Can Europe Make It?

Bulgaria in limbo

A messy election in a troubling time leaves Bulgarians still waiting for light.

Dimitar Bechev
12 October 2014
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Boyko Borisov, leader of Bulgaria's GERB party. Flickr/EPP. Some rights reserved.

There is both good and bad news about Bulgaria.

The good news is that the general election on 5 October 2014 did not, as some had feared, enthrone a populist strongman in the mould of Hungary's Viktor Orbán, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić. The centre-right GERB (“Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria”) headed by Boyko Borisov, a former bodyguard and police chief known for his macho persona and folksy ways, scored a victory, sweeping about one-third of the votes cast and humiliating its principal rival, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which trailed far behind with a paltry 15.4%. But proportional representation soured the feat: GERB saw its caucus shrink from 97 to 84 members of parliament. As a result Borisov has no choice but to share power with others in any new cabinet. 

The bad news is that Bulgaria got a fragmented legislature, which bodes ill for the government that will follow, whatever its composition. Beyond GERB and the Socialists, six other parties made it past the 4% threshold: the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF, 14.8%), mostly representing Bulgarian Turks and Muslims; the centre-right Reformist Bloc (RB, 8.8%); the nationalist Patriotic Front (PF, 7.2%); the populist Bulgaria without Censorship (BWC, 5.6%); the ultranationalist Ataka (4.5%); and Alternative for Bulgarian Renaissance, a splinter from the BSP headed by ex-president Georgi Parvanov (ABV, 4.1%).  The last two political outfits benefited from the record low turnout (48.6%, according to the central electoral commission). The post-election arithmetic suggests two things: a three-way coalition is the most likely scenario, and GERB, as the largest party, will form the core of the prospective cabinet. 

But this is where the difficult part begins. With such a diverse parliament, Borisov on the face of it has many options at hand. At a closer glance it gets trickier, for two reasons.

First, the very notion of coalition rule is thoroughly compromised. Bulgaria’s recent experience with multi-party governments (2001-05, 2005-09 and 2013-14, with the ill-fated Plamen Oresharski administration) suggests these are little more than rent-seeking arrangements enabling political elites to parcel the public sector and distribute its spoils to their respective clienteles. MRF, а regular fixture in successive cabinets for the past fifteen years, has earned notoriety thanks to its cosy ties to oligarchs, alleged vote-buying during elections, and unmatched influence over the redistribution of budget resources (European Union funds included). It is far from a coincidence that the appointment of Delyan Peevski, a media tycoon and prominent MRF figure, as head of the state agency for national security (DANS) triggered the citizen protests in June 2013. Despite his tender age, Peevski came to personify the governance model plaguing Bulgarian politics and the economy.

Thus, rather than generate badly needed stability, a coalition might well destroy whatever meagre residue of trust Bulgarian citizens keep with respect to their representatives in power.

Second, GERB has complicated relations with potential partners. The case in point is the RB bloc, which received its initial momentum from the 2013 protests in support of the rule of law, and clean and transparent government. But the parties inside the RB are split on the question of whether Borisov should be at the cabinet’s helm. One view suggests there is no other choice, while others consider GERB’s leader a status-quo player reluctant to clamp down on corruption and state capture. Their misgivings are not ungrounded, as GERB’s first stint in power (2009-13) was, to put it mildly, far from being marked by root-and-branch reforms. 

Low, then lower

Borisov, in the meantime, is not idle. He has been exerting pressure on the Reformers in variety of ways: playing divide-and-rule vis-à-vis the individual parties that make up the RB, threatening to push Bulgaria towards another general elections, and even floating ideas of a grand coalition with the BSP (naturally, quoting the example of Angela Merkel’s Germany and European Union best practice).

These moves should be seen in the context of Borisov's cultivation of increasingly cordial ties with the MRF leadership, as well as the u-turn performed by Peevski’s media -  which until recently portrayed Borisov as an arch-villain but has now rebranded him once more as saviour of the nation. An official unholy alliance between GERB and the MRF would effectively signal the end of any hope for change - and most certainly end efforts for a rapprochement with the RB. It is also hard to envisage the Bloc embracing the BWC, reputed to be little more than a façade for the same oligarchic interests (thus echoing ABV and Ataka, distinguished by their unabashed admiration of Vladimir Putin’s Russia).

This leaves the nationalist PF as the sole option GERB and the RB can (just about) agree upon. Yet even that decision would be difficult to digest and - given the radical views the PF holds on fundamental issues such as ethnic minorities and the EU - is bound to raise eyebrows both internally and abroad.

The critical question is not who sits in the next government and who stays out. Rather, it is what the government could and should do to address pressing concerns. Should it, for instance, apply law-prescribed bankruptcy rules to the Corporate Commericial Bank (CCB), Bulgaria’s fourth biggest lender, still placed under special supervision by the Central Bank, or ram through a bailout package through parliament to inject public money? Or, what should be done to prop up the ailing energy sector dominated by large state-owned enterprises drowning in debt. CCB, the darling of successive governments, went belly up in the summer as collateral damage in a vicious spat between its principal stakeholder, oligarch Tsvetan Vasilev and Peevski/MRF. The continued postponement of the ultimate decision and the repeated attempts to pass the bill to the taxpayer have wrecked public confidence in banks in general, as well as threatening the stability of the overall system.

The energy sector for its part is suffering gross inefficiency, delayed reforms and from sheer political myopia. Behemoth projects ridden by large-scale corruption, such as the Belene nuclear power-plant, now put on hold, and South Stream, in combination with artificially depressed electricity prices, have conjured the spectre of an imminent collapse of the system with devastating consequences.

All that is alarming enough - but it is just the beginning. For Bulgaria badly needs bold steps in critical sectors such as the judiciary, healthcare, education, and the pension system, in order to ensure economic growth and better living standards, reinforce institutions and, over time, restore public trust in politics. 

The chances that a fractious coalition will deliver on such a dauntingly long list of tasks are slim. Once the horse-trading over the new coalition ends, Bulgaria will get a modicum of stability. Yet many Bulgarians are doubtful about the long-term prospects of both the government and the parliament it is rooted in. They have very good reasons to keep expectations low.

 

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