To Viktor Go The Spoils

Prime Minister Janez Janša submitted his list of ministerial appointments for parliament approval Friday last and the first hearings were held Tuesday, with the second batch following today, with the government expected to be sworn in tomorrow. So let’s look at who these men and woman actually are (in order of appearance):

The J Team

Ljudmila Novak (NSi) – Leader of the Christian democratic party Nova Slovenija and the only woman in Janša’s administration is set to become a minister without portfolio, tasked with keeping relations with Slovenian diaspora. The single remaining “ministry-at-large” caused quite a stir. It was created by the previous Janša administration and was tasked primarily to keep tabs on the Slovenian diaspora, both immediately across the border as well as around the world.

Aleš Hojs (NSi) – Minister of defence. Last seen as member of the board of DARS, the Slovene motorway company and a relatively high-profile party member. No-one has any clue as to why exactly he gets to oversee the Slovenian Army, but since qualified defence ministers were few and far between in this country and the armed forces are one of PM Janša’s pet peeves, it can only be assumed he will take suggestions on how to run the ministry from the very top. The key to understanding of his exact role in the office will be whom he picks or is told to pick as his state secretary (the number two person in the ministry).

Senko Pličanič (DLGV) – Minister of justice and public administration. One of the merged ministries, this will be one hell of a portfolio to run. He will be directly responsible for negotiations with public sector unions and those can be a bitch to deal with, as the outgoing government of Borut Pahor can tell you with some authority. Public administration was Gregor Virant‘s portfolio in the first Janša government and it was thought that Virant himself would take the post, quit the position of the president of the parliament and let Karl Erjavec of DeSUS take it. But apparently Virant grew cozy in that chair very quick and made Erjavec take another prestigious position.

Janez Šušteršič (DLGV) – Minister of finance. Arguably the mother of all portfolios and the most difficult right now. Also a sure-fire way for DLGV to sink even lower in public opinion polls (if that is at all possible, since they are already scoring on the low side of single digits). Šušteršič aims to cut up to 800 million euro of budget expenses in the first year alone. Since that comprises about 9% of the entire budget, shit is bound to hit the fan really soon.

Radovan Žerjav (SLS)Minister of economy. Again, no clue as to why exactly he gets to run this particular portfolio, since he is a chemist by trade and a politician by vocation, while the economy in this country is more or less in deep shit. Even more, he was the principal sponsor of a law which prevents people who held top positions in a company that went out of business to start a new company within ten years. As with every other coalition party leader, this particular nomination seems to be more a matter of prestige than actual competence.

Franci Bogovič (SLS) – Minister of agriculture and environment. Apparently capable and knows his way around both primary fields of work. His problem is that agriculture and environment are usually at odds with each other (which is why they were kept as separate portfolios) and Bogovič might have a problem reconciling both.

Tomaž Gantar (DeSUS) – Minister of health. Former mayor of Izola municipality and former head of Izola hospital should generally be on top of things. Hopefully, he will work to improve the reform of the health system which was drafted by his predecessor Dorijan Marušič and will not go back to square one.

Karl Viktor Erjavec (DeSUS) – Minister of foreign affairs. Ah yes, to Viktor go the spoils. Failing to secure the comfy position of the parliament president, leader of DeSUS went for the next best thing. He will now become the diplomatic face of Slovenia. And just when we thought that Dimitrij Rupel is the worst that can happen to a country’s foreign policy. Karl Erjavec has zero mileage in the field. OK, so he did go to NATO and EU meetings, but seriously… As foreign minister he is expected to be proactive and have a general idea of this country’s positions long before anyone asks us our opinion. The European deck of cards is being reshuffled and it will take a master poker player to bluff a country’s way out of this one. With Viktor as the foreign affairs boss, this looks highly unlikely. But then again, he can crack a joke like no other man can. Surely that must be worth something….

Vinko Gorenak (SDS) – Internal affairs. A commanding officer of a police station way back in socialist times (today that would probably translate into senior member of security forces of a totalitarian regime), he knows his way around police and internal affairs. His problem is the fact that he also gets to exert partial control over state prosecution, which was transferred from justice to internal affairs. With Janez Janša still in court over Patria affair, it’s way too close to comfort to have a senior SDS member be able to, say, launch a special investigation into the prosecutor who is trying to get Janša convicted. If you catch my drift…

Zvonko Černač (SDS) – Minister of infrastructure and spatial planning. Seems to be close to Janša lately and has jumped in as his boss’ chauffeur on occasion. Other than having some mediocre experience in the municipality of Postojna, it is a mystery (wrapped inside a riddle, hidden in an enigma) what exactly makes Černač so special as to be awarded the newly crafted infrastructure ministry which will arguably be crucial in any and all attempts to kick-start the economy (if that is at all possible, mind you). Well, maybe he’ll be just there to make sure the right folks get government contracts. Or maybe he’ll surprise us all and actually do something. He could, for example, go about making plans for upgrading Slovenian railway system.

Žiga Turk (SDS) – Minister for education, science, culture and sport. Well, the Ljubljana city councilman (he will vacate the post tomorrow as he is sworn in as minister) has his hands full. While he was busy going over his slides in a parliamentary hearing, couple of hundred of artists and culture-related people were busy decrying merging of culture portfolio with all the other (these were previously three separate ministries) and even burned a contra-bass as a sign of protest (in case you don’t get it: the message is we rather do it ourselves than let you enjoy it). It is ironic that demotion of cultural portfolio to the level of a state secretary brought together people who would usually rather cross a busy street than meet each other on the pavement. Culture is sacred for many a Slovenian (after all, our cultural identity was formed long before we even thought of calling ourselves a nation) and rather than just being a budget item, a lot of people took this a symbolic gesture of anti-patriotism by a coalition which for all intents and purposes draws heavily on patriotic feelings. It is therefore little wonder that the minister-to-be was awaited by protesters and booed to the point of being called “a stink” by a heckler. Which, for the record, was totally uncalled for, below the belt and utterly undeserved. Protesting and marching is one thing, calling names quite another.

And finally, Andrej Vizjak (SDS) as the new minister for labour, family and social affairs. Minister of economy in the first Janša administration apparently has some background in the field so it is expected that he will not be a complete failure, although it should be ridiculously fun to watch how he tackles unemployment while finance minister Šušteršič is shaving 800 million of the budget most of which goes to Vizjak’s portofolio as it is.

At any rate, these are all the king’s men. Nobody was really impressed by the list and even Janša himself said that this is the best possible team under the circumstances. But the trick is that this “best possible team” will have to produce the “best result ever” regardless of the circumstances, lest it go down in history as “the team that couldn’t”. If Pahor’s government way fighting an up-hill battle especially in economic policy, Janša’s ministers will be forced to climb vertically. Well, all except one. It is clear that – once again – Karl Erjavec already came out on top. Question is, will he stay there or is this just the beginning of a quick and uncontrolled descent…

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Janša 2.0

While leaders of the new centre right coalition busied themselves with signing the coalition agreement at high noon on Wednesday, President Danilo Türk rained on their parade a bit, calling a press conference at exactly the same time, where he announced that he will not be making another PM nomination and added that he will leave it to the parliamentary groups to settle the matter as they see fit. In other words, he refused to go with the flow and nominate SDS leader Janez Janša for the PM post.

Signing of the coalition agreement. Looks like the Presidium of the Central Committee 🙂 (Photo: BoBo/RTVSLO)

In all honesty, the new PM apparent was quite unfazed by this, as he had already secured a majority of 52 votes (50 coalition plus both minorities MPs) and will be laughing all the way to the voting booth, as the parliament is scheduled to vote on Janša’s PM bid later today, but the president’s remarks and moves are not to be just discarded. Firstly, because he’s the president and secondly, because he went all out against Janša, thus firing his first salvo in a possible (but not yet confirmed) re-election bid. In fact, The Prez pulled precious few punches, saying that he still considers Zoran Janković as an appropriate candidate and since his first choice did not secure a majority, he did not make another nomination. He added that in his view Janša does not have the necessary legitimacy for the nomination due to the fact that he is on trial for the Patria Affair and had therefore left it to the coalition itself to do the magic.

The feud

The feud between Türk and Janša goes way back, all the way to the election Sunday 2007 when Danilo Türk won the presidential elections by a landslide in what was – among other things – a protest vote against the first Janša government, an event which saw Janša go into sulking mode, unleash the war against tycoons (which he helped create) and, as it turned out, set the tone of the political debate which lasts to this very day. There was a lot of bad blood between the two, especially after Janša’s SDS tried to implicate Türk in the Velikovec bombing of 1979 by means of creative photocopying archive documents. It was in the aftermath of the Archivegate that Türk said in an interview that the politics of Janez Janša should be rejected and later on that he will be very careful as to whom he will nominate for the PM position. So, in one sense The Prez remained true to his word (the will-nominate/will-not-nominate flip-flop notwithstanding). However, in making his point and exercising – albeit necessary – forays into daily politics, The Prez again threaded on thin ice.

Saying that Janša does not have the legitimacy for the PM post is tricky at best. Now, to be sure, Janša indeed does have a huge legitimacy problem, but that is not for the president to say. Or, if the president does say it, he should be damn well prepared to do everything constitutionally possible to make sure Janša does not clinch the nomination. Namely, as president, Danilo Türk swore to uphold the constitution and act in the best interest of the country. One of the basic constitutional principles is the presumption of innocence. Thus, until proven guilty, Janša is free to run and be elected to any office.

If you do it, do it with style

Alternatively, if being on trial and/or having been indicted is the new standard, than the president should not only make a token effort to have the parliament elect a PM with a clean record, so to speak, but should use any and all procedural possibilities available to him, including nominating another candidate and – this is vital – speaking before the parliament on the issue. For the president can ask (and is usually granted the request) to address the parliament on whatever issue he (or she) sees fit. Granted, this would in all likelihood change nothing, but neither does just saying that Janša has a legitimacy problem and leave it at that. Both approaches are sure to produce an ominous backlash especially from SDS faithful, but hey – if you gotta go, you do it with style.

Pengovsky would be much more pleased if The Prez did none of the above. A short press release saying that he will not be making a nomination would suffice. Even more, it would perhaps be politically opportune for the president to in fact nominate Janša, just for the sake of doing the unexpected, but that’s water under the bridge now.

History repeating

So, unless things go badly wrong for the SDS leader, Slovenia will sport Janša 2.0 in a couple of hours. History, they say, tends to repeat itself. First as a tragedy and then as a farce. And there are indications that Janša’s second term will be something of farce.

Not only is the PM-apparent on trial in one of the biggest corruption scandals in the (albeit short) history of this country. Two out of four other coalition leaders are, eeer, judicially challenged as well. Karl Erjavec of DeSUS was cleared of charges of abuse of powers and negligence in a case tangential to Patria Affair, but the case in on appeal and the verdict is still not in. Gregor Virant, however, was recently sentenced to a month in prison with a two-year probation period because of libel (pending appeal). One of these two men will be running the parliament for the next few years, the other will probably be named a minister.

Radovan Žerjav is also in court in civil case (the fallen construction tycoon Ivan Zidar sued him for slander) which leaves Ljudmila Novak of NSi the only one with a relatively clean record. Which is not surprising, since she took over the party after it was evicted from the parliament in 2008 elections. And just to complete the circle, the apparent leader of the opposition Zoran Janković is reported to have been indicted over tax evasion and abuse of power as well. Now, it is possible that all of the above will sputter out into nothingness and everyone will in the end be cleared (which is why presumption of innocence is so important) but if you talk credibility and/or legitimacy, there’s precious little to go around as it is.

Balking at 300 million, not blinking at 1 billion

Additionally, the new coalition vowed to cut budget expenses for something between 800 million to 1 billion euro in its first term year. Which is somwhere between 8 to 10% of the annual Slovenian budget. While budgetary discipline is a noble goal and even if we can agree to disagree on approaches (some people say less radical cuts would produce better results), the question at hand is: when the outgoing government proposed a 300 million cut in public sector expenditures, the SDS went apeshit over it and refused to support the emergency law, threatening a referendum, yet now the very same SDS and its coalition want a 800 million cut and expect it to just sail through? Credibility my ass. Not to mention the fact that the whole of Europe already realised that too much austerity will stifle what little growth potential there is.

Saving on watering office plants

And lastly, there’s the eyewash with the “thinning of the government”. Janša’s coalition just passed a new law on government (which, incidentally, Janša 1.0 was the last to amend into its present form) and reduced the number of ministries from eighteen to eleven, merging a few portfolios and reshuffling scope of powers for others. Two changes that stand out are the merger of education, sports and culture portfolios (previously three separate ministries) and moving the Office of the State Prosecutor General from under justice ministry, to ministry of internal affairs (colloquially known as the ministry for police). Both of these are problematic at best.

Until now, culture was a relatively important portfolio, which included media policy oversight, not to mention keeping the country’s cultural infrastructure (museums, theatres, galleries and such) afloat and even building a couple of new ones. Sure, money can always be spent better, but what kind of message does it send, when a government reduces a culture potrfolio to the level of a secretariat, while farming, fisheries and agriculture, something that would be long dead if it weren’t for EU funds, still remains a full-blooded ministry?

As for shifting prosecution from justice to internal affairs, this is creating an unpleasant whiff of political control over the prosecution. You see, on paper, both the Police and the Office of Prosecutor General are relatively autonomous and it shouldn’t really matter what ministry they’re under. But a minister can still execute control over both agencies and of course it is better to have just one minister keep tabs on both the cops and the prosecutors. Especially if the minister in question is an SDS member and not from the DLGV quota as Gregor Virant had hoped when he demanded the move be made in an (again) naive hope that he will prevent up-front any Janša’s attempts to influence the judicial proceedings against him.

But lastly, the whole “thinning of the government” thing is not worth a pair of fetid dingo’s kidneys. A true government reorganisation would encompass a redesign of policies and finances and remodelling of the bureaucratic apparatus which would reflect the new priorities. There was a half-hearted attempt at that somewhere during Pahor’s government and it didn’t really catch on. What the new coalition proposes is nothing but a few office changes which does shit even in terms of cutting down number of various government offices, agencies and directorates, let alone in terms of policy redesign (or horizontal interoperability, to use the more fancy term). In short: the only savings that will come from there will be lower bills for watering flowers in ministers’ offices.

With that in mind, pengovsky is keenly expecting the first address by the new PM-apparent and can’t wait to see whom he picks as ministers.

EDIT: This post was written over the course of the week an scheduled for publishing on Friday afternoon. Point being, I had no way of knowing Primož Cirman of Dnevnik newspaper will be using the exact same title in his lead in today’s Objektiv 🙂

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Slovenian Elections: Last Call

So, this is it. Election silence commences tonight at midnight and it’s hight time pengovsky wraps things up. This is why today’s tittage was rescheduled but tune in tomorrow (hint, hint :mrgree: ). Virtually all polls predict a decisive victory by Janez Janša‘s Slovene Democratic Party, with Zoran Janković‘s Positive Slovenia coming in second with about 10 percent gap. Further down the ladder, Borut Pahor‘s Social Democrats seem poised to finish third, ahead of Gregor Virant‘s Citizens List.

Poll numbers over the course of the campaign (see note at the bottom)

There are a couple of ways to look at this campaign. First, the fact that Top Four were reduced to Top Three. Gregor Virant crashed and burned early in the game and his Allowancegate was a gift that kept on giving, cutting him down from almost 20% to single digits. He just wasn’t up to it and went from bad to worse, not being able to stop digging even though he was in a deep hole already. In contrast, neither Zoran Janković nor Janez Janša did a particularly good job at explaining discrepancies in their financial and real estate reports but seem to have suffered very little in the polls (until today, that is). This can to an extent be explained by the fact that their voters are rather devoted to their respective political leader, but more likely it has to do with their fierce refusal to admit to have done anything wrong, even though Janković failed to declare a small part of his real estate to the anti-corruption commission (as in: did not tell he owns the wood). Also, he was anything but quick on his feet to disclose his financial obligations, but in the end did just that.

His main opponent, however, got into a lot of hot water demanding everyone else discloses their accounts and property, but then dragged his feet doing so himself. In fact, just before yesterday’s debate on POP TV his party claimed that their scanner broke down. Now that SDS and scanners don’t mix was well demonstrated in the case of creative photocopying and sure enough it turned out that this time too not everything was fine and dandy with Janša’s documents. The whole thing was revolving around how the SDS leader bought, sold and managed his real estate and it turned out that the initial contract, where he sold his existing property and bought an elite apartment in Ljubljana is fishy, with the buyer (a construction company which won many government contracts including construction of defence ministry building during Janša’s days at the ministry) being overly generous to the point of making economically unsound decisions. Re

But today, Mladina weekly, which is conducting a tracking poll over the last week, detected a marked drop in SDS’ ratings, virtually unchanged result for Janković and a rise for Social Democrats. According to this Janković is trailing Janša by only 3,6 percent. And that means that a lot of people will have a nervous 44 hour-wait.

Looking at it from another point of view, a few permanent fixtures are on the brink of dropping out of the parliament. LDS and Zares are registering low single digit percentage points and their only saving grace can be the fact that with such low numbers the margin of error is relatively huge and that it is possible that their voters are simply not detected. We’ll know for sure come Sunday. But even if both parties drop out, this will not last. Just as with Christian Democratic NSi of Ljudmila Novak, which dropped out in 2008 and looks poised to make it back, the (social-) liberal option has its rightful place in the parliament and when the pendulum swings the other way, they will most likely make it back over the 4%. But they are trying very hard to prevent dropping out in the first place. Zares of Gregor Golobič is throwing everything it has into the field (literally, they’re running a grass-roots campaign) while LDS of Katarina Kresal is beating the human-rights drum, reminding people of the 2004-2008 Janša government.

Another point of view is the dichotomy between fluff and stuff. There were some platform points that stood out: emergency financial legislation, TEŠ 6, pension and labour market reforms, some notable successes of the outgoing government (Arbitration Agreement, rectifying the issue of the Erased, Family Code, although pending a decision of the constitutional court) and so on. On the other hand, this was probably one of the most vicious, brutal and personal campaigns in recent history. Families were dragged through the mud, wives were interviewed standing next to their husbands during a debate, names were called and ad hominem attacks were the norm, especially by rank-and-file members. As per usual, journalists (yours truly included) were not spared.

But perhaps the single most defining moment of this campaign was emergence of social media as an important tool in the campaign. For the first time campaign-related tweets were published in near real time during debates (on POP TV) and the inflation of politicians, their supporters and fake accounts generated to create the necessary buzz and hate speech was – well – admirable (in a perverse sort of way). Also, social media – Twitter in particular – offered a rare insight into the campaign mindset. 140 characters are just enough to get the message across without too much spin and one could see how some politicians who usually act normally (even though they might not agree with you) went positively bananas, denouncing everyone who didn’t dance to their tune. God forbid someone actually pointed out basic flaws in their politics. On the other hand some politicians embraced Twitter and are actually using it to broaden the scope of the immediate debate. Then, of course, are also those who block other users to keep a neat and embarrassment-free timeline.

At any rate, the run is over, pengovsky decided on his vote long before the campaign began and all that’s left to do is to go out and vote. Whoever wins will probably go belly-up (politically speaking)relatively soon as the clusterfuck this country and this continent are headed into is worse than anything this generation has ever seen. We’ll probably have another elections in 2014. Provided there will be anything left to vote on.

So, tune in tomorrow for a generous helping of Friday Foxies and expect exit poll results on Sunday, some time after 7 pm local.

N.B.: Graph data is compiled from different polls with different sets of questions and different samples, so it is not directly comparable from a scientific point of view. Data still available as .xls file for download.

P.S.: Commenting is closed for this one until Sunday evening, but you can still place trackbacks and pingbacks to this pots.

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Slovenian Elections: The Great (TV) Debate

Touchy subject. Tomorrow will see the first two debates since the election campaign officially began last Friday. In fact, a small ratings war is about to ensue between RTVSLO (state television) and privately-owned POP TV. The former is to broadcast its flagship high-octane conflict-prone programme Pogledi Slovenije at 2000hrs (until 2130 approx.) while POP TV is to start the first debate at 2055hrs and lasting well into the night. But there’s a catch…

Pogledi Slovenije: No seats at this table for Zares, LDS, NSi and SNS (source)

Although the law on RTVSLO specifies that it has to treat all parliamentary parties equally (and – to accommodate the Christian Democratic NSi – the definition of “parliamentary” has been stretched to include parties in the European Parliament), authors of Pogledi Slovenije decided not to invite leaders of Zares, LDS, NSi and SNS, Gregor Golobič, Katarina Kresal, Ljudmila Novak and Zmago Jelinčič. Obviously, the choice of guests in the studio is ultimately editorial one. Journalists hate to be told what to do. However, this is state/public television we’re talking about. The taxpayers are paying 12 euro per month per household in order to finance it and at least during election campaign they should be entitled to a larger and less editorialised scope of relevant information.

Producers of the show claim that tomorrow’s programme is not an election campaign debate and that they’ve selected guests according to their poll ratings, where the four parties that were left out indeed score only a couple of percent each. Now, technically, Campaign Rules of RTVSLO state that campaign-related programming will start on 14 November. The programme is on tomorrow, on the 10th, so everything should be OK. Really? No. The law on RTVSLO states that all parliamentary parties should be represented during the election campaign – and that started Friday last. So, on one hand we have RTVSLO’s campaign rules, on the other the law under which it operates. Guess which takes precedence. What’s more, even though producers and the info desk (under whose jurisdiction falls the Pogledi Slovenije programme) claim this is not an election debate, it is being marketed as such.

So, whether one likes it or not, not inviting Kresal, Golobič, Novak and Jelinčič is unfair and possibly not legal. Ljudmila Novak and her NSi (for which RTVSLO usually bent over backwards to find it a programming slot) seem to be aware of that as they threatened legal action to gain equal access to programming. Should they succeed (although it is hard to see how a court would decide on this in only a few days), Zares, LDS and SNS would probably applaud wildly, especially since the latter three parties co-signed a letter demanding the very same thing from RTVSLO. However, no dice.

Slightly off-topic. A funny if somewhat bizarre debate ensued on Twitter when it emerged that LDS and Zares went into cahoots with the nationalists over air time. Some people were appalled that the two progressive and libertarian parties would join forces with a nationalistic party whose leadership is often bigoted, insulting and even retarded and promotes values which are anything but civilised. Some say that any level of cooperation with the nationalists is unacceptable and that LDS and Zares are losing credibility for it.

Pengovsky begs to differ. Politics makes for strange bedfellows and it should not be at all surprising that liberals and nationalists find themselves on the same side. This is one issue, where the parties’ immediate interests are more or less the same, albeit with different motivations. They are not running bag for anyone, nor are they signalling long-term cooperation. Winston Churchill once famously said that if Hitler invaded Hell, he would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons. While nowhere near the same order of magnitude, the mechanics are more or less the same. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of picking your allies. Sometimes you’re just happy there’s someone else fighting on your side.

Interestingly enough, the privately owned POP TV has no problem hosting leaders of all parliamentary parties plus the two heavywight newcomers that very same evening.

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