Bulgaria's GERB, nationalist United Patriots agree on ruling programme

Bulgaria's GERB, nationalist United Patriots agree on ruling programme
By Dimitar Koychev in Sofia April 14, 2017

The centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) – which won the snap elections last month – and the nationalist United Patriots coalition have agreed on a joint programme for ruling the Balkan country until 2021, GERB said in an April 13 statement. Talks about the distribution of ministerial posts will begin next week, and a significantly more detailed programme will be prepared as well.

A coalition between GERB and the United Patriots was widely expected after GERB won the election but without enough seats to form a government alone. While this will be the first time the hard right formation is in government, two of its members - the National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) and VMRO - previously made up the Patriotic Front, which supported the last GERB government. 

The development of the programme was a difficult process, but I am glad that … we managed to reach agreement and were guided by the principle ‘Bulgaria above everything’,” Borissov wrote on his Facebook page.

“If we had not agreed, we must have gone to new elections in the next few months. If we also take into account the indisputably weak caretaker government, more months without a parliament would be even risky.”

In the early parliamentary elections held on March 26 GERB won 95 seats in the 240-seat parliament. Its main opponent, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), has 80 seats. It is followed by the United Patriots (27 MPs), the predominantly ethnic-Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS, 26) and the centre-right Volya (with 12 seats).

A coalition between GERB and the United Patriots will hence have a majority of 122 votes in the assembly. Previously, it was agreed that Borissov will be prime minister for a third term, and that the new government will rule for its entire four-year term. President Rumen Radev has scheduled the first session of the newly elected parliament for April 19.

Despite the inclusion of the United Patriots in the government, the foreign policy goals set out in the programme appear broadly in line with those of the last GERB government which resigned in 2016. 

The programme supports Bulgaria's continued Euro-Atlantic integration and a pragmatic foreign policy led by the national interest. Stopping the flow of migrants at Turkey’s borders should be a priority for the EU, it adds.

The document envisages increasing defence expenditures until they reach 2% of GDP at the end of the forthcoming four-year term, as required under Bulgaria's commitments as a Nato member.

In the area of justice, there are plans to continue judiciary reform. The fight against corruption will continue with the adoption of a new anti-corruption law. The future ruling coalition also envisages the adoption of a new criminal code. Quarterly reporting to the parliament will be required for the prosecutor general and the chairpersons of the Supreme Court of Cassation and the Supreme Administrative Court. The future ruling coalition also pledges to implement by end-2018 the 17 recommendations in the latest report under the European Commission's Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM).

GERB and the United Patriots have already reached agreement on a pensions hike, one of the key issues pushed by the nationalists. 

The programme envisages raising the minimum pension to BGN200 (€102.3) this year from the current BGN161.38. The hike will be implemented in two stages – to BGN180 as of July 1 and to BGN200 as of October 1. The original demand of the United Patriots was for a hike in the minimum pension to BGN300. A longer-term goal is raising all pensions granted before 2010 with funds saved from unlawfully granted disability pensions.

The programme envisages preserving the rates of both direct taxes and VAT. The new government will aim to reduce the budget deficit until it reaches a balanced budget in 2020.

It also aims to reach an average wage of BGN1,500 within the four-year term. Bulgaria’s average gross monthly wage increased by a nominal 8% y/y to BGN1,012 in December. The document also promises a minimum wage of BGN650, up from BGN460 currently.

The two sides set a goal of doubling teachers’ salaries by 2021. The programme envisages linking the payment of social benefits with children’s attendance at school and kindergarten.

In the transport sector, there are plans to purchase new rolling stock, and to build and modernise railway lines. With regard to road transport, the programme envisages accelerated completion of the Hemus motorway, completion of the Struma motorway, building a motorway between Kalotina and Sofia and building a tunnel under the Shipka peak. 

In the area of the economy, the future government aims to reduce the administrative burden on business. It will target GDP of BGN120bn within its four-year term. Nominal GDP was BGN92.6bn in 2016.

Notably, the programme does not mention the project to complete the Belene nuclear power plant. Sofia was left with a €600mn bill for Belene after an international arbitration court ruled that Bulgaria had to pay Russia’s Atomstroyexport for the work done so far on the power plant after it was cancelled by Borissov’s former government.