Sandy Gill in Sofia -
It’s decision day. Or so Bulgarian opposition leader Boiko Borisov says. In the wake of striking results in the May 25 European Parliament (EP) elections in Bulgaria, he has called for early elections for the national parliament and named today, Wednesday May 28, as the day when the incumbent left-led cabinet of Plamen Oresharski must go.
Speaking at a post-election press conference on May 26, Borisov described this as a “zombie government”, and Sunday’s European elections as a “vote of no-confidence” in it, categorically ruling out support of his GERB party for any new cabinet within the framework of the current “illegitimate” parliament. May 28 is expected to see an actual vote of no confidence in parliament — one being handy from last Friday, when it had been scheduled on the government’s energy policy but shelved for lack of a quorum in parliament (a neat if craven sidestep by pro-government MPs).
Things may not be quite so simple, but it must be admitted that the EP election results represent quite a shake-up. With turnout admittedly low even by Bulgarian EP standards, at below 30% of a (rather overestimated) electorate, the vote put GERB (30.4%) more than 11 percentage points ahead of its main rival, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) — which is the senior partner in the current government. By contrast, the vote of its junior partner, the mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) held up very nicely indeed — at 17.3%, not so far short of the BSP’s 18.9%.
But the other two parties to top the 5.88% barrier for entry into the EP were both newcomers. There’s the idiosyncratically populist Bulgaria Without Censorship (BWC), with 10.66%: established as an anti-establishment, anti-corruption party as recently as January by the mercurial former chat show host Nikolay Barekov. And there’s the Reformist Bloc (6.45%), a coalition formed in the wake of failure by a divided right in parliamentary elections in May last year — and given little chance by some pundits.
Conspicuously below that barrier, with less than 3%, was the extreme nationalist Ataka, the fourth force in the current parliament, having scored 7% in May’s parliamentary poll: Ataka’s doubly humiliated, in fact, since its nationalist rival the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) got a marginally greater share of the vote. And the recent BSP breakaways of ABV (the Alternative for Bulgarian Renaissance) won 4.02%, not up to EP standards but a lot better than some had predicted — and, incidentally, just above the 4% threshold that would have applied if this had been a parliamentary election.
It’s surprising and it’s not. No polling agency had predicted anything like such a gap between GERB and the BSP. But the BSP-led government has consistently had low approval ratings. And the party hasn’t just suffered from votes attracted by ABV: according to BSP-aligned pollster Yurii Aslanov, around 40% of what’s considered the party’s “core electorate” just didn’t bother to vote. The MRF’s electorate, by contrast, was disciplined and solid as usual. Not that this stopped the temperamental Barekov casting aspersions: at his post-election press-conference he professed himself “offended” at the way, he alleged, that the MRF vote (and the BSP’s) was swollen by “gypsies” willing to sell their future for “kyufteta and kebapcheta”, the standard grilled meat snacks of Bulgarian pre-election meetings. Borisov, also vocal on election day on alarming reports from Roma districts, gave a curiously precise 34,000 as the number of “bought” votes for the BSP.
Calls for early elections have not just come from Borisov and his colleagues, but also from the Reformist Bloc and the BWC. Barekov has even named October 26 as the day when they should take place, calling meanwhile for talks leading to guaranteed social policy measures, passage of his pet anti-corruption “Clean Hands Act” and a caretaker government headed by a “consensus figure” — presumably meaning one not appointed, as the constitution prescribes, by his bugbear President Rosen Plevneliev. Cynics say he needs the intervening months to build up BWC’s strength, though Barekov himself cites the new cabinet’s need to start with its own budget — and means to try his own hand at EP politics in the meantime.
All of which presumes that the government goes. However, it remains to be seen whether May 28 will in fact be the “day of decision”. Parliamentary arithmetic is complicated.
Borisov’s GERB currently has 94 MPs (following a bewilderingly vacillating resignation from its parliamentary group over the last week by one Daniel Georgiev). Barekov — whose BWC enjoys the firm support of two renegade MPs — has said that his men will support the no-confidence vote (somewhat to Borisov’s scepticism).
Both BSP and MRF declared continued support for the Oresharski government on election night and, to judge from certain comrades’ utterances, the BSP is more focused on fratricide and leadership change at present than on political suicide, with party leader Sergei Stanishev a likely fall guy. Socialists have argued that their own EP vote combined with the MRF’s still exceeds GERB’s. They might also add that no election with a turnout as low as 30% is much of a guide to anything other than itself: parliamentary turnouts tend to be in the 50-60% range or even higher.
As to the MRF (36 MPs), it would appear to have less reason to fear elections; some signs of rapprochement with Borisov over the last few months mean that a post-electoral deal isn’t quite out of the question; and association with an unpopular government may be seen by some as a getting to be a liability. For the moment, however, MRF leader Lyutvi Mestan will probably support the government but take advantage of the BSP’s woes to enhance his party’s position within it.
If so, things may depend on Ataka and its eccentric and choleric leader Volen Siderov. With the BSP and MRF commanding 119 of 240 parliamentary seats — and a vote of no-confidence needing 121 votes to succeed — Siderov has, when necessary, supported (or abstained benevolently in favour of) the government. Challenged by the NFSB’s nationalist competition and compromised by his association with a government including ethnic Turks, Siderov — deafeningly silent since Sunday — almost certainly doesn’t relish the prospect of elections. How he’ll rationalise that, however, isn’t clear, and bringing down the government could conceivably be seen by the impulsive Siderov as a piece of drama that could revive his fortunes. There’s also the question of how his 22 Ataka colleagues in parliament will see things: surprisingly loyal so far, some may now be open to offers from elsewhere.
And parliamentary votes won’t necessarily decide things. Politics was dominated last year by two waves of mass demonstrations. A government that hangs on unduly could provoke a third.
Meanwhile, it’s not clear either whether, if new elections were held, an especially manageable parliament would result. If voting shares in the EP elections were to be reproduced in general elections — improbable in detail, but a hypothesis worth playing with — GERB would actually have less MPs than it does now (85) and, together with the Reformist Bloc (18) that Borisov is currently touting as his sole preferred ally, would be considerably short of a majority. Barekov, whom Borisov disparages and who has more than once said that Borisov belongs behind bars, could hold the balance. Since Barekov’s dislikes extend across the political spectrum, that could be a problem.
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