Shipping Shipping News: Why PM Bratušek Should Demand a Confidence Vote

Pengovsky is en vacances these days, which sort of explains why the trickle of posts, scarce as it is, dried up temporarily. Sure, there is stuff in the pipeline, including the upheaval in the local Roman Catholic Church, which was beheaded by pope Francis for doing exactly the opposite of what Jesus did in the Temple. However, another, even more urgent issue exploded on Monday.

Gašpar Gašpar Mišič, a.k.a. GGM (photo Boris Šuligoj/Delo)

Gašpar Gašpar Mišič, former state secretary in the office of PM Alenka Bratušek, before that an MP for Positive Slovenia and before that a real-estate magnate in the Koper area was appointed CEO of Port of Koper (Luka Koper), Slovenia’s only cargo port. Now popularly known as “Luka Luka Koper”.

Luka Luka Koper

As a result, about three-quarters of the country went apeshit, the coalition parties are rattling their sabres with SD leader Igor Lukšič talking openly about quitting the government while the protest movement announced a new instalment of the uprising for 4 September. However, despite all the protestations, rest assured that the one thing we will not see, is collapse of the government.

To be sure, the entire episode of picking new CEO of Luka Koper was shambolic, to say the least. Under “temporary management” for some time, the company was still reeling from a series of bad investments made by the management installed by the first Janša administration (2004 – 2008).

After Zoran Janković won the 2011 elections, Gašpar Gašpar Mišič, Zoki’s point-man in the region, made it no secret he was eyeing the top job at Luka Koper. The brazen directness of is ambition made a lot of people balk, especially since shipping and/or logistics apparently are not his forte, despite the fact that he holds a rank of deck officer in the merchant marine, having graduated from Naval Faculty. But he found his success in real estate, making his ambition even more brazen. With advent of the Bratušek administration, the flame of Mišič’s ambition was reignited, especially after he quit his MP post to become state secretary in the office of the prime minister.

But as Bratušek and Janković fell out, he was increasingly seen as Janković’s man on the Bratušek team, making life difficult for the PM politically, as he made it clear that in a potential Bratušek-Janković showdown, his loyalties lay with the latter. Which is also why Mišič is now seen as bringing the company into Janković’s sphere of influence.

If it were only that simple

What we have here, is (at least) a five-way match for control of state-owned assets, where in the finest tradition of partitocracy members of (first) supervisory boards and (second) management boards are picked chiefly on their party loyalty, whereas professional ability is a bonus. And just to make sure it don’t get too dull, there’s the Koper municipality, whose mayor Boris Popovič is following his own agenda as well as the increasingly cold relations between Janković and Bratušek.

Thus a relatively low-key appointment became a high-octane political feature which forces many a hand and will have political ramifications one way or another. No danger of the government collapsing, though, despite some heavy rhetoric by all junior coalition parties. DL of Gregor Virant and DeSUS of Karl Erjavec can simply not afford an election right now, while SD, although scoring high in the polls, is positioning itself quite nicely in state-owned companies and is also quite bound to the TEŠ6 project. In other words, every coalition party stands to lose a lot if the government were to fall.

Who backed whom

Perhaps the wildest of conspiracy theories floating around (and there are quite a few to choose from) stated that Jay-Z and AB were in fact in collusion, the rift between them only feigned to disguise their real intentions. Now, were this even remotely true, it would require an extraordinary amount of skill and coordination, not just between the (ostensibly) former leader of Positive Slovenia and his successor, but between their respective operatives. It would also mean their rift was put aside at least temporarily. The way Slovenian politics stands today, neither are possible. Janković never forgets and rarely forgives, but even if that condition would be fulfilled, there would have still been the impossible task of pulling off a stunt like that. With precious few expcetions, the current players in the political arena simply do not have either the mileage or the wit for double play. A wise man once said that one should never put down to malice what one can to incompetence. Simple. And somewhat sad.

On the other hand, it seems the Koper Big Kahuna, mayor Boris “Popo” Popovič had a role to play in this charade. Judging by the flurry of activity of PR pros Popo hired recently and who were not unsympathetic to Mišič taking over the port, the Koper mayor is dancing the Mipos dance of Joy right now.

Now, whether or not Zoran Janković played a role is uncertain. Despite him making loud noises over who should run and oversee funds controlling state assets, his “suggestions” were largely ignored or overruled. He had made his displeasure known, but it begs the question, if he was unable to impress his will directly on the government, how would he have been able to control events further down the food chain?

One possible answer is that Zoki and Popo are tighter than it would appear at first sight. Also, since the newly minted CEO of Luka Koper professed his allegiance to Janković time and again (after all it was Mišič who coined that ill-thought-out phrase about Janković being able to generate growth even in Antarctica, earning PS the moniker “Penguins”), it would indeed seem the Ljubljana mayor can’t be very far from this story.

But even if that is true (and it is by no means a given), Zoki has seen too many defections from his camp to consider the matter solved. More often than not, he has seen the defector wait until he/she got what they wanted and then turn their back on him. Case in point being Renata Brunskole MP, who – after switching from SD to ss to secure another term in the parliament – threw Janković under the bus the moment a push came to a shove. So it is quite possible that having gotten what they wanted, both Boris Popovič and Gašpar Gašpar Mišič will start putting a daylight between Janković and themselves.

Vote of confidence

But it is PM Bratušek who is facing a real problem. What has happened on Monday, was a direct defiance of her wishes by a senior party figure and (nominally, at least), her close aide. Namely, Bratušek publicly tried to stay out of this story for as long as possible, but ultimately her hand was forced and she had to say something. Amazingly, she admitted that corporate governance of state-owned companies is a joke more often than not. She didn’t do it in as many words, but said politics has too much of a hand in picking managers and supervisors. She added it is inappropriate for a senior civil servant to make the switch just like that and hinted at sacking Mišič who in turn quit of his own accord.

At that moment, a week ago, it seemed as if Mišič’s ambitions were curbed, but when the supervisory board confirmed him as CEO on Monday with the president of the board doing an about face on the issue and providing the necessary vote for a 5:4 majority. All of a sudden, Bratušek found herself in a tight spot, having first been prodded by her coalition partners and ultimately defied by a high-profile member of her own party.

As a result, she finds herself heavily undermined in a position that was more than just a bit shaky to begin with. In fact, with the Mišič stunt, Bratušek is three-quaters of a way to becoming a lame-duck prime minister. If she does nothing, she will lose what little authority she has left and as a result the Mišič-like stunts will be repeated over and over again and she will preside over people with vested interest from all parties gobble up what is left of Slovenian economy. True, there is the danger of this happening anyway, but if you gotta go, you might as well go with style. And if AB wants to retain (let alone regain) her footing, there is only one thing she can and should do: she should go to the parliament and demand a vote of confidence.

This is the only possible way she can (perhaps) contain her coalition partners whose appetite for control of state assets has just been whetted beyond anything we’ve seen to date. Ditto for elements of her own party. Additionally, with this she will pre-empt any loose talk of junior partners quitting the coalition (lest they be granted additional turfs) and re-establish herself just enough to come down hard on Mišič. Failing that, she might as well throw in the towel now.

It’s like Danica Simšič all over again

There is historic precedent to all of this. Way back in 2002, Danica Simšič of what is today SD was – against all expectations – elected mayor of Ljubljana. Hip, hip, hooray and all that jazz, but the problem was the left-wing coalition that ruled the city had other plans and was hoping Vika Potočnik of LDS would retain the mayorship. As a result, Simšič soon found herself without the political support of her own party, let alone the coalition, but instead of resigning, she pressed on, soon losing all grip on the situation and finding herself being played time and time again by her own people, to the very bitter end (that is, to the landslide victory of Zoran Janković in 2006).

Therefore, the only thing PM Bratušek can do now is to call the various bluffs and put her cards on the table. In this, she must also be prepared to lose. But there is no disgrace in losing (more or less) honourably. Knowing that you should do something, but can’t bring yourself to do it is, however, mighty bad form. Case in point being the incumbent president, who back in his PM days knew he should quit and go to the polls, but couldn’t.

State ownership just went out the window

There is one thing, however, that may have went beyond the point of no return: after the Gašpar Gašpar Mišič episode, where everyone was/is locked in some kind of a Mexican standoff, it becoming increasingly hard to argue in favour of any kind of state ownership. Not because the state would be a bad owner per se, but because – in Slovenia at least – state ownership continues to be the mud-pit of ineptitude and special interest.

After the dust settles, we’ll be lucky of we can keep the basic infrastructure of this country in taxpayers’ hands.

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.