ZAGREB Slovenia's parliament is expected to oust conservative Prime Minister Janez Jansa on Wednesday and give opposition financial expert Alenka Bratusek a one-year mandate to bring the country back from the brink of an international bailout.
Parliament's "constructive no-confidence vote" takes place at the height of a financial crisis in the tiny Alpine euro zone member, which is struggling with a recession and a huge amount of bad loans strangling its banks.
Centre-left Positive Slovenia, led by Bratusek, struck a deal last week with the Social Democrats and two of conservative Jansa's former allies to give her the reins for a year, with an option to keep her at the helm until an election due in 2015.
If confirmed, Bratusek, who turns 43 in March, will become Slovenia's first female prime minister. She had studied management and oversaw the state budget at the Finance Ministry for six years before entering parliament in December 2011.
Slovenia, a former star of post-communist transition, has been gripped by street protests against austerity and corruption since November, as unemployment hit a 14-year high and living standards plunged in the wake of the government's spending cuts.
But despite the external pressure, Jansa was effectively felled when a third member of his ruling bloc walked out over a property scandal exposed by a state anti-graft commission in January, leaving him with just 30 out of 90 seats.
Jansa has denied any wrongdoing.
The new government will have to reform the banking system, which is nursing 7 billion euros of bad loans, increase labor flexibility, sell some state firms and possibly raise the value added tax to reduce the budget gap.
"The new premier should put an end to the credit crunch and rising unemployment. We don't need new austerity but a balance between saving and investing," Igor Antauer of the national guild of craftsmen, the voice of the country's struggling small businesses, told the Delo daily at the weekend.
Bratusek has so far given away few clues about her cabinet make-up or plans to deal with the most serious crisis to hit Slovenia since it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
However, given the differences between the new coalition - which would group the centre-right Civic List and pensioners' party Desus from the previous government with the two centre-left opposition parties - it is not likely to be plain sailing.
Jansa's cabinet had planned to set up a "bad bank", where it would park all the bad loans before recapitalizing and selling the local lenders. Bratusek's PS and the Social Democrats had opposed the plan in parliament, but it was eventually approved.
European Central Bank board member Joerg Asmussen said on Monday the bad bank was a priority if Slovenia wanted to overhaul its economy and retain access to foreign financing. It needs to repay 2 billion euros of maturing debt in mid-2013.
"It looks like the bad bank plan may not fly but they can probably find a different way, there are several variants," said Borut Hocevar, a political analyst at Finance daily newspaper.
Export-oriented Slovenia was badly hit by the global crisis and fell into a new recession last year. The government crisis slowed badly needed reforms and revived speculation it might become a sixth euro zone member in need of a bailout.
Estimates suggest Slovenia could need up to 5 billion euros, mostly for shoring up its banks. Although small, a bailout would be politically awkward when the currency bloc is wrestling with financial woes in Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Cyprus.
It would be much tougher on Slovenia itself, as it would force the government to make more spending and job cuts, under international supervision.
For some Slovenes, who have taken to the streets in their thousands to rally against corruption and the political elite since November, a change of prime minister was only a fig leaf.
"This is only a means to prolong the politicians' shelf-life. People in the street demand that the entire set, all politicians, step down and call early elections. As it is, protests will continue," said Uros Lubej, one of the protesters.
Parliament will probably vote on Bratusek's proposed cabinet in late March.
(Reporting by Zoran Radosavljevic in Zagreb; Editing by Alison Williams)