With 5000+ people protest-biking in the capital according to police estimates (press reports put the number at twice the range) and hundreds more in several other towns across the country, Muddy Hollows on Friday saw the largest anti-government protest since the Winter of Discontent.
It was an outpouring of anger and frustration that had accumulated during the lockdown and are now boiling over. In part this is due to repeated executive overreach but mostly it was revelations of corruption and ineptitude at the highest levels of the government with regard to procurement of personal protective equipment and medical ventilators needed to curb the Covid-19 epidemic.
Apparently the sixth such protest in a row (pengovsky wasn’t counting), a biking protest is a neat workaround on the social distancing orders, where congregating in public is still forbidden but recreational activities are not, provided people keep apart. So, the protesters got on their bikes and took to the streets demanding that the Janša government step down.
As a sidenote, both readers of this blog will of course notice the similarities between Friday’s protest and the events of 2012/2013. Funny, how a Janša government seems unable to escape charges of corruption and deceit whenever it emerges and no matter how hard it tries.
This government attempted to use the epidemic as a cover to extend its powers, sometimes more, sometimes less successfully. They were, for example, denied activation of policing powers for the army but have managed to further curb the possibilities of a referendum on emergency legislation and – as a result – effectively banned the role of environmental NGOs in spatial planning (a constitutional challenge is expected).
But while these and similar issues drew a lot of media attention, they each concerned a fairly narrow segment of the population and the general public didn’t care that much about them. Certainly not enough to take to the streets en masse.
All that changed when the story about masks and ventilators broke and the economy minister Zdravko Počivalšek made an absolute fucking mess of things, trying to both defend himself and attack those who challenged his assertions that purchases were clean and equipment certified.
Počivalšek’s Painful PPE Pitfalls
So, what gives? Long story short(ish), after Počivalšek and Matej Tonin (defence minister and leader of NSi) fucked up an initial order of several million face-masks and they were basically taken for a ride by a group of international grifters, PM Janša ordered a pan-governmental committee established and take over. This broke with all the usual public procurement protocol, ostensibly to get hands on the much needed goods as quickly as possible.
But while the committee was responsible for deciding which deal gets green-lit and which not, formalities and payment were left to the Agency for Commodity Reserves, an institution wholly unequipped and understaffed to mount an effort this size. To put it bluntly, people who usually deal in buying off excess wheat and milk production now had to sign off on purchases of highly specialised medical equipment.
You can see where this is headed, right? The committee called the shots, the agency signed the deal and acquired the goods. There’s ample room to shift the blame and feign ignorance if things go south.
And south things went.
Even while Počivalšek and Tonin were busy undoing the PR disaster of the PPE swindle they both fell for early in the game, and were getting their photo taken with every batch of equipment that arrived in the country, it was becoming obvious that there was more to these deals that initially met the eye.
Numerous press reports were published on how companies that had no experience in medical equipment were all of a sudden brokering deals worth millions, how deliveries were not as advertised and how faulty or non-certified PPE was distributed to front-line workers.
Suddenly, all those photo-ops with containers full of equipment didn’t seem a good idea anymore. And while Tonin – looking back – did show some restraint in milking the deliveries for his own PR gain, Počivalšek really hugged the shipments tight. This came back to haunt him big time.
Gale sweeps in, has receipts
And then Ivan Gale, a whistleblower from the Agency of Commodity Reserves came forward, claiming that Počivalšek forced him and his boss at the Agency Ivan Zakrajšek, into signing dubious contracts for deals for inferior medical ventilators, deemed unsuitable for treating Covid-19 patients.
Shit obviously hit the fan, especially after it turned out that – for the most part – Gale had the receipts, as the phrase goes. Turns out his surname is nothing if not apt. At least in English.
He also added, that a list of people who contacted the agency and suggested where to get the masks or whom to call to do so, was a venerable who’s who of Slovenian politicians.
Included were former PM and former MEP Lojze Peterle, leader of SLS and one-time political heavyweight Marjan Podobnik of the Podobnik Bros. infamy, leader of SD Dejan Židan and even PM Janša’s wife, Urška Bačovnik Janša. This last case was indeed interesting as the person she suggested did in fact land a deal worth millions, only to have it rescinded, presumably for failure to deliver.
For what is worth, Bačovnik Janša responded that she was only trying to help and added that so was probably everyone else. But when the wife of the Glorious Leader suggests something, it is by definition not simply a suggestion.
Anyhoo, as a result of all of the above (and then some), Zdravko Počivalšek is neck-deep in some serious shit. His ineptitude, naivete and hubris only exacerbate his perilous situation.
That said, the leader of the SMC is being played like a fiddle by people who have been in the game much longer than the ham-fisted politician who three months ago struck a coalition deal with Janez Janša thinking he could provide a liberal check on the Glorious Leader’s authoritarian tendencies.
At first it looked as if Počivalšek was being made the fall guy as the PM was curiously evasive on the subject, while people who worked with the minister on the procurement project were ready to throw him under the bus.
But then the whistleblower Gale started suggesting the shenanigans reached all the way to the top and that PM Janša knew about the complaints and misgivings all along but did absolutely nothing.
This caused the government to engage in some serious damage control. And while they caught a lucky break with regard to the parliamentary investigation and the general ineptitude of the opposition, they had to do some heavy lifting and came up with an 80-page report with the main takeaway that the Šarec government was caught with its pants down and that the Janša government was buying PPE and ventilators at a lower price than its predecessor, on average.
But this line of defense was soon questioned both in methodology and in substance, as questions were again raised on the quality of the purchased PPEs and ventilators (reminding everyone that Počivalšek still owns this particular clusterfuck) as well as over the way the value of the purchase was calculated.
Namely, it turned out that in order to come up with a lower average amount paid on its watch, the Janša administration used net prices without VAT while they included tax and transport costs with what little purchases the Šarec administration made to inflate the final number. Which was a particularly dick move.
Of course the irony of Zdravko Počivalšek being nominally in charge of procurement under both Janša and Šarec governments escaped no-one. And at least one poll shows a large part of the public wanting him out of office, sharpish.
However, what are the chances of the leader of SMC seeing the outside of the government, really?
In a nutshell, not likely.
The nature of Slovenia’s political landscape implies that coalition party leaders are untouchable in their ministerial posts. This means that Janša getting rid of Počivalšek would necessarily mean the SMC walk-out from the coalition as well.
That said, the PM seems to be playing his hand in a way that is making Počivalšek more dependent on Janša than either of them is willing to admit.
Namely, even though Janša needs Počivalšek and can’t really fire him, he can make his life a living hell. Which is precisely what he is doing.
By accusing the previous government of failing to take action, Janša is implicitly criticising Počivalšek as well. And the latest line is that “there may have been errors in decision making and purchasing but we’ll make sure they never happen again”, which is a far cry from Počivalšek’s “there was nothing wrong and I’m proud of my role in this” line.
Writing on the wall
On the surface he may be pretending to have Počivalšek’s back, but Janša is slowly increasing the gulf between himself and the leader of the SMC. And when push comes to shove and a no-confidence vote against him is held, Počivalšek will be desperate for SDS support. Which will of course come at a price.
So, no longer will SMC be the liberal check on the largest coalition party, but more like a wholly owned subsidiary of the SDS.
With that, leaders of the other two coalition parties are seeing the writing on the wall as well.
Just last weekend Matej Tonin posted a tweet where he basically said that while he doesn’t agree with the protests, he recognises the right of the people to hold them and that the government would do well not to ignore the message completely. Which is a pretty run-of-the-mill thing to say in a situation like this.
And yet, in a couple of hours he took the tweet down and replaced it with something much more bland and non-descript.
Speaking of bland and non-descript, DeSUS leader Aleksandra Pivec was almost nowhere to be seen during the epidemic and has re-emerged only recently, when calls to take a position became too loud to ignore.
And yet, in the middle of a corruption scandal she somehow found an ideological battle which she dramatically rejected and went for the “both sides” argument. Curiously, we’re none the wiser regarding her position on the alleged corruption in PPE purchases. Even when one looks carefully between the lines, there’s nothing there.
And just in case anyone is counting on an automatic institutional check of the excesses of the government, don’t hold your breath.
The head of the NPU (essentially, Slovenian FBI) has just been replaced, the anti-graft commission has a new and untested leadership, and the court of audit has said upfront that it intends to be lenient when crunching the numbers.
Of course, that doesn’t mean upfront that any or all of these institutions will not do their jobs or will skip over the evidence, but their ability to act upon it will be hampered.
This would not be the case if they had support in various branches of power, but again, don’t hold your breath for that one either.
The opposition announced plans to open a parliamentary investigation into the matter, but took their sweet fucking time getting their ducks in row, so much so that the coalition managed to devise a counter-strategy in the meantime and rushed to open an investigation on their own. You will not be surprised that the focus of the coalition-led investigation will mostly be the alleged dereliction of duty by the previous government rather than their own monkey business.
But what about the president, I hear you say? Well, the president is worried. Go figure.
So, as things stand now, the government of Janez Janša is set to keep on keeping on. The opposition is still much too fraught to form a viable alternative and no party can really afford an early election, either financially or politically.
The biking protests will apparently continue, and keep the government under pressure. And sooner or later Janša will have go give something to the protesters if he wants to run the country smoothly until the coveted EU Council presidency rerun.
Since he cannot get rid of any of the coalition parties’ leaders (besides, they’re much more useful cowered), pengovsky ventures a guess that the Glorious Leader will sacrifice one of his own, interior minister Aleš Hojs.
Well, that’s another story.