coalition at large came to his rescue with both DeSUS and SD supporting him. For a price, no doubt.
On a side note, the two SMC MPs, Marko Ferluga and Tilen Božič, show just how internally fragile new political parties are, doubly so if they land in a position of power or (as is the case with SMC) end up winning the elections. With little or no local infrastructure and even less tradition and long-term affiliation, party members often find themselves between a rock and a hard place, where the HQ (party leadership) demands one thing, while the members’ immediate surroundings (say, a region they were elected in) demand exactly the opposite. Which is what happened to Ferluga and Božič during a stand-off in the Port of Koper, where some weird industrial action was taking place where the company management and the unions formed a united front against what was perceived as goverment plans to privatise part of the port (although no such plans existed). It was in fact a show of force, whereby the company wanted to continue operating without any meaningful supervision by the government and remain a large powerbroker unto itself in the region. Which is why Ferluga and Božič were forced to break ranks with the party, “freezing” their party membership (but remaining part of the SMC parliamentary group). They stood no chance of re-election if they alienated the powers that be in the port. They stand little chance of re-election as things stand anyhow, but “little” is better than “none”. Plus, Gašperšič seems to have learned his lesson, so to speak, and is now apparently fully commited to the second rail track project. Even if the whole 1,4 billion euro project is beginning to look like TEŠ6 all over again.
Powerplay is the name of the game in the case of health minsiter Milojka Kolar Celarc as well. Not entirely dissimilar to infrastructure, the health sector is comprised of a myriad of lobbying, powerful unions and vested interest with a generous serving of political intrigue and angling for future jobs. It is amid this clusterfuck that several of Kolar Celarc’s predecessors were unable or unwilling to come up with a credible and comprehensive health reform which would – ideally – upgrade the health network (especially in the area of specialist procedures), most of which was built in mid-70s, deal with too long waiting periods for patients and adjust for an increasingly ageing population. Not to mention the shortages of doctors in some areas while in others specialist doctors work full-time in public institution and are still able to sqeeze out a part-time stint at several private clinics. Point being that shit needs to get done but shit ain’t getting done. Instead, the health sector as a whole is starting to leak at the seams, be it with people dying due to shoddy maitenance work, operations being canceled due to unavailability of key personell or doctors being gunned down to death by mentally unstable patients. It may not all be the fault of the current minister, but it’s not like she didn’t know what she was getting into (unlike one of her predecessors during Bratušek administration who quit after a month on the job).
So, the fact that Kolar Celarc is about to get grilled by the parliament is both the result of her ministry dragging its feet (as per usual) as well as a pre-emptive strike should she decide to actually do something about it. Most players in the field right now prefer the status quo, where one just needs to be patient enough to get a slice of the 4 bln euro cake that is the health system in Slovenia. And the fact that the minister has secured support of both junior coalition parties (DeSUS and SocDems) is proof enough that whatever changes there are planned, they will not disturb the status quo and could even strengthen it. There’s no way to know at the moment, but the mere fact that she will apparently survive the vote suggests that nothing earth-shattering will happen in the near future.
Ideological apparatus of the state
The case of Maja Makovec Brenčič, minister fo education, science and sports is slightly different, however. While it cites several counts of misconduct and mismanagement, the whole case against her sits on a single premise: namely, that she is directly responsible for not implementing a Constitnutional Court ruling regarding public financing of private schools. To put in a nutshell, following a complaint by an education subsidiary of the Roman Catholic Church, the court ruled that state-mandated-and-approved curriculum must be 100%-state funded, regardless of whether it is taught in a public or a private schools. Until now, the latter received only 85% of money needed to execute the state-required part of the curriculum, while the rest was covered by tuition fees which also served to finance the non-mandated part of the curriculum (in the case of the Catholic Church, faith-based and other courses, etc). This is to be rectified, the constitutional ourt ordered, yet nothing happened.
On merit, it seems that the SDS which moved for a no-confidence vote against the minister has facts if not votes on its side. Like it or not, the court’s decision is final and is to be implemented. The left wing of the coalition balked at the decision, saying it orders the state to finance Catholic schools, which – had all things been equal – would mean breaching the separation of the state and the church. Yet, things are not so simple. Or rather, they’re much simpler than that. The court was specific that the state must finance the part of the curriculum which it demands as a prerequisite to certify a programme of a particular school, thus making the school’s students eligible to continue their studies at other schools in Slovenia (and, by extention, the EU). To put it simply, if a private school wants to be certfied, it must ensure that its students will learn more or less the same things they would in a government-run school. This, the constitutional court said, should be fully financed by taxpayer’s money. As for the rest of the private schools’ curriculum and/or additional services, well that’s what the tuition fees are for.
While the fear of re-catholicizing the education system is ingrained in much of the left-wing (and for good reason, as most of the nineties and noughts were marked by agressive re-assertion of the Church in public life), this in pengovsky’s view is a case of boy crying wolf. Namely, as things stand now, the Church is one of only a handful of insitutution which can actually afford running a private school despite having to partly fund the public curriculum. Were the ruling enacted, it would actually broaden the field and enable others to go into private-school business as well, breaking the catholic near-monopoly on private education (pengovsky’s favourite would be the Pastafarian Primary School of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but that’s just me). Would public schools be worse off by this? Yes and no. Yes, because at least in the short term there would be slightly less money available for public shools (as additional 15% need to be coughed up for private schools), but since schools are not set up overnight and the accreditation council can take its time in approving various curriculli, odds are there would be more than enought time to adapt.
Although it revolves about money, this particular issue is idelogocial. Some on the (centre) right were apparently indignant (and in denial) about this, but it is true.
You see, education system is there not only to teach you about gravity and algebra and the birds and the bees, it also instills values. Be they values of dilligence, patriotism, faith, secularism, human rights… what have you. Hence, the notion that educaton is the basic tool of a state ideological apparatus is nothing new and nor it is value-specific. Education system can be used to teach kids about how all mankind is equal or it can teach that some are better than others. It can also teach that there are many competing faiths in the world or it can teach that there is only one true faith. All these (and other) approaches consitute a set of values. The question is which of them will be taken and thus in time become prevalent in the society. Which means that education is the basic tool of state ideological apparatus. Simple.
But back to the question at hand. Politically, Makovec Brenčič is is no danger whatsoever. Not only beause the SMC will rally aroud its minister but also because the SD (which is always liable to stir problems in this coalition) will fight this issue tooth-and-nail. In fact it was probably them who started the ruckus in the coalition to avoid or delay implementing the ruling in the first place and the rest of the coalition simply went along. Be that as it may, Maja Makovec Brenčič will sail through her no-confidence vote, but the issue is likely to come back and haunt her and the SMC. That the SD will suffer no fallout among the, well, faithful over this is more or less a given.
But whatever changes Makovec Brenčič, Kolar Celarc and Gašperšič may or may not want and should or should not do, there is someone who needs to sign off on all of them and it’s not the prime minister. Instead, it’s the arch-beancounter, the accountant-in-chief, the CFO, if you will. Minister of finance, a job soon to be held by Mateja Vraničar Erman.
The least popular job in the government
The finance portfolio is probably the least popular job the government at the moment, even more so than health department. Ever since the merry-go-round stopped and the money was gone, public finances were this country’s Achilles’ heel. It took a lot of bending backwards to avoid a Greek-style bailout, courtesy of the famously tight-lipped finance minister Uroš Čufer, his PM Alenka Bratušek and Bank of Slovenia boss Boštjan Jazbec. Having avoided a head-on collision with creditors, Čufer and his succesor Dušan Mramor, taking over after Miro Cerar won the 2014 election, worked slowly (some say too slowly) and painstaikingly to bring public finances back to some sort of order. It all paid off when in May this year the EU Commission recommended Slovenia be stricken from the list of member states with excessive deficits. This was Mramor’s exit cue. Apparently being in poor health, it has emerged later he was looking for a way out for some time. The fact that he was in the eye of the storm over bonuses paid while he was the dean of te Faculty of Economy, didn’t help, either.
So as Mramor made for exit, stage left, Cerar was, well, left with having to come up with a replacement. And after a few non-starters and test baloons, the PM picked Mateja Vraničar Erman to replace her boss. Since Vraničar Erman was the state secretary (second-in-command) at the ministry of finance under both Čufer and Mramor and has had a pretty long spell at the lower echelons of the ministry in the 90’s, she seems a natural choice and represents some sort of continuity in managing public finances. Some would say that’s a bad sign, given that the approach Slovenia took was to promise doing just enough to keep the creditors and the EU/ECB at bay and then drag its feet in delivering the promises for as long as possible, counting on better economic environment to help out in making the cut.
But so far, the approach worked. It’s not as if there was no readjustment as a result of austerity measures, but compared to some other European countries, Slovenia got off lightly. Indeed, one could make the case that it got off too lightly given how lightly politicos are agreeing to mega-projects (see above) or how difficult it is in this country to bring about any meaningful reform (tax, labour, pension). But on the other hand, politics – as they say – is the art of the possible and a passable quasi-reform is better than a comprehensive reform no-one will support. Thus Vraničar Erman has her work cut out for her, no matter how you look at it.
Which, in the eyes of the opposition, is precisely her weak spot. Just like Čufer and Mramor, Vraničar Erman, too, is a technocrat without explicit party affiliation. But while her predecessors were appointed to head the portfolio in what for all intents and purposes was a distater situation, she is now tasked primarily with making sure the new-found stability lasts and that soft(ish) landing doesn’t embolden reckless pilots to take over the cockpit once again. In the immediate aftermath of the bailout in 2013, this was fairly easy despite the rag-tag coalition that was the government of Alenka Bratušek. Rumour had it that FinMin Čufer, when approached by this-or-that project sposored by a coalition party, would simply say “What coalition agreement? I ain’t got money for this”. Such stone-walling will be a much harder task now, when political benefits are as much part of project considerations as are feasibility studies.
This was precisely the point raised by Anže Logar of the SDS who asked Vraničar Erman if she’s be able to deny Karl Erjavec a demand for a pension hike. The future minister of finance replied that she would, but this is depends as much on whether she’d be able to project a don’t-fuck-with-me attitude as it does on whether PM Cerar would have her back 24/7, just as he had Mramor’s. And it’s not just Erjavec, who is on surprisingly good terms with PM Cerar as of late and is generally playing ball, but also Dejan Židan of the SD who is liable to come up with a irratonal demand or six, now that the government just passed the two-year-point and everyone is starting to eye elections in (presumably) 2018.
And even if it weren’t for those two, the future FinMin is about to re-enter a minefield that is the real-estate tax (talk about the third rail!), which she and Čufer spearheaded in 2014 and which got blown right out of the water by a 9-0 vote of the consitutional court. If the whole thing is done right this time and if PM Cerar is willing to spend a fair amount of political capital on this, then Vraničar Erman can, in fact, finish an important course adjustment for Slovenia. If, however, Cerar succumbs to the lure of short-term political benefits, she’ll just become the fall-guy for any and all missteps from now until the elections. Fall-gal, rather.
On a more upbeat news, however, with Vraničar Erman as FinMin, for the first time since the independence half of government porftolios will be led by women.