Slovenia: Three ministers less, one year to go

It all started as a normal day. And yet, we have 3 ministers less in the Slovenian government. The Thursday Governmental sessions have always attracted a lot of media attention, but today was special. And all this following the announcement of Prime Minister Janša yesterday that he will bring former PM Rop to court. 3 Ministers had to go: Andrej Bručan (Health), Jure Zupan (Higher Education and Research) and Janez Božič (Transport).

Honestly, this came as a surprise. To almost everyone, no matter what will people say now. The government has been shaken by recent tragic events on the roads and on the rail crossing in Cirkovce. But equally the government has been shaking by the notorious bad management of public tenders in the health sector and the reform of the high education. The former have brought the Minister of Health immense amounts of bad publicity, the latter have brought thousands of students on the streets. But guessing the reaction of Janša was quite difficult.

Bručan was about to face a tough interpellation in the Parliament. He would have to confront allegation of corruption and clientelism in the health sector. Zupan has been constantly criticised by the student organisations, by parts of the academia and even his people from the Ministry. The result was a seriously flawed proposal for reform that made no one happy. Božič was unlucky above all else. In 7 days 10 people died in two tragic accidents. The first one was a rail accident on an unguarded passage, where three passangers in a car died after crashing into a train. The passage was supposed to be made safer during the summer. The deadline passed and people died. Bad luck for Božič, a tragedy for the families of the dead. But he denied objective responsability and instead opted for the removal of the head of the Agency for railways. Few days later there was an even more unfortunate traffic accident during a rush hour on Sunday evening close to Ljubljana. On a section of the highway that was undergoing reparations, a car simply turned around. And killed 7 people. A lot of people appeared on TV saying that the signalisation on that section was confusing. Today, Božič leaves the government.

All three Ministers offered their resignations themselves. A story we have heard before…

But all this has to be put in a wider political frame. The Janša government does not have the best ratings and the Social Democrats have become the largest party in the opinion polls. If there would be elections tomorrow, Borut Pahor would be the big winner. Janša got squeezed in the corner. The summer was bad for the government – the “Sova affair”, supposed pressure on the media, incompetence within some Ministries, negotiations with Croatian PM over the settling of the border conflicts…The latter resulted in a split inside the governing coalition. The People’s Party (SLS) objected the “soft” stance towards the Croatians. At the end of the day, the President of SLS was the one being arrested by Croation police during some border provocations few days before the elections in 2004. The elections that left the Liberal Democrats defeated after more than 10 years in power. And gave power to Janša and the right of the spectrum. The ghosts now chase the other side…

The problem for Janša is now how to rebuild an effective government that can raise his standing in the polls, one year before the general elections. And secondly, how to compose a competent government that will manage to successfully run the EU Presidency due to start on the 1st of January. He has to take into account the key of the distribution among the coalition partners thus offer a replacement to New Slovenia (NSi) and the SLS. However, no matter what happens, it just seems that Health and Transport are two most hopeless portfolios one can get.

One option is as well to kick out SLS, which would keep up with the tradition of this party. The SLS has basically left every government before the end of the mandate. And consequently, luckily, got less and less votes from election to election. By kicking out SLS Janša would keep the negotiations with Croatia under control, but would also make the opposition stronger.

The reaction of Borut Pahor from Brussels about the dismissal of the 3 was quite strong: “We are working on replacing the current government after the elections net year.” Quite uncommon for his style of politics and perhaps the first sign that he in fact was playing the right game by being soft on Janša as long as he was strong and credible.

And all these elements combined mean that we are up for a hot autumn. Today’s changes clearly signal a turn for the government. They are more significant than the changes with the short-lived “Reform Minister” Jože P. Damijan, the Minister for Agriculture or the famous “homosexuals-should-talk-to-the-health-ministry” Minister Drobnič. I think the “EU pact of non-aggression” is history and the government will have problems running the EU show in 2008, if it does not consolidate in the next months. Not a very easy after-holidays start for Janša.

P.S.: On the margins of the Ministerial theatre, the head of the SOVA, Matjaž Å inkovec, was finally dismissed as well. It should have been done before.

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