Bulgaria's kingmaker parties to hold GERB to ransom

Bulgaria's kingmaker parties to hold GERB to ransom
By Denitsa Koseva and Dimitar Koychev in Sofia March 28, 2017

The centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) might have won the snap parliamentary elections held on March 26, but the party is heading for tough negotiations with possible partners to gain a large enough majority to form a government, and will most likely be forced to make big compromises to stay in power.

Two smaller groups in the parliament – the nationalist United Patriots coalition and the populist Volya (Will) party – have already said they will present a united front in talks with GERB. They have also indicated they are willing to work with the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the runner-up in the elections, if negotiations do not go their way. They are expected to demand ministerial seats, as well as policy concessions such as a push from the Patriots for a more nationalist stance from the typically pragmatic GERB. 

GERB will need the support of at least one party to get a majority in parliament. The party’s leader Boyko Borissov has said he will try his best to form a new government with very little compromise and indicated that will rely on its former partners the United Patriots. However, the two parties would have a very fragile majority (122 of the 240 seats in parliament). Local analysts believe that Borissov will also try to attract Volya, recently launched by businessman Vesselin Mareshki, to join the coalition to secure a comfortable majority.

GERB will have 95 MPs in the 240-seat parliament and is followed by the BSP with 80, the United Patriots coalition (27), the predominantly ethnic-Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS, 26) and Volya (12). 

“Negotiations will be likely difficult and lengthy. The UP alliance is comprised of three distinct political parties with differing interests and competition for influence, while Volya has hinted that it would support GERB only under certain yet-to-be-disclosed conditions,” Teneo Intelligence said in a comment following the election.

Although having previously showed willingness to support Borissov, the day after the March 26 election the United Patriots and Volya surprisingly said they would first negotiate with each other and then decide whether and at what cost they will join any coalition with GERB. Both parties gave clear signals that demands would include ministerial seats in return for their support.

Shortly after the announcement of the first results, Valeri Simeonov, one of the leaders of the United Patriots, told bTV that his party is ready to back either GERB or the BSP and that they are ready to propose ministers for the future government. He added that the platforms of the BSP and the Patriots match in all the main points. The United Patriots coalition includes three nationalist parties – the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), VMRO-Bulgarian National Movement and Ataka. “We will talk to everybody depending on how the roulette will spin,” the Dnevnik daily quoted Simeonov as saying.

At the same time, Volya, which previously indicated it would definitely support Borissov, also seems to have realised it is in very good position and said it will support the GERB leader only in return for ministerial seats. Party leader Mareshki even told media that he would be satisfied if he heads the new government, indicating that his demands will be significant. “We either enter [the government] and participate, or will be a corrective and will… illuminate the others, showing if they are keeping the promises they have given,” Mareshki was quoted by Dnevnik as telling a press conference.

He added that the party has very good experts on the economy, agriculture, energy, tourism, innovations and foreign policy sectors.

Policy differences 

There are some substantial policy differences between the populist and pragmatic GERB and the strong nationalist agenda of the United Patriots, and it is not yet clear how far Borissov will be forced to concede on this issue to bring them into his government. 

While Borissov, like the nationalists, favours stopping migration across the Turkish border, unlike the Patriots he is not anti-Turkish and supports developing relations between Bulgaria and Turkey as good neighbours, partners and Nato allies. This is in line with his efforts to maintain good relations with both Russia and the West, even though his governments have leaned westwards. 

In the area of foreign policy, GERB supports joining the Schengen passport-free zone and the Eurozone. The election winner has traditionally been considered a pro-Western player. This may create tensions within the United Patriots coalition, as one of its members (Ataka) is pronouncedly Russophile.

Another potential obstacle to a ruling coalition including the nationalist parties is that it may be frowned on in Brussels.

The United Patriots are demanding significant reduction of the voting sections in Turkey and the closure of Bulgaria’s borders to immigrants. Ataka, the far-right member of the coalition, strongly objects to Bulgaria’s Nato and EU membership. The party has long history of racist, especially antisemitic and anti-Roma actions, as well as xenophobic, especially anti-Muslim and anti-Turkish. On their agenda, the United Patriots have the fight against monopolies, implementation of social market economy and independent foreign policy.

Among its other policies, GERB envisages continuing the construction of road infrastructure. In the area of defence, the document envisages the launch of the procurement of a new type armoured combat vehicle for the land forces. In the area of social policy, GERB envisages paying social benefits only to families, whose children attend school or kindergarten, which is in line with the position of the Patriots.

Volya’s pre-election promises include providing young families with the opportunity to buy homes for just €300 per sqm (a significant discount) to be repaid interest-free over 10 years. Volya is also offering one-off assistance of BGN1,000 for each newly born child to parents aged over 21 who have at least high school education, and a BGN0.2-BGN0.3 cut in fuel prices.

If GERB fails to persuade the United Patriots and Volya to participate in coalition, the party is facing three options: to form a minority government, to rule with the support of the DPS or to give up.

“Should the negotiations fail, GERB may also opt for a minority government, seeking informal support from smaller parties. In any case, the new government will likely be weak and fragile, potentially lacking a parliamentary majority,” Teneo Intelligence wrote.

If Borissov fails to form a third government, the BSP will get the chance. However, in that case the DPS will again play the kingmaker as the support of the United Patriots and Volya will not be enough.

“Considering the BSP’s refusal to cooperate with its key rival GERB and an unlikely alliance with the DPS, at this point the party has little chances of forming a new cabinet,” Teneo Intelligence’s note reads.

According to local analysts, the future government will have a short life and Bulgaria is heading for a fourth early election. Political sciences professor Maria Pirgova confirmed this forecast to bTV, and said that GERB will face many difficulties.

Hristo Ivanov, the leader of the newly-formed right-wing party Yes, Bulgaria!, also predicted a “short and ignoble life” for the new government. Other analysts say the next government will last only until Bulgaria’s EU chairmanship ends.

Electoral reform

In its programme, GERB also supports adopting laws implementing the results of an electoral system referendum held last November. One of these results would involve the introduction of a majority electoral system for the election of MPs. However, on March 27 Simeonov said that they will not back this proposal without some changes.

On March 27, Bulgarian showman Slavi Trifonov reiterated his ultimatum, giving the new parliament two weeks to begin work on laws implementing the results of an electoral system referendum held in November. The national referendum was initiated by his popular TV show “Slavi’s Show”.

Some analysts believe that a majority electoral system for the parliament will benefit the large parties and will eliminate the small ones, which is most likely why GERB (the largest party in the parliament) supports the new system and the Patriots are against it.

If this system results in only two or three parties entering future parliaments, forming a government may become easier as there would be less need for coalitions and compromises. 

The plebiscite asked three questions – if people supported introducing a majority electoral system for the election of MPs, introducing mandatory voting for elections and referendums, and setting the annual state subsidies for political parties and coalitions at BGN1 (€0.51) per valid vote received at the last general elections.

The support for all three proposals was strong, with the shares of positive answers being 71.95%, 61.89% and 72.16% respectively. However, the number of votes was about 12,000 short of a threshold of 3,500,585, the passing of which would have made the referendum results binding.

Trifonov also set a two-month deadline for the new parliament to adopt the laws. According to him, the only commitment and obligation of the new parliament is to accept unconditionally the will of the people expressed in the referendum.

If either of the two deadlines is not met, the showman will go to the parliament building to defend his civil rights. “I will do this alone. I do not know what the other 2.5mn people who think like me will do,” the showman said in his ultimatum.

Trifonov also assessed that the March 26 early general elections were meaningless and have practically reproduced the previous parliament. According to the showman, Sunday’s elections are the perfect proof that the current electoral system is “completely exhausted”.