Health Minister Resigns, Sickened By Inability To Pass Reform

The ink on the resignation letter of minister of economy Stanko Stepišnik had barely dried when PM Alenka Bratušek saw another member of her cabinet resign earlier today when minister of health Tomaž Gantar tendered his resignation with media grabbing his statement about blockade of any meaningful health reform by powerful players and people with vested interest.

Minister in resignation. Another one (photo by Barbara Milavec/Ž

Indeed, in his resignation letter (Google Translate here) Gantar did, in fact, acknowledge corruption as a major issue of Slovenian health system. However, he adds that in this respect the health sector is no different than the rest of the country and that some of his problems may very well stem from his attempts to curb the construction lobby. Which, in all honesty, is as political a statement about corruption as any. Not in the least because the health sector is prone to occasional fits of corruption, the most epic of them being a tender for operating tables in surgery halls of Ljubljana University Clinical Centre which dragged on for years and resulted in no charges being filed despite tonnes of taxpayer’s money being thrown out the window by the bucketful. Then there’s was a tender for a new ER under Janša government 1.0, which also ran aground. Or the new Oncology wing which even years after it was completed is mired by cases of Legionella in its plumbing. Or the (relatively) new Pediatrics wing, which took more than a decade to build and serves a smaller number of patients than its predecessor. And so on and so on…

Every minister in ever government practically anywhere in the world will try to position himself/herself as fiercely anti-corruption. But talking the talk don’t always mean walking the walk. And Gantar was stumbling in office practically from day one. That be day one of Janša 2012 government, where only both DeSUS ministers (Gantar and foreign minister and party leader Karl Erjavec) held the same positions as in the succeeding Bratušek administration and Gantar was widely perceived as being out of his depth, despite the fact that he ran a relatively successful hospital in coast town of Izola prior to his entry in politics. Therefore, although resonating, his statements on corruption are neither revealing nor ravaging.

Therefore the rest of his letter is much more interesting in terms of shedding light on high-level behind-the-scenes power-plays. It shows that Gantar fell not so much a victim to various lobbies but rather failed in a power struggle for the future (re)organisation of the health system. To put it bluntly, it a tussle between proponents of further concessions in primary health care (i.e.: private GPs performing public-health services) and proponents of concentrating primary health-care solely in the hands of state-related organisations. Gantar positioned himself as pro-concessions and named labour unions as well as Social Democrats as forces opposing further issuing of concessions.

Therefore, while somewhat of a surprise, Gantar’s resignation is not really rocking the coalition boat. In fact, it may even show that the coalition is closing its ranks in the wake of a confidence vote won by PM Bratušek and is now getting rid of some of its looser parts. Whether or not this is the case will be seen pretty soon and gauged by the simplest of instruments: whether or not DeSUS president Karl Erjavec will start making noises towards leaving the coalition once again. The grapevine has it that Erjavec and Gantar were not really on friendly terms as of late and it might just be that Erjavec wants a more friendly person fulfilling DeSUS cabinet quota.

As for primary health care concessions and overall reform, this might even be a good thing. Opposition to reforms is indeed staunch, especially with players who stand to lose a lot. But it was also shown time and again that given the right person in the right position, a deal can usually be brokered.

P.S.: Gantar didn’t really say he was “sickened”. It just that The Onion-like title reads well 😉


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PM Bratušek Down A Minister. Just Not The One SDS Was Aiming For.

Late last night, after a 15+ hours of debate, the parliament voted to reject the bid to oust finance minister Uroš Čufer. The motion was filed by SDS of Janez Janša and the two basic charges against Čufer were that he backed the Bank of Slovenia plan for a “controlled liquidation” of Probanka and Factor banka, two small sort-of-investment banks which were mainly vehicles for financing ventures of their owners (although Probanka had a small contingent of “ordinary” customers) as well as the fact that he dismissed Andrej Šircelj, an SDS MP, from the board of the yet-to-become-operational Bad Assets Management Company, a.k.a. bad bank.

Two ministers: one in resignation, the other one not so much. (photo: Aleš Černivec/Delo)

Now, the move-to-oust, or “interpelation” as it is known around here was filed some time ago and it went without saying that the SDS, which was alone in this venture with NSi and SLS watching carefully which way the wind blows, threw at Čufer everything they could get their hands on. Which mostly meant lecturing him at how he should run state finances.

Which is all fine and well, after all this is a democracy of sorts with a relatively well-thought-out system of checks and balances. The same goes for the interpelation instrument. However, what we witnessed yesterday was not so much a case of oppositional oversight as it was a degenerated filibuster where the goal was not to prevent a measure being passed but to drag the proceedings for as long as possible, hoping that somewhere along the way the coalition would drop the ball and fail to produce a majority vote. In fact, this was nothing short of a shit in political tactics. Namely, about a week ago we’ve seen practically the same approach when the parliament debated the 2014 and 2015 budgets. In a multi-day session which culminated in a Thursday all-nighter, the final vote was cast on Friday at 6 in the morning.

The good old days of touch and go

Now, all-night-sessions are not unknown in this part of the world. When shit was hitting the fan while Yugoslavia was disintegrating and the whole Slovenia situation was touch-and-go we used to see them regularly. In fact, one could argue that all-night sessions of the parliament or another high-ranking body were the hallmark of the era. And it seems as if the opposition is trying to bring back the aura of emergency and instability.

Not that there was any lack of urgency to begin with and until the budget was passed, the Bratušek administration sure as hell couldn’t be filed under “stable”. But ever since Janez Janša was toppled he was looking for ways to undermine the current government in any way possible. True, the ruling coalition is perfectly capable to undermine itself (as we’ve seen time and again in the past months) but it would appear there’s some movement in the right direction.

One could argue that Bratušek and Čufer achieved with this budget what Janša and Šušteršič couldn’t. Namely, get at least half a nod from the EU and effectively take threat of the Troika descending off the table at least temporarily. And as demonstrated in the previous post, for Janša the equation is simple: no Troika, no return to power any-time soon. And a derailed budget or a toppled finance minister are not to high a price to pay, apparently. Not to mention inevitable relegation of Slovenia to protectorate status in case the Troika materializes.

Again: Slovenia is not out of the woods yet (not even close) but a hint was given we’re on the right path. And that is not good news for Janša.

It’s about management, stupid

But as someone recently told pengovsky, this country doesn’t have as much of a financial problem as it does have a leadership management problem. Both in government and in business. Which is one of the reasons we find ourselves in the shit we’re in. Case in point being minister of economy and technology Stanko Stepišnik, who was forced to resign yesterday evening over a repeated issue of his tools-manufacturing company Emo Orodjarna applying for and being awarded government grants while he was in office.

Now, there’s a caveat to this: until recently, there was a strict prohibition of companies (co-)owned by public officials applying for tenders with the institutions their owners worked for. I.e.: a company a minister or a member of his family owned (at least partly) could not apply for a grant within his ministry’s purview. Some years ago there was even a complete prohibition for such companies doing any business with any government institution, but that was struck down as unconstitutional. But even this watered-down prohibitive clause was too much for some and was reduced even further by the last Janša administration (albeit at the behest of the SLS) and now stipulates only that people with a conflict of interest should remove themselves from the decision-making process.

And when it transpired that Stepišnik’s company did in fact apply for a government grant at Stepišnik’s ministry, it was all perfectly legal, since Stepišnik did in fact remove himself from the decision-making process. And yet, it failed to dawn on him that simply is not the way things should be done. It took further revelations of his company applying for additional tenders and – this clinched it – apparently falsely stating there are no possible conflicts of interest in one of the tenders for Stanko Stepišnik to finally realise he is in an unsustainable position.

However, since Stepišnik was an MP for Positive Slovenia before assuming ministerial duties, he is bound to return to take his parliamentary seat, making the situation no less more agreeable. Now, arguably, Stepišnik’s resignation is a good omen as it is the second minister in Bratušek administration to resign over a similar conflict of interest (Igor Maher having done so after only 12 days in office) and it shows this government does have a sense of appropriateness. Also, Stepišnik was widely tipped to be let go once PM Bratušek wins the vote of confidence, so there’s no real harm (political or otherwise) in him being replaced.

The necessary vote of confidence

But it does show that – despite the fact some people were mocking Bratušek for tying it to passing of the budget – the recent confidence vote was much more crucial than most people thought. It finally gave her the leg to stand on politically and rallied the coalition around her, at least temporarily. And it appears finance minister Čufer is one of the cornerstones of her political credibility. Which is why she took the somewhat unusual step of the PM addressing the parliament and defend her minister during an interpelation.

This, of course, did not go unnoticed and you can be sure Čufer will find himself the target of much more elaborate attacks and insinuation than just a case of a disgruntled opposition MP who – due to a legal provision, mind you – lost his 6k EUR monthly paycheck in the bad bank which came on top of his 4k monthly MP salary.


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Troika Democracy And The EPP

Although there’s shit going on daily that would warrant a well aimed rant in its general direction (as always in this sorry little excuse for a country), pengovsky has a month-old axe to grind. Not surprisingly, this connects to more recent events, including the European People’s Party trying to meddle with the judicial process and demanding Janez Janša be exempt from whatever fallout (political or otherwise) there may be from the Patria Affair. But parallel to the Passion of Ivan – and very much caused by it – for the past two months or so, the political right is producing a steady stream of calls for the Troika to descend upon Slovenia as soon as possible.

A masterpiece by Matej Avbelj, PhD (source)

Now, that Slovenia is in economic omnishambles is hardly news anymore. But just as they have done for years, part of the political class is still refusing to recognise the reality and is playing hide-and-seek regardless of the cost. You see, back in 2008, when crisis loomed large on the horizon Janez Janša in the last days of his 2004-2008 government famously said that “only an aspirin is needed while the left-wing wants to prescribe an antibiotic to the Slovene economy”.

Well, five years later Slovene economy is in the middle of open-heart surgery while Janez Janša, since conviced of corruption (appeal pending) is saying that we’d all be better off if we just let the Troika handle things from now on. This, of course, has precious little to do with the economy (of which Janša still doesn’t understand didly squat) but rather with that elusive thingie called election victory.

Namely, it goes without saying that Slovenia’s formal appeal for a full bailout would most likely mean yet another early elections, which Janša might actually have a chance of winning (more on the current public sentiment some other time). But to do so, he’d have to paint the current government as a) incompetent and b) illegitimate. In this enterprise he is helped by a plethora of people of various intellectual prowess, not in the least by Matej Avbelj PhD, dean of a small Faculty for State and European Studies which – contrary to its name – mostly offers courses in public administration. A month or so ago Avbelj published a column on a law-oriented portal titled “Troika as a Catalyst for Democracy” (Google translate here).

In the text, Avbelj basically argues (from a supposedly academic point of view) that Slovenia is a state, captured by special interest and dark powers and that elections don’t really count for anything. “Anything” in this case of course translates to “Janša in power”. Because even when Janša was in power and Slovenia witnessed an unprecedented blitz against the media, economy and other sectors, thus paving the way for many a folly we witnessed in the past ten years, the man still claimed Slovenia is run by communists and if he couldn’t find them it just meant he wasn’t looking hard enough. Thus, even when Janša is/was in power, there’s an ongoing conspiracy against him, preventing him from doing the good things.

Well, the reality is there is no conspiracy. Whatever Janša was doing in power wasn’t good on the whole, but he was good at doing it. Sure, this can be said for a couple of other administrations as well, but the difference is that Janša was and still is motivated mostly by perpetuating and increasing his power, politically and otherwise. In this, he often resorted to abusing democratic instruments and occasionally tinkered with undemocratic ones, claiming to have “protected democracy” all along. This goes for calling for Troika as well.

Avbelj, in his texts, assists Janša in this enterprise. The Troika may be many things. but is not a tool of or for democracy. It is comprised of representatives of institutions whose democratic potential ranges from “miniscule” to “none”. The European Commission is a body agreed upon by the EU member states and although approved by the European Parliament, it is hardly subject to a serious checks-and-balances mechanism. The ECB is a monetary, not a representative institution. The IMF doubly so.

Secondly, the way the Troika operates is anything but consensual. In its purest form – as witnessed in Greece time and time again – it is a Godfather-type ensemble which simply dictates terms (how does one say “we’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse” in German?) And even if Slovenia were subject to Troika-light, things would still be a couple of orders of magnitude uglier than they are now.

One of the effects being that it wouldn’t matter a pair of fetid dingo’s kidney who is in power. Even today Slovenia is reportedly (and those reports have not been denied) under daily scrutiny from EC experts (again: unelected!) and right now to a large extend ours is only a pretend economic and political sovereignty. But if the Troika is hell, then Slovenia is purgatory at the moment. We can still hope to get out. With the Troika in the house, not so much.

And so, the logical conclusion is that Janez Janša will stop at nothing to regain power, even if only as a puppet leader with no autonomy whatsoever. Such is the lust – or rather – the need for power. Because Janša as PM stands a much lesser chance of having a verdict against him being upheld than citizen Janša does. This, at least, is the subtext of yesterday’s resolution by the EPP on Slovenia which among other things states that Janša should not be excluded from the political process until final verdict is passed.

In reality, the political star of Janez Janša is fading fast. It is, however, very worrying that a generation of intelectuals has been bread that will happily continue politics done Janša’s way. The only difference being that with him it was a survival tactic, whereas they’ve objectified it into a legitimate political tactic.

EDIT: only minutes ago Janša suggested the government “avoid the Troika by requesting a bank bailout”. QED as far as I’m concerned.


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