By Maria Spirova (Leiden University) and Emilia Zankina (American University in Bulgaria)

In the last two years, Bulgaria has witnessed continued political instability and public discontent: mass protests toppled two governments, two early parliamentary elections failed to produce a stable majority in parliament, and four governments (two of which care-taker) have struggled to address pressing issues in the energy, banking, and social sectors, resulting in inconsistent policy and reform efforts. The current situation in the country promises more of the same than a change in a more positive direction.

The outcome of the October 2014 early elections was becoming evident with the preceding European Parliament that took place several months earlier. At the EP elections, the Citizens for European Development Party (GERB), in power 2009-2013, reestablished its supremacy with over 30% of the vote. Voters clearly expressed their dissatisfaction with the governing coalition of the Socialists (BSP) and the ethnic Turkish party (DPS): the BSP got a little over 18% of the vote, compared to over 30% just a year before. More importantly, the vote promised a much different legislature than the then current one with six parties getting more than 4% of the vote. Several newcomers first made their appearance at the EP elections: the Reformers Bloc (RB), a coalition of five parties, including the traditional center-right parties, SDS and DSB (the two formerly in Parliament as the Blue Coalition (SK), and three new parties; the populist Bulgaria without Censorship (BBTs) founded by the formerly popular journalist Nikolai Barekov; a new nationalist party, the National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), which managed to steal a good number of votes from Ataka, but, like Ataka, failed to pass the threshold; and the Alternative for the Revival of Bulgaria (ABV), a splinter from the BSP formed around former Bulgarian President Parvanov, also failing to pass the threshold.

The early elections – second in a row after the early elections of May 2013 – were held on October 5, 2014. Twenty-five parties and coalitions ran for parliament, as well as three independent candidates; almost half as many as in 2013. The elections sent eight parties to parliament, the most ever since multiparty elections were introduced in the country in 1990. Voter turnout (48.66%) set a record for the lowest ever, but at the same time, the distribution of votes ensured that most of the votes were not “wasted:” 93.4 % of those who cast a ballot, voted for a party that gained representation in parliament. With the exception of 1990, this is the highest level of representation achieved in the country, and in stark contrast with 2013, when about 24% of the votes remained without representation.

GERB emerged as the clear winner with close to 33% of votes and 35% of the seats in Parliament, while the Socialist incumbents (BSP) lost almost half of their votes (15.4%) to place a distant second with 39 MPs. DPS continued to capture most of the minority vote – with 487,134 votes (14.8%), increasing its votes in comparison to 2013 and coming close to surpassing the BSP as the second largest party in parliament. Benefiting from the lower turnout even more, it secured 38 (16%) MPs. The center right was strengthened by the return of the traditional center-right parties as the Reformers’ Bloc (RB), which increased its support since the European Parliament elections and managed to secure the fourth place in Parliament with 23 MPs. The populist BBTs entered Parliament with 11 MPs, though its support decreased since May as it lost some of its coalition partners. The other parties in parliament include the nationalist Ataka, the BSP splinter ABV, and the Patriotic Front (PF) – a new nationalist coalition between NFSB and VMRO (previously in coalition with BBTs). ABV’s success was a harsh blow to the Socialists who lost many of their supporters to ABV, marking the return of a left alternative to the BSP (the previous case being the Euroleft party in the 1997-2001 Parliament).

Such highly fragmented parliament posed a great challenge to government formation. The situation was even worse than the one following the 2013 elections when GERB won the elections, but failed to secure a majority in parliament and form a government, thus having to pass the mandate to the second largest party in Parliament, the BSP. This time, GERB was set on holding on to its mandate by exploring all reasonable options, including a minority coalition.

DPS immediately declared its support for a GERB government, without requesting any ministerial posts in return. Given the large public discontent over the past two years, GERB’s leader, Boyko Borisov, knew better than to accept such an offer that would severely harm GERB’s legitimacy and its prospects for a stable government. Instead, GERB set up a negotiation team which was to meet with all parties represented in parliament and discuss positions on specific issues, as well as coalition options. Although negotiations were not open to the public or the media, press conferences were held after each meeting between GERB and the other parliamentary groups. The proclaimed goal of this format of negotiations was to dissipate any accusations of behind-the-scenes agreements and demonstrate GERB’s impartiality and collegiality towards all political parties in parliament. In practice, this format prolonged the period of government formation and increased tensions among political actors, as well as fears of yet another round of early elections, thus strengthening GERB’s position in the negotiations and weakening that of its opponents. For example, RB viewed itself as the natural ally of GERB in a reformist center-right government and was quite surprised by GERB’s refusal to accept its conditions at the first round of negotiations, while at the same time looking favorable at the Patriotic Front. At the same time, the BSP was contemplating the possibility of a grand coalition, stating its agreement with GERB on many key issues. With the exception of Ataka, which took a radical position refusing to participate in any negotiations that are not publicly broadcasted, all other parties courted GERB in a hope of becoming coalition partners, ridiculing themselves on more than one occasion.[1] This cat and dog game continued for over a month, ultimately producing a government that was approved by Parliament on November 7, 2014.

The new coalition government relies on the support of four political formations – GERB, RB, ABV and the Patriotic Front. Presumably, such coalition was formed after careful examination of the positions of all parties on key issues and inviting in the coalition only those parties whose programs were compatible with GERB’s positions and priorities. Yet, the new coalition spans from the extreme right to the center-left in an ideological diversity that has already proven dysfunctional. Disagreements have sprung on a number of issues including pension reform, energy policy, and the budget, pitting coalition partners against each other, often with a threat of withdrawal of support. Such clashes are no surprise given the very way in which the coalition came to existence – the coalition agreement between GERB and RB and PF was signed in the West room of the Parliament building, while the agreement with ABV was signed in the East room. This symbolism intended to indicate ABV’s reservations towards some of the coalition partners and the coalition as a whole. Moreover, it showed that GERB would have to strike a very delicate balance between its partners that would be renegotiated with every new issue.

The stability of the current government is further threatened by the disproportionate distribution of ministerial posts. In the 21-minister cabinet, GERB holds 13 posts, including that of the prime minister and two deputy prime-ministers. RB has a total of seven ministerial positions, including one deputy prime-minister and the key ministry of economy. Compared to its share of the votes (under 9%) and share of seats (under 10%), RB’s control of a third of the government could be considered a great success for RB, but also a threat to the other junior coalition partners and to the coalition’s unity. ABV was given one post, that of the minister of social care at the rank of deputy prime-minister. The PF, by contrast, was not assigned any ministerial seats despite the fact that it has more MPs than AVB (19 and 11 respectively). Instead, the PF was promised positions in parliamentary commissions, state agencies, etc. The distribution of spoils among the coalition partners has already proven problematic and has resulted in several scandals. Most notable were the refusal of the PF to support the appointment to government positions of several ethnic Turks nominated by RB and the appointment of a PF nominee for the parliamentary commission on culture, which has spurred public outcry and the resignation of the entire cast of the National Theatre. Furthermore, racist comments made by the health and education ministers, both of whom RB appointees, have left the public with a sense of “contagion effect”, i.e. the nationalists have managed to impose their rhetoric to the moderates as opposed to the other way around.

The logic of the coalition-making can be best understood by looking at the distribution of seats in parliament. There are four new formations in parliament (ABV, BBTs, RB, and PF) that hold a quarter of the seats. While some of these formations are coalitions with parties that have been represented in the past and while some of the faces in the brand new parties are not new at all, there is little trust and information as to how these new political formations are likely to behave. This explains the oversized coalition, which has more partners than needed to reach a majority, and consists of one established party and three new formations. Although GERB and RB have had previous interactions and an a somewhat established relation, the same cannot be said of GERB and ABV or GERB and PF. Hence, one could argue that ABV was invited to join the coalition not to reach a majority (a coalition without ABV would still have a majority in parliament), but to offset any unexpected behavior by PF.

Furthermore, the reason why only new parties were invited by GERB as coalition partners can be best understood if looking at the other available options. GERB has differentiated itself from the BSP and DPS during the campaign, who have discredited themselves with the previous government. GERB has had a negative experience with Ataka in the 2009-2013 parliament when Ataka initially supported GERB’s minority government, but then withdrew its support and harshly criticized GERB and its leader, Borisov. Thus, BSP, DPS and Ataka were not an option, leaving the four new parties as the only possible alternatives. Certainly, ABV and its leader Parvanov enjoy greater legitimacy both domestically and internationally than BBTs, which explains choosing one over the other as a coalition partner. Furthermore, the populist BBTs is a riskier choice than the nationalist PF or so it seemed at the time of negotiations.

The distribution of seats in parliament among the eight parties, as well as the unlikely coalition create quite a precarious situation and lead many to believe that new elections are inevitable. Many analysts predict this would happen in 2016 with the presidential elections, when a 2 in 1 formula is likely to be adopted. The coalition partners themselves have modest expectations at best, hoping the current government would last a year at most two. Given the inconclusive results of the last two elections, the main question is whether yet another round of early elections is likely to lead to any improvement in the political situation.

 

Photo source: http://www.novinite.com/articles/164611/Bulgarian+MPs+Approve+New+Cabinet,+Ministers+Sworn+In

[1] Most notable is the disagreement within the Reformists Bloc, with DSB’s leader declaring he would not support Borisov for a prime-minister, while Kuneva pledging support for Borisov in the event that RB becomes a coalition partner.