Vacation, as per von Clausewitz, is a continuation of stress by other means. And while pengovsky planned to post extensively during the vacay it turned out that another von (Moltke, in this case) was right when he observed that no plan survives the initial contact with the enemy. Which makes one wonder just what exactly President Borut Pahor’s plan was yesterday when he faced off with former coalition partner and former leader of now-defunct Zares party Gregor Golobič as they both testified in front of the parliamentary committee investigating the clusterfuck that is the TEŠ 6 power plant in Šoštanj.
Gregor Golobič and Borut Pahor (right) (source: RTVSLO)
Now, sitting presidents in Slovenia don’t often get called to testify in parliamentary investigations. In fact, the last one to have done so was Milan Kučan, testifying in 1995 on the circumstances on the JBTZ affair in 1988, one of the key events in emergence of multi-party democracy in Slovenia and its drive for independence. Additionally, this was – by pengovsky’s admittedly perfunctory count – the very first instance of a sitting Slovenian president facing off with a contradicting witness. This alone makes yesterday’s a truly remarkable event. Then there’s the fact that it was Golobič vs. Pahor, a former and a current political heavy-weight respectively who used to bat for more or less the same team as coalition partners in Pahor’s 2008-2011 government (later brought down by Golobič for reasons including but not limited to TEŠ 6). And secondly – or thirdly, for those keeping count – the mere fact that the showdown at OK TEŠ 6 took place less than two months before the first round of presidential elections makes this a rather extraordinary occurrence.
Also quite remarkable was the fact that Golobič, although still (and probably for all eternity) considered toxic by a vast majority of the political landscape, was met with a more or less neutral crowd. This enabled him to yet again state his case for opposing the project which ballooned from EUR 600 million to EUR 1.5 billion back since 2009, calling it “incinerator of euros” and “the Patria Affair of Pahor’s government”.
Quite a number of committee members were MPs back in the day when the parliament, reluctantly, approved a EUR 400+ million guarantee to secure an
EBRD EIB loan to fund the project, following Pahor’s Social Democrats striking a deal with Janez Janša’s SDS to support the project which was advertised as cheap energy from local coal which will bring back jobs. Sounds familiar, right?
Well, yesterday a lot of committee members who voted in favour of the guarantee worked very hard to put a daylight between themselves and their vote in 2012, effectively leaving Pahor to fend for himself. The only one rushing to his defence (sort of) was Matjaž Han of Social Democrats who once upon a time even admitted TEŠ 6 might not have been the best idea ever. But even he primarily sought to exculpate his party which is enjoying a substantial bump in polls as of late. Defending the president came a distant second.
On that note, there were a couple of quite memorable performances by what is normally a rather bland and forgettable assortment of people’s representatives. Case in point Zvonko Lah of NSi who performed a shameless plug-in for the presidential campaign of his party boss Ljudmila Novak by taking one for the team and pointing out that his party voted against the guarantee even if he himself voted in favour. The other one was Maruša Škopac of SMC who came after Pahor with guns blazing, dressing him down for saying that TEŠ 6 didn’t merit his attention and even if it should, key details were withheld from him and generally granting the president no quarter which irked the man to the point of saying “do you really think the prime minister should busy himself with such matters?” Duh.
For their part, Pahor and Golobič more or less stuck to their previous testimonies (which also drew only scant media attention, see below). For Golobič this meant admitting to his share of responsibility as a minister in the government at the time while elaborating how he and his party have tried to expose the corruption behind the project and alert the government to the fact that the deal didn’t pass the smell test, especially after Golobič and Zares parted ways with economy minister Matej Lahovnik who backed the deal and who was forced to resign and leave Zares. Pahor, on the other hand, kept reiterating that he never considered the project to be strategically important, that the straits in 2009 were dire and that he was happy that at least someone was willing to invest in Slovenia and that key details were hidden from him by people in his office anyhow.
Which is quite a remarkable line of defence when you think about it. Prime minister Pahor didn’t care about TEŠ 6 project and even if he would care, he didn’t know.
And while Golobič insisted that he raised the issue with Pahor repeatedly on various occasions and in various settings, the president kept asking his former coalition partner why didn’t he do so using the “various” item during cabinet meetings. Which is quite a bit of formalism for a project with a price tag amounting of almost one fifth of Slovenian budget at the time.
Now, to be fair, Pahor as PM at the time did have a lot on his plate. Slovenian economy was collapsing at an accelerated rate, bilateral relations with Croatia were at an all-time low and the omnishambles were general. And yet, this is absolutely no excuse. TEŠ6, already the largest investment in the country at the time, ballooned (or, rather, was allowed to balloon) on Pahor’s watch. And the president seems to be acutely aware of this. Bereft of allies in the chamber, Pahor was visibly irritated and uncomfortable.
This close to the election, bringing up TEŠ 6 might have unpredictable consequences for a race which at the moment seems more or less a slam-dunk for President Pahor. Should the parliamentary investigative committee conclude that Pahor is among the people politically responsible for TEŠ 6 project spiralling out of control, Pahor could well find his ratings hurt just enough to force a second round of voting. And there, anything can happen.
But the reality of it is that Pahor needn’t worry. The fact that the hearing was held on the first day of school ensured that reports on TEŠ 6 were pushed way down the slots of prime-time news bulletins. Case in point TV Dnevnik, the flagship news programme of the public broadcaster RTVSLO which ran the report on the Pahor – Golobič face-off only as item number twelve out of twenty-or-so, in the eighteenth minute of a twenty-six minute programme. The privately-owned POP TV did better running the piece as third in row, seven minutes in. But still it remains to be seen if the issue registered with the voters at all. The newspaper coverage of the story was a mixed bag as well, with Delo and Dnevnik up to a point running the story on the first page while Večer tucked it in somewhere inside.
So while Pahor himself showed that his cage is being rattled and feels vulnerable by the affair to the point of performing a variation of Ronald Reagan’s “I have no recollection“, yesterday in all likelihood barely moved the needle with the voters. If it worked for Gipper why shouldn’t it work for Borut, right?
Whether or not this can change depends in part on the final report by the committee which may or may not find that the president is among those responsible in this matter. Until then, however, Borut Pahor should worry about the ever widening field of credible challengers and the increased absurdity of his Instagram account.