Govt’s first year in office strongly marked by epidemic

Photo: STA

Ljubljana – The government of Janez Janša took over a year ago, just as the coronavirus epidemic started. Analysts think the cabinet has failed in communication with the public during the epidemic, while businesses assess stimulus measures as mostly good. In foreign policy, the government has moved to strengthen ties with neighbouring countries.

Looking at the government’s first year in office, analyst Andraž Zorko from the pollster Valicon says the government’s work should be assessed at two levels – in dealing with the epidemic, which was formally declared just a day before it took office, and the management of the state outside this framework.

Given that this government was formed after the resignation of the previous one, its legitimacy as a technical government was at the most to manage the epidemic, not to implement the pre-election programme of the party that had won the election, Zorko believes.

“Two parties that have enabled this government (to be formed) had won votes for something that contradicts what this government is implementing today.” Zorko told the STA.

He thinks it is much too early to assess the government’s tackling of the epidemic based on international comparisons of the number of deaths as it is not clear what the situation will be like in for example a year.

Zorko is foremost critical of the government’s communication with the public. “The fact is that the government’s communication has been such that has been making a part of the population feel uneasy, unwell and disapproving. All this of course does not contribute to people acting in line with expectations.”

The government has first made threats and then asked people to cooperate, instead of the other way around, Zorko said.

Zarja Muršič from the data tracker site Covid-19 Sledilnik, an initiative of highly educated volunteers collecting and modelling data on Covid-19, said Slovenia’s response to the pandemic had been based on the capabilities of the healthcare system, which had done an excellent job treating Covid-19 patients.

“However, because of inappropriate communication and the fact that measures were being implemented based on hospitalisations and not based on the spread of the virus in the population we had way too many infections and consequently inevitably deaths,” she said.

She too thinks the importance of people’s cooperation had been underestimated. In order to keep track of how successful the country is in reaching its goals, the collecting of all publicly assessable data and analyses, which should also include how the public is responding to measures, should be much better organised, she believes.

Since cooperation has not been established with all members of the society, “we have unfortunately witnessed a pandemic theatre” and unclear, often unlogical and confusing messages. “Thus we have created a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and reduced connectivity, solidarity and cooperation of all people in the society,” she said.

According to Zorko, the public’s trust in the government as an institution has been very low for a decade regardless of who is on power. But when it comes to managing the epidemic, the public’s trust in the government is nevertheless a bit higher than the trust in the government as an institution.

Pollster Valicon started measuring the former in August, when it was notably higher. In December it dropped significantly and in the last two months it has been improving slightly, which Zorko attributes to easing of coronavirus restrictions and the fact that the government is actually following its exit strategy. Bonuses to different social groups could also have an impact, he says.

Because of the epidemic, the government’s commitments on healthcare from the coalition agreement have been mostly left unimplemented. Nevertheless, the project of cutting waiting times is under way and an overhaul of the public sector pay system has been announced.

Bojan Ivanc, chief analyst at the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GZS), said the government had had a hard time in the past year as it had mostly been busy preparing stimulus packages, “which have to a certain extent addressed the challenges brought about to the economy by the epidemic”.

In Slovenia, the economic indicators were slightly above the EU average in this period, as the country’s GDP dropped by 5.5% while in the eurozone it plunged by 6.4%, he noted.

Ivanc thinks the supportive mechanisms for the labour market have proved to be mostly effective, as 99% of jobs have been preserved. The industry has recovered quickly as well and was about 6% weaker in the entire year, he said. “It was important that we did not repeat the spring scenario in the autumn and that restrictive measures were implemented more prudently.”

However, he is critical of the mechanism of reimbursement of fixed costs for companies, which he said had not actually compensated for the actual fixed costs. The loan guarantee scheme for companies has also turned out to be unattractive, he said.

The state also had to borrow money to contain the epidemic, he noted, but there is not a single economy on the global level whose public debt did not rise significantly last year. “Support mechanisms have come with a cost,” he said.

Slovenia is expected to have “relatively a lot of wiggle room for spending” by 2022, perhaps 2023, he believes, hoping that the primary focus will be to relaunch the economy, especially sectors that have been hit the hardest and those that are crucial for Slovenia’s competitiveness.

In line with the coalition agreement, the government has drawn up a bill on the National Demographic Fund and a bill on de-bureaucratisation in its first year in office.

It has also honoured its commitment about increasing state funding for municipalities, raising it from EUR 589.11 per resident to EUR 623.96 in 2020, and to EUR 628.2 in 2021 and 2022. The municipalities’ costs have further decreased with the municipal costs reduction act.

The procedures for implementing projects in railway and road infrastructure have been sped up and changes to the housing policy are under way.

The government has also fully liberalised fuel prices. Its plans in the energy sector include building the last in the chain of hydro power plants on the lower Sava River, Mokrice.

Several systemic changes are also in the pipeline in agriculture, while digitalisation has been under way in administrative procedures and courts.

In line with its commitment about efficient border protection, the Interior Ministry has prepared legislative changes that introduce stricter conditions for foreigners staying in Slovenia and introduce the notion of a complex crisis, where authorities would have the power to prevent filing for asylum. Changes to the foreigners act and international protection act are still in parliamentary procedures.

The commitments from the coalition agreement on improving the situation in the police force have not been implemented yet with Interior Minister Aleš Hojs agreeing that police officers should be excluded from the public sector pay system while facing criticism over his interference in police work and independence.

The government has also attempted to give additional powers to the army to help police patrol the border but failed to garner sufficient support in parliament twice.

The government has not made any moves towards reintroducing obligatory military duty. But it has changed the defence law to improve the status of soldiers, while the Constitutional Court has stayed the implementation of an act on EUR 780 million in investments in the Slovenian Armed Forces pending a decision on the constitutionality of the legislation.

In foreign policy, the government’s goal has been to strengthen Slovenia’s reputation in Europe and the world and increase credibility within the EU and NATO. Foreign Minister Anže Logar said on several occasions recently that the government had done more to strengthen the country’s image than had been done in years.

In the last year, Slovenia has managed to strengthen dialogue with all its neighbouring countries, including Croatia with which relations have been at a standstill for years.

There has been no progress on Croatia’s implementation of the border arbitration award, while Slovenia has accepted Croatia’s declaring of an exclusive economic zone in the Adriatic Sea with no major objections. Dialogue with Italy has been enhanced on that point as well.

Cooperation with Austria, which maintains border control introduced during the migration crisis, has also intensified as has cooperation with the Visegrad Group.

The government has also announced a new foreign policy strategy but no concrete proposals have been presented yet.

Meanwhile, the opposition has been very critical of the prime minister’s tweets, saying they are undermining Slovenia’s reputation abroad. Janša has raised dust with his tweets on the US election and his arguing with foreign journalists recently.

Changes to the media legislation have not been envisaged in the coalition agreement, but relations with the media and proposed legislative changes affecting mostly the two providers of public media service, RTV Slovenia and the Slovenian Press Agency, have frequently been on the political agenda.