Short Primer On The Šarec Government

One of the peculiarties of the Slovenian parliamentary system are the separate votes on the prime minister and on their cabinet. Which means that once he was appointed PM, Marjan Šarec was only half-done. But as posturing slowly gave way to reality he and his coalition partners were able to agree on a division of labour which broadly goes along the lines of leaders of junior coalition partners getting all the high-profile jobs, LMŠ getting the PM spot and all the crappy jobs with the remaining cabinet members having merely to show up on time and not to screw up too much.

The Šarec Government (source)

The one thing that separates this government from the previous twelve is the fact that Šarec will have two former PMs in his cabinet. Alenka Bratušek and Miro Cerar have both dealt with their own respective large-scale crises and will be able to provide Šarec with some first-hand advice on handling the situation if things suddenly go tits up. Provided, of course, the new PM will want to listen in the first place. Because he already demonstrated that he can have a bit of a fuck you attitude. But we’ll get there. So, apart from Šarec, who’s who in the new pecking order?

Miro Cerar: SMC party leader, foreign minister and Šarec’s immediate predecessor. Probably one of the more sensible postings in the entire cabinet. Not only is the position prestigious enough for a man who just left the top of the pack, it also provides for the possibility of Slovenia having something resembling a coherent foreign policy. After all, foreign minister Cerar is unlikely to see things much differently than prime minister Cerar did. Having said that, Cerar will no longer have the luxury of skimming over the details but will have to wade right into them, pronto. Which might prove a tad difficult.

Case in point being the recent leak of the European Commission Legal Service document on Slovenia taking Croatia to EU court over implementation of the border arbitration award. Long story short, the Legal Service opined Slovenia has a slam-dunk case but the Commission didn’t even debate the matter (not that it had to, but still). Cue howls of indignation across the political spectrum in Muddy Hollows, with everyone from president Pahor on down going apeshit on how the Commission doesn’t acknowledge the arbitration result, how this spells the end of the EU as we know it and basically, how everyone is fucking Slovenia over just because they can.

Needless to say, most of this is wildly inaccurate and borderline manipulative. Thus Cerar, in one of his first interviews as FM, was already forced into clarifications and walkbacks. Because things really are not that simple. And if you’re interested in the nitty-gritty of the latest instalment of the Slovenia-Croatia border saga, here’s a nice little episode of Evropska Četrt podcast by Briški and yours truly on the matter (warning: in Slovenian)

Alenka Bratušek: The other former PM in Šarec’s cabinet and minister of infrastructure. She will lead the arguably most coveted portfolio of this election cycle. With one major infrastructure project in the early stages of implementation and several other in the pipeline, the ministry of infrastructure looks poised to become the main provider of large-scale government contracts. We’re talking billions of euros over the four-year period here.

That Bratušek got the portfolio is due to some late-game brinkmanship (or is that brinkwomanship?) on her part, well after Šarec had hammered out the coalition deal twice over (first with the NSi and then with the Left). Bratušek probably realised she sold her party’s votes too cheap (as did other coalition partners, to be honest) and started making noises about not joining the coalition at all. One last-minute reshuffle later, she was back on board, holding the plum job everyone wanted.

Karl Erjavec: Elections, they say, are a game where 22 parties (give or take) chase the ball for 90 days and in the end, Karl Erjavec joins the coalition. The leader of DeSUS seems to be a fixture of governments for almost a decade and a half. This alone makes him one of the longest-serving people on senior government posts. What is especially surprising is, that served from 2004 until now almost without interruption (save the six-month-long breather he took at the end of the Pahor government in 2010).

Erjavec is known for being partial to jobs that come with plenty of perks, a security detail and a more-or-less well-oiled machinery that requires little intervention from the top. This is why, after three consecutive stints as foreign minister, he is returning to his old hunting ground at the defence ministry, where he fooled around in the 2004-2008 Janša government. To say that Erjavec’s performance on these posts is passable is putting it generously. People in the know like to say he is at his best when he sticks to the script. The moment he feels too comfortable in his position he starts fucking shit up. During his first iteration defence minister he signed the rotten deal that started the whole Patria shitshow and as foreign minister he couldn’t hold his mouth shut on more than one occasion, irking Croatia when irking was needed the least.

As foreign minister he was only really useful (beyond providing the votes in the parliament) in 2013 during the height of Slovenia’s financial crisis when he was dispatched to various French-language media outlets to deliver the “we just need more time” in their native language, adding a bit of style to the crude-but-ultimately-effective talking points devised by then-PM Alenka Bratušek and her finance minister at the time Uroš Čufer.

Dejan Židan: For some reason, the leader of Social Democrats and erstwhile minister of agriculture chose to take over as Speaker of the Parliament. Why he would think this was a good idea is not exactly clear. Perhaps he wants to follow in the footsteps of a former SD leader who once served as Speaker and went on to become PM and ultimately a two-term president of the republic. But Dejan Židan is not Borut Pahor, no matter how much he might think that. The mere fact that six months ahead of the election, when they were riding high in the polls, Židan was acting as if he had the PM post in the bag, only to crash spectacularly weeks before the vote, speaks volumes.

On the other hand, perhaps Židan is not convinced of the longevity of this coalition and is playing it safe by being as far away from the government as physically possible while still using a bulletproof government car. This might well be the case but he should remember that the post of the Sepaker is one of the bargaining chips and that he himself got the post after NSi bailed on the coalition and its leader Matej Tonin found himself voted out after merely two months on the job. And since the SD is widely viewed as the problem child for several election cycles running, no one would really bat an eyelid in throwing Židan under a bus for their own political gains.

Then again, it could be that Židan simply isn’t much of a strategist.

Andrej Bertoncelj: Having been forced to give out all the prestigious posts to his coalition partners, Marjan Šarec and his LMŠ were left with the shit-jobs that noone else wanted. This is probably why Šarec initially wanted Mateja Vraničar Erman to continue as finance minister, this time as a LMŠ appointee rather than a SMC pick that she was in the previous government. This in itself would not present a problem since Vraničar Erman is basically a technocrat and not a political person. She however refused the offer, citing worries that spending pledges in the coalition agreements run afoul of her endeavours to date to keep public finances stable.

Which is why Šarec then picked Andrej Bertoncelj who only five months ago took over as interim board member of SDH (Slovenian Sovereign Holding). In his parliamentary hearing Bertoncelj seemed well dialed-in with regard to the state of the state’s coffers which probably indicates there will not be any huge course corrections in that department. Furthering the point, his predecessor Vraničar Erman will continue at Bertoncelj’s state secretary, the ministry No.2 person, a position she held before being appointed to the top job in 2016

Jernej Pikalo: An old SD hand returning to his old stomping ground, Pikalo served as minister of education in the 2013-2014 Bratušek administration. He is his party’s point man on education since time eternal and is seen as being close to former SD leader Igor Lukšič. While his credentials in the field are impeccable he doesn’t come across as a transformative politician. He may play a more important role time time around, however, as he is by virtue of things, the senior SD minister of the Šarec government.

Boštjan Poklukar: Another LMŠ pick with a shit-shoveling job. In the event of another migrant crisis minister of interior Poklukar will be on the spot and he seems to prefer the current relatively hard-line stance on the issue established by his predecessor Vesna Györkös Žnidar who didn’t exactly endear herself to the liberal crowds by pursuing a heavy handed approach to deportation of migrants and framing the problem solely as a security issue.

Whether Poklukar modifies this approach or at least increases efforts on other areas of managing migrations, such as establishing asylum processing centres which are notoriously unpopular wherever in Slovenia they are suggested, remains to be seen. But not many people are holding their breath, especially as Poklukar is reportedly the guy who brought together PM Šarec and his newly minted fire-breathing National Security Advisor (see below).

Andreja Katič: One measure of Slovenia finally getting back to its boring self could be the number of senior government appointees surviving the election cull. Sadly, this does not include their suitability for the job at hand (see Erjavec, Karl). Andreja Katič is a trusted SD hand who served as minister of defence in the Cerar administration whose cheif claim to fame (or, to be more precise, infamy) was to oversee the armed forces at the time when they battle readniness was officially rated as insufficient.

Arguably, this wasn’t all her fault as the army was subject to the crisis-induced budget cuts just as much or more than any other part of the public sector. However, to earn a negative battle readiness assessment thee years in a row is one for the books. However, as politics trumps performance, Katič will continue in Šarec administration as minister of justice. This has raised many-an-eyebrow as her new portfolio includes administering the judiciary branch (albeit in a limited capacity) as well as overseeing the State Prosecution. Which is a government department which several prominent SD characters have a close relationship of the wrong kind with, mostly as subjects of corruption investigations. Chief among them being the TEŠ 6 clusterfuck. People will be watching this department closely.

Zdravko Počivalšek: The SMC zero-fucks-given minister of economy continues in this capacity as the only true hold-over from the Cerar government. Počivalšek was arg8ably among the best performers of the previous administration and oversaw the sharpest up-tick in foreign investment Slovenia has seen this side of the crisis. And even if one would dismiss Počivalšek’s claim to fame by saying these things were poised to happen by themselves (they weren’t) and that it was a team effort at best (mostly true), Počivalšek seems to know what he is doing. A former CEO of spa Terme Olimia he seems well poised to keep the industry happy. We’ll see how he performs if the economy hits a snag during his tenure.

Ksenija Klampfer: An SMC appointee to the top job at the ministry of labour, family and social affairs. Used to be the head of the Maribor administrative unit. Seems an odd pick for such a wide-ranging job.

Rudi Medved: Another shit-shoveling job left to the LMŠ. Rudi Medved was in fact Šarec’s second pick for the ministry of public administration as his first choice Tugomir Kodelja was hopelessly outgunned at the parliamentary hearing, struggling with even the basics of his portfolio. Enter Rudi Medved, a newly-minted LMŠ MP who barely got his name on his office door and was already put forward as a replacement candidate and apparently did much better. It should be noted, however, that the previous guy was green-lighted as well, with a vote purely along party lines, but everyone in the room saw that he was in fact going nowhere.

Be that as it may, Medved will need to hit the ground running as various public sector unions are already positioning themselves to continue where they left off just before the election campaign kicked in. It will therefore be up to Medved to come up with a solution with regard to pay rises and other benefits that mollifies the unions and doesn’t break the bank. A thankless job, and that’s even before he (most likely) follows in the immensely stupid footsteps of his predecessors and start toying with internet voting.

Samo Fakin: The job that no-one wanted. One of the first things PM Šarec learned when putting together his team was why PM Cerar kept standing by his health minister: because no-one in their right mind wanted that crap of a job. Which is why Samo Fakin as the new health minister is no small matter.

The former long-time boss of the Health Insurance Insititute (basically a state-owned non-profit insurance company that controls access to all basic health services) seems ideally placed to tackle the reform of the sector which – unusually for Slovenia – nearly everyone agrees it badly needs reforming but is at the same time incredibly resistant to change. The special interest, low-level (or even not-so-low-level) corruption and mismanagement are so entrenched that Fakin has his work more than cut out for him. And if he actually does manage to move things forward, it will have been a small miracle.

Jure Leben: The infrastructure wonderboy of the Cerar government who went from hero to zero following a misrepresentation of his academic title (long story, don’t ask) got a fresh start as minister of environment. His to-do list is probably longer than his non-nostrified M.A. that got him in trouble in the first place.

Dejan Prešiček: Who? I mean, there are reports that the SD put him forward as minister of culture, but no-one really knows where he came from and why. For a nation whose primary point of self-identification are language and culture, Slovenian governments (with a few notable exceptions) sure know how to pick generic no-name apparatchiks for the job.

Aleksandra Pivec
: A DeSUS appointee at the helm of ministry of agriculutre. I’ve got nothing.

Peter Jožef Česnik: SAB minister without portfolio in charge of the diaspora. Other than the fact that he presided over the inaugural session of this parliament by virtue of being the oldest MP in the room, his role in this government is only to keep a seat warm. Fun fact: some people say that his propensity to rambling was one of the factors that led to a quick appointment of Matej Tonin as interim Speaker so that there was someone in charge who’d stick to the script during the Independece Day ceremonies.

Marko Bandelli: SAB minister without portfolio in charge of cohesion funds. Is expect to realise sooner or later that his sole purpose is to provide bodycount. But we may never know what was he thinking when he traded the relatively powerful position of the SAB parliamentary group leader for a non-descript government posting.

Damir Črncec: When Šarec tapped him as National Security Adviser all hell broke loose. And for good reason. Damir Črnčec is Slovenia’s very own John Bolton. Spewing fire-breathing anti-immigrant rhetoric and borderline racism, he is the security darling of the hard right. This alone would be enough to rub the left wing of the Šarec coalition in all the wrong ways. Then there’s the fact that Črnčec was Janša’s point man on security apparatus at least from 2012 onwards and was at the centre of the effort to get the Glorious Leader out of the joint in 2014.

Famously, however, soon after Janša was released, Črnčec fell out of favour. Whether Janša thought that he was getting too independent or whether Črnčec thought he wasn’t getting due credit, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Damir Črnec at some point in 2015 publicly said that it was time the SDS leadership was sidelined to honorary positions and that a younger generation took over. That didn’t go down well with Janša (you’d think!) and the two parted ways. Long story short, upon learning that Črnčec was appointed NSA to the PM, Janša tweeted that his former protégé was planted, effectively calling him a double agent.

So Šarec blind-sided everyone by picking Črnčec. While many people were aghast the junior coalition parties remained mute, limiting themselves to saying that this particular post is in the PM’s purview and that they can not do anything about it. Even the Left, which after a couple of days did start making noises that this was not what they signed up to support, is uncharacteristically measured in their response. At least by their standards, anyhow.

The main pitfall for Šarec here isn’t the threat of the Left not actually signing the cooperation agreement (now that the government is operative their usefulness to Šarec has diminished dramatically). It is the expectation that Črnčec will dial it down and start behaving himself for the forseeable future. Šarec said publicly that he expects as much from him lest he be fired. Which sort of sounds sensible. Until you factor that this is the man who outright challenged Janez Janša’s authority, meaning that he can be expected not to bat an eyelid in challenging Šarec’s authority if he senses it would be opportune to do so.

There have also been speculations that the new PM put Črnčec forward as a sort of desensitization trick whereby shoving Črnčec down everyone’s throat other unpopular moves will become slightly more palatable and easier to swallow.

Alternatively, it could be that Šarec is in fact a migration and/or security hard-liner and that – racism and islamophobia apart – sees eye to eye with Črnčec on the issue. At the very least, there seems to be some movement towards an overhaul of the security apparatus parts of which are in a sorry state indeed. Employees of the SOVA, for example, have been on strike for the last nine months. And there have been reports that Šarec and his almost-coalition partner Matej Tonin of the NSi (who heads the parliamentary oversight committee) have similar views on what needs to be done and that they both regard Črnčec as the man to do it.

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.