Former Prime Minister Andrej Bajuk passed away Monday night. He shot to prominence in spring 2000 when he was put forward as a challenger to PM Janez Drnovšek whose coalition with Slovene People’s Party (SLS) had just crumbled. The latter had just undergone what for all intents and purposes was a shotgun wedding with opposition Slovene Christian Democrats (SKD) – with leader of the opposition Janez Janša holding the shotgun. The painful merger realigned the balance of power in the parliament and and as a result PM Drnovšek called a confidence vote which he lost. A short political crisis ensued and after much political wrangling Bajuk was appointed the prime minister seven months before elections were due.
Andrej Bajuk with Slovenia’s first euro notes. Photo: Arsen Perić
A Ljubljana native he fled to Argentina with his parents in 1945 aged only two and worked his way up in life from there. He did not gain prominence in Slovene diaspora, at least not in a way that would leave a mark in his homeland prior to his entry into politics. An economist by profession, he was working for the Inter-American Development Bank before he returned to Slovenia to become the nominee for the prime ministerial position. Such was the rush, that he was reportedly unable to make proper living accommodations and was living in a hotel near the parliament for some time after returning to Slovenia.
Andrej Bajuk was to become a permanent fixture in Slovenian politics for the next decade. Things got off to a rocky start, however. Late in his ill-fated stint as PM (where he was often seen as Janez Janša’s straw man, with Janša back in the saddle as defense minister actually calling the shots) he went out on a limb in what for all intents and purposes amounted to a attempted legislative coup d’état plotted by Janša.
Summer of 2000
Just prior to that fateful summer the constitutional court finally ruled in a four-year-long case of which electoral system won in a 1996 three-way referendum (majoritarian, proposed by Janša; proportional, proposed by the National Council or a combination of the two, proposed by then-ruling coalition led by LDS of Janez Drnovšek). The court ruled that the majoritarian system won although it got only 44 percent of the vote. Three of the judges who ruled in that case went on to become ministers in Bajuk’s government which in August 2000, just months before elections took the position that Slovenia doesn’t have a legal electoral system and that elections should be postponed until a new system is passed by the parliament as per the court’s ruling.
Postponing elections is, of course, a big no-no in a parliamentary democracy, doubly so if they were to be postponed not until a given date but until a (legislative) benchmark is reached. What if it is never reached? During those few weeks Slovenia was on the brink of suspending parliamentary democracy. However, the political and legal minefields were navigated successfully, as the parliament took a position opposite that of the government and amended the constitution and wrote basics of the electoral system into it, thus circumventing the Constitutional Court as well as preventing the possibility of anyone else getting the idea of claiming that it is legally impossible to hold elections.
The rift between the parliament and the government, although both were ran by the same right-wing coalition proved to be too much for the newly-merged SLS+SKD (as the new party was unoriginally called) and late in 2000 a splinter group comprised of senior Christian Democrats established Nova Slovenija (NSi) and elected Andrej Bajuk as their leader. Contrary to some expectations the new party, although leaving much membership and infrastructure with the SLS+SKD, made it to the parliament with as much as eight percent of the vote.
From strength to strength to final defeat
Things were going just great for Bajuk and the NSi. Having spent four relatively comfortable years in the opposition and making their stand on a variety of issues, including (but not limited to) first forays into what a decade later was to become the great Family Code debate, the party scored a surprising victory in the 2004 European elections where it won most of the proportional vote. Despite the victory, the party won only two MEP seats (SDS and LDS won two as well, despite finishing second and third respectively), but for Bajuk it was killing two birds with one stone. His party made a showing that would serve it for years to come and he got ‘rid’ of Lojze Peterle, his main rival to Brussels.
Later in that year Andrej Bajuk returned to the government, this time as finance minister and leader of the junior coalition member. His record is mixed. He was in office at the time Slovenia adopted the euro and was officially the first person to withdraw common European currency from a Slovenian cash dispenser. Additionally, he did in fact run the portfolio at the height of Slovene economic expansion but it remains debatable how much of the expansion was due to his, his party’s and his government’s policies and how much was simply due to going with the flow of the pre-crash casino capitalism. Conversely – and with hindsight – he did precious little to cool down the overheated economy.
That is not to say, however, that he did not leave a mark. Reportedly, his obstinante refusal to sell the largest state owned bank Nova Ljubljanska Banka (NLB) resulted in Jože P. Damijan quitting as minister for development after only 91 days in office, a record that is yet to be broken. Also, Bajuk was wary of introducing flat-rate tax, a cause championed by Janša and his neo-liberal economic advisors (Damijan being among them). He formed an ad hoc group headed by Marko Kranjec (who would later become the Governor of the Bank on Slovenia) and which proposed a simplified-but-still-progressive tax system as well as reducing taxes on profits and other tweaks of the Tax Code. The final result was much closer to Kranjc’s proposal to what Damjan wanted, so Bajuk can be (co-)credited with thwarting a project which would most likely send Slovenia down the drain the moment The Great Recession finally struck.
One of his pet projects was also blowing a hole in the seemingly unbreakable bond between SLS (the other coalition partner, which by then had already reverted from SLS+SKD back to its old acronym) and DARS (state-owned motorways company). The latter was widely seen to have been SLS’ turf with people flowing almost freely between the party (more exactly, the transportation ministry the party traditionally held), DARS and several big consctruction companies, most of them now gone bust as the crisis took the construction sector with it.
However, on the whole Bajuk was not a political maverick. It was intimated to pengovsky that he more often than not saw Janša as his boss rather than a partner and acted accordingly. Obviously this did not win him a lot of friends either within the party or without and opposition within ranks was mounting. By the time 2008 elections were nearing it was plainly obvious that Janša was moving to dominate the entire right wing, mostly at the expense of SLS and NSi. The former barely escaped the trap Janša had set for them and made it to the parliament, while the NSi was not so fortunate and did not pass the 4-percent treshold. Whether Andrej Bajuk did not see what was going on or was unable to do anything about it is still a matter of some debate, but after the elections results came in on election Sunday in September 2008, Bajuk did not try to cling to his chair and bid for time but did the honourable thing and announced his resignation as party chief immediate, visibly shaken at being demoted to the status of a political has-been in a matter of minutes.
On a more personal note and not so much in line with a would-be obit, I must say that pengovsky found Andrej Bajuk to be a generally agreeable person. True, he had his share of blunders and transgressions, one of them being his losing temper with a reporter for TV Slovenia who as a result was removed from covering business stories. But on the whole Andrej Bajuk was a joyful person and despite the fact that pengovsky did not agree with him ideologically and on many policy issues I can say that his politics was more or less consitent and that he was generally fun to be around.
Andrej Bajuk died aged 67.