String of resignations forces Slovenian PM to rethink strategy

String of resignations forces Slovenian PM to rethink strategy
Prime Minister Robert Golob vows Slovenia will emerge from the floods a stronger country. /
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje October 10, 2023

The Slovenian government has recently experienced a wave of resignations and dismissals, prompting scrutiny of the recent adjustments that granted Prime Minister Robert Golob the authority to increase the number of ministries. 

The personnel changes, all involving members of Golob’s Freedom Movement party, raised doubts about the need for these recent changes. They follow the most severe flooding in Slovenia to date, resulting in six fatalities and causing damages estimated at nearly €10bn in August.

Golob has acknowledged that during times of crisis, it would be more efficient to coordinate the efforts of a smaller number of departments.

"When we established the government law last summer, we were not anticipating a government designed for crisis situations, which unfortunately we now find ourselves in. Instead, we were focused on harnessing developmental potentials,” Golob said, according to RTV Slovenia.

One outgoing minister also criticised the lack of collaboration among ministries in the expanded government in his resignation speech to the parliament. 

Expanded government 

Golob's government came to power in June 2022 after the Freedom Movement defeated the conservative Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), led by Janez Jansa. The government now has 19 ministries.

Since then, Golob has admitted that handling fewer ministries would be more manageable. Following the successful referendum last November that ratified the new government law, three additional ministries have been established: the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, the Ministry of the Environment, Climate and Energy, and the Ministry for a Solidarity Future.

Golob said that at present, it seems that a government formed for developmental purposes may not be the most suitable structure during a crisis.

"However, we still have sufficient time to contemplate this and respond accordingly if needed."

When asked about the possibility of merging these ministries, he said that it's not under consideration at the moment, but that it’s never too late for improvements.

Green-left coalition 

The recent ministerial changes don’t threaten Golob’s government as the Freedom Movement has a stable majority along with its coalition partners the Social Democrats (SD) and the Left. However, the changes to raise questions about a coordination among ministries in the expanded government. 

On coming to power and replacing Jansa’s rightwing government, Golob pledged to “give people hope for a better future”. 

At the heart of the Freedom Movement’s programme are green breakthroughs and the creation of conditions for a sustainable economic and social model that will be resilient to the consequences of any financial, energy, food and war crises.

For Golob, tackling rising food and energy prices was an immediate priority, as well as making preparations for autumn, when the next wave of COVID-19 was expected.

The new government also had plans to focus on the green transition, climate change, health and social reforms as well as knowledge-based services.

However, all that changed with the floods that killed several people and caused billions of euros worth of damage. 

Lack of collaboration 

Slovenia’s former minister of natural resources and space, Uros Brezan, expressed regret over the lack of collaboration among government departments in the aftermath of the flooding.

"In my resignation letter, I expressed regret that during the formulation of the reconstruction and development law, government departments did not collaborate more closely, especially in finding solutions for the flood- affected areas," Brezan said in the parliament.

"Therefore, the feedback from the field, affirming our progress, holds significant weight for me. I would like to dismiss the assertion made in my resignation statement last Wednesday, which suggested that municipalities did not promptly receive reconstruction funds through our ministry. It is important to understand that this was beyond their control even before."

Golob said on October 9 that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Space, currently under the temporary leadership of Infrastructure Minister Alenka Bratusek following Brezan's resignation, will prioritise enhancing field effectiveness and strength.

Golob also highlighted that the government has allocated €2.1bn for post-flood reconstruction over the next three years. He stressed the importance of ensuring efficient utilisation of these substantial resources to address flood-related challenges.

Furthermore, Golob expressed confidence that in the upcoming months, there will be improved planning and implementation of reconstruction efforts, as well as better coordination among teams on the ground.

By temporarily merging the teams from the Ministry of Environment and Infrastructure, the government aims to enhance efficiency in bureaucratic processes and the disbursement of funds, particularly in infrastructure renovation, an area that has faced challenges in effectiveness thus far.

Resignations and dismissals 

The latest minister to quit the government was Public Administration Minister Sanja Ajanovic Hovnik, who faced criticism over the expenses for her recent New York business trip and for a potential conflict of interest in a €10mn NGO tendering process. Ajanovic Hovnik resigned on October 6, and Finance Minister Klemen Bostjancic is temporarily heading the ministry.

She stepped down just a few days after Golob decided to replace Minister of Natural Resources and Space Uros Brezan and Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Irena Sinko, due to a loss of trust in their performance. Earlier this month, state secretary at Slovenia’s Health Ministry Valentina Prevolnik Rupel was put forward as the candidate for health minister, after the position had been vacant for almost three months.

Ajanovic Hovnik has been the target of significant media attention in recent weeks, particularly regarding her delegation's extended trip to New York, which drew attention due to its duration and a cost exceeding €33,000. While Ajanovic Hovnik claimed that she has done nothing wrong, she said she did not want the ministry or the government to shoulder the responsibility of defending her against these allegations.

Finance Minister Klemen Bostjancic, who is temporarily assuming leadership of the Ministry of Public Administration, noted that there are several unresolved matters within the ministry. However, he commended the efforts of Ajanovic Hovnik in both negotiating with public sector unions regarding wages and enhancing the efficiency of public administration.

"I will strive to maintain the dialogue, though it would be premature and unfair to anticipate specific outcomes," he stated.

Negotiations between government representatives and public sector unions are ongoing. State secretary Mojca Ramsak has been appointed as the new deputy chief negotiator, succeeding Ajanovic Hovnik. There are still outstanding issues related to the proposal for eliminating wage disparities and the simultaneous transition of positions to the new wage scale.

New appointments 

In the midst of the government team reshuffle, Golob said he will choose new ministers quickly. 

At the health ministry, Valentina Prevolnik Rupel will replace Danijel Besic Loredan, who resigned on July 7 due to disagreements with Golob regarding the healthcare system reforms.

She has extensive expertise in the health system, particularly in financial matters, and has been actively engaged in reform discussions at the ministry.

Golob said he is happy with the choice of Prevolnik Rupel to head the health ministry and he thinks the environment ministry will work better with a new leader.

The prime minister said he firmly believes that healthcare will see the most significant transformations in the upcoming months. There will be ongoing efforts to pass laws for the digitalisation of healthcare and reforms.

Yet, if Prevolnik Rupel assumes the role, she will also need to address the challenges within the ministry, including the issue of acquiring adequately skilled and experienced personnel.

The parliament is also expected to endorse the dismissal of Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Irena Sinko. Golob contends that the minister failed to respond appropriately when the Food Safety Administration mishandled crisis situations, and did not promptly provide accurate information to the public regarding non-compliant or unsafe food products.

Sinko, however, was reluctant to resign. Minister of Defence Marjan Sarec will temporarily oversee the department.

The appointment of new ministers should be finalised within the next three months at the latest.

It’s currently unclear whether more ministerial changes are coming. When asked what he thinks about the work of the ministers of his coalition partners, Golob said that he "adheres to the principle that everyone should first sweep in front of their own doorstep and evaluate their own ministers”. 

He stated: "I believe it's important for each party to focus on their own ministers before passing judgment." Golob added that if any other coalition party deems it necessary to evaluate their ministers, he expects they will inform him. As of now, he hasn't received any such feedback.