By Dragomir Stoyanov (VUZF University)
On March 26, 2017 snap elections were held in Bulgaria. These were the third snap parliamentary elections in the last five years and their results confirmed GERB as the most popular party in Bulgaria. Thus, these were the fourth consecutive national elections in which GERB won parliamentary majority (very unusual for a country with high volatility rates and regular changes of political figures), which allowed the party to form a government for a third time. The new Bulgarian government is once again led by Boyko Borisov, ex-fireman, ex-body guard and twice ex-prime-minister, and the politician with the highest level of popular approval. These snap elections came as a result of Presidential elections at the end of 2016, which were lost by GERB candidate, Tsetska Tsacheva. In order to mobilize the party and to stop the process of its decline, Boyko Borisov called for immediate elections for the Parliament two years before finishing the mandate of his government.
The impact of March elections
The results of the parliamentary elections underline the trends that will have impact on Bulgarian politics in near future. First, GERB, eight years after its first government experience in 2009, is still in shape and dominates right side of the political spectrum. With its more than 1 mln votes, party has no parliamentary competitor for the votes of pro-western oriented Bulgarians supporting market economy. Parties from the so-called authentic right (Reformists’ Bloc and DSB) did not succeed to pass the 4% threshold and will stay out of the Parliament at least until the next elections. Newly established liberal political party, “Da, Bulgaria!”, which during its campaign used strong anti-corruption and anti-status quo rhetoric, did not get elected either. Thus, GERB remains unchallenged right wing party at least for a few more years.
Second, on the left side of the political spectrum, Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) succeeded to return some of its old voters and to achieve a result which helped the party to present itself as the main alternative to GERB. After the collapse of the left wing coalition ABV-Movement 21, which gathered less than 2% of votes, BSP is assured that it remains the only influential left-wing party in the country.
Third development is the good performance of national-populists (VMRO, NFSB and Ataka), united in a coalition ‘United patriots’ (9.3%). Their results demonstrate one more time that in Bulgaria there is an electoral niche for national-populist, Eurosceptic and xenophobic parties. This is the first time when national-populists participate in the government, although in the past they had guaranteed parliamentary support to different governments. Thus, in 2005, Ataka party succeeded to enter the Parliament for the first time. Then other parties tried to build “cordon sanitaire” around Ataka and avoided collaboration with it. However, with time, mainstream parties have become more and more promiscuous in their contacts with national-populist formations. In 2009 Boyko Borisov used the support of Ataka in securing Parliamentary majority; in 2013 government of Oresharski (government composed by DPS and BSP) needed support of Ataka to stay in power, and in 2014 second Borisov government needed parliamentary support of NFSB and VMRO. Following this pattern, after the current elections national-populists became part of the government. During the elections they partially moderated their rhetoric regarding the EU and NATO, in order to become more acceptable as a governing partner. At the same time, part of the national-populist agenda was appropriated by the mainstream parties, BSP and GERB and even the ethnic (Turkish) party DPS. Thus, this newly born coalition is hardly surprising.
Last, the success of populist party ‘Volya’ did not come as a surprise. ‘Volya’, headed by Veselin Mareshki, follows the trend of projects created a few months before the elections and using strong anti-establishment rhetoric. Such projects are often financed by businessmen with controversial reputation and attract lots of media attention. In the past, such projects succeeded in entering the parliament as well – e.g. RZS in 2009 and Bulgaria without Censorship in 2013 .
Having in mind the results of these elections, the composition of the current Parliament and electoral trends, two options for composition of new government existed: coalition government of GERB with national-populists with friendly support of Volya to form third Boyko Borisov government, or BSP in coalition with national-populists and discreet support of DPS. After almost month-long negotiations, first option was realized. GERB and national-populists created a government coalition with the purpose to govern for the next four years. The coalition will be supported by Volya and most probably will have discreet support of DPS. At the moment, the newly formed government looks stable enough to finish the whole term mandate and to manage with Bulgarian Presidency in the European Union (January-June 2018) without significant crises. BSP will be the only explicitly oppositional party in the Parliament and Reformist Bloc, DSB and “Da Bulgaria!” will oppose the coalition government’s policies from outside of the Parliament.
Composition of the Government
During the negotiation period, national-populists and GERB outlined several times that their coalition is based on shared policy principles and small compromises. Still, there are differences between the two partners, which in the future, especially after the Presidency of the EU, can re-surface. One of them is the pro-EU and pro-NATO orientation of GERB and Eurosceptic (VMRO and NFSB) and pro-Russian (Ataka) profile of national-populists. The other potential source of tension could be GERB’s support for the change of the electoral system from proportional to majoritarian. This change, which is quite popular in some parts of the society, will severely disadvantage parties which do not have large national representation, such as ‘United patriots’. On the other side, there is no guarantee that the coalition of nationalists will hold for a long time. There are significant personal tensions among the leaders, which can put under threat the survival of the coalition in the long term.
During the negotiations, GERB and nationalists agreed on a three-level system of the government. On the first level is the Parliament, where MPs of the coalition parties will work together and support government’s policy proposals. On the second level, within the government there is an interesting balance among the coalition partners. Nationalists received four portfolios: defense, environment, economy, and agriculture. In addition, they have deputy ministers in all other ministries and two vice-prime-ministers. GERB occupies the rest of the ministerial positions, and will have deputy ministers in the ministries headed by national-populists. The idea behind this arrangement is that both coalition partners will have certain degree of control in all of the ministries. This will prevent each party from assuming total control of any sector. The third level is that of Political Council, composed of three persons from GERB and three leaders of ‘United patriots’. In practice, this Council will be the governing body of the country, which will take strategic decisions that will be further transformed into policy proposals by the government and eventually voted by the Parliament.
Policies of the new government
On the basis of the documents signed between GERB and the Patriots and the composition of the government the following policies can be expected. Regarding Ministry of Defense, the expectations are that there will be no significant reforms, since there is a lack of competence from the part of the newly appointed minister, Krassimir Karakachanov (VMRO leader) and the lack of political will among military establishment. Without deep reforms of the army its integration into NATO remains problematic, despite declared goals of integration. It is expected that some technical modernization will take place however, which makes this ministerial position highly attractive. Yet, the modernization of human capital is not expected.
Since coming to power in 2009, Ministry of Interior has been Borisov’s favorite. It is the ministry that receives huge budget resources, at the same time providing very modest services for the citizens. With the new minister, Valentin Radev, this trend is expected to continue, although one of the goals declared by the new government and prioritized by the ‘United patriots’ is to guarantee better security for Bulgarian citizens, especially in small provincial towns. Regarding the sensitive sectors of healthcare and education, both positions are occupied by individuals who are rather peripheral in GERB’s internal organization, which will make them highly dependent on personal will of the Prime Minister. In these circumstances, no considerable reforms of these two sectors can be expected.
During the last two Borisov governments, one ministry that received significant attention was the Ministry of Regional Development. Mostly, this had to do with infrastructural projects in Bulgarian regions financed by the EU. Still, there are significant disparities in the regional development, where North-Western Bulgarian region is the poorest in all of the EU. New minister, Nikolai Nankov, was appointed to this position, but since he is coming from the team of the previous minister, no major changes are expected in this sector either. Among other things, this means that severe regional inequalities in Bulgaria will persist.
Interestingly, the new Minister of Environment, Neno Dimov, is coming from a conservative think-thank close to GERB party, but he was nominated to the government not by GERB but by national-populists. He is expected to work against environmental movements in the country by supporting investments in ski resorts and mining industries. Dimov is notorious with his position regarding global warming, which he denies and considers to be a myth perpetuated by left wing forces in order to control the industrial capital. Minister of Economy, Emil Karanikolov, is also a figure that is close to GERB but was nominated by national-populists. According to some liberal media he will represent the interests of Bulgarian tycoon Deliyan Peevski.
Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ekaterina Zaharieva, comes from the team of ex-President Plevneliev, who is an outspoken pro-European supporter of Bulgaria’s integration into NATO. In the 2nd Borisov government she served as a minister of Justice. Her appointment to the position of MFA gives a signal that although one of the partners of the coalition is a union of Eurosceptic parties, both soft (VMRO and NFSB) and hard (Ataka), the main direction of the government is still towards the EU and NATO integration.
Minister of Justice is the ex-speaker of the previous Parliament, Tsetska Tsacheva, who is not a supporter of radical reforms in the judicial system, but prefers slow moderate changes. As a result we can expect criticism of the European Commission regarding the judicial reform to continue.
Ex-Minister of regional Development, Liliana Pavlova is now a Minister of Bulgarian Presidency of the EU. The purpose of this Ministry will be to prepare the country for a smooth Presidency. The expectations are that the successful presidency will help to legitimize the governing coalition. In case of a failure some crisis in the government can be expected.
Minister of Finance, Vladislav Goranov, had served in this position in the previous GERB government. This suggests that Currency Board will be preserved and Bulgaria will continue to follow the recommendation of IMF in its monetary policy. This appointment indicates lack of political will for fast accession to the Eurozone.
All other ministerial positions are occupied by the people who were part of the previous two GERB governments, and no changes in their policies are expected. This situation reflects GERB’s electoral slogan ‘Stability’. This allows to conclude that the newly formed government of GERB and Union of Patriots will be a government of the status quo. The government will strive to preserve the existing balance in the Bulgarian political scene and will abstain from reforms in important spheres of healthcare, education, judiciary, military and internal affairs. As many commentators mentioned after the nomination of the government, the country will receive ‘more of the same’.
Photo source: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-bulgaria-government-idUSKBN17Z0XO