Sandy Gill in Sofia -
It might be the start of a solution in Bulgaria, if it isn't the start of new problems. On May 23, Plamen Oresharski became the "technocrat" tasked with putting together a "programme government of experts" in the wake of Bulgaria's early elections held on May 12 - elections precipitated by mass street protests that proved inconclusive.
A former rightist politician who served as finance minister in a centre-left administration and has now been put forward by Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) leader Sergei Stanishev, Oresharski presumably has a well-developed sense of flexibility and paradox. And he'll need it. Not only in the next few days as he tries to rally support, or at least engineer acquiescence, for his cabinet. But also, if he succeeds, in the weeks and months to come, as that cabinet tries to please a diverse and contradictory support base in extremely difficult circumstances.
Fitting finale, uneasy overture
As widely predicted, May 12's elections produced complicated results. Vituperative and scandal-ridden, dominated more by wire-tapping allegations against the formerly ruling GERB party and its leader Boiko Borisov than by policy issues, the campaign ended fittingly. On the day before the polls, a BSP-supplied tip-off prompted a police raid on a printing house in the town of Kostinbrod owned by a GERB local counsellor, revealing 350,000 surplus ballot papers. Whether these were sinister spares or legitimate "technological waste" has still to be determined. But much publicised in the media – and at rival party press conferences – the revelation will have reinforced many Bulgarians' general impression: GERB was sleazy, and politicians generally aren't too nice.
The elections themselves went forward with relatively little incident, leaving international observers fairly pleased – though locals more sceptical. Turnout was hardly a triumph for democracy: at 51.3%, it was the lowest in a parliamentary or presidential election since communism fell, and was a curious and ominous contrast with the politicised atmosphere of February's demonstrations that forced out the GERB-led government.
And the credibility of the resultant parliament wasn't enhanced by the fact that, of those who had voted, over 24% aren't represented: the parties that these people voted for all fell foul of the 4% threshold required for entry to parliament. These included the much-touted centre-right Bulgaria of its Citizens Movement (BCM) of former EU commissioner Meglena Kuneva; the seriously fragmented "conventional" anti-communist right, which failed to enter parliament for the first time since 1990; and, unexpectedly, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), an extreme nationalist formation that, with 3.75% of the vote, wasn't so far from qualifying.
As to those parties that did enter parliament, they number just four, creating a parliamentary arithmetic that has been at once simpler and more intractable than some pundits expected. GERB has been reviled by just about everyone during the campaign and certainly suffered from it, polling massively lower than in the last elections in 2009. Even so, it (unprecedentedly in post-communist Bulgaria) retained its position as the largest political force, with 30.54% of the votes cast – ahead of its main tormentor the BSP (26.61%). Next came the liberal and mainly ethnic Turkish Movement (MRF) with 11.31%, and finally, with 7.3%, the extreme nationalist Ataka. In Bulgaria's 240-seat single-chamber parliament, that translated into 97 seats for GERB, 84 for the BSP, 36 for the MRF and 23 for Ataka. With no party anywhere near a majority, the question of bedfellows became key.
Having the largest political contingent, GERB was entitled to first crack at forming a cabinet, but it very quickly emerged that no one would cooperate. Both BSP and MRF had treated GERB as anathema during the election campaign, making it clear on election night that nothing would change and that no deals were possible, and have continued to do so.
As to Ataka, its mercurial leader Volen Siderov was in characteristic form on election night. He denounced GERB and Borisov for treachery: cooperation early in the last parliament had led to nothing but the theft of his MPs, he pointed out – citing NSFB as proof – but he also furiously attacked GERB for complicity in what he described as the "colonialism" and "slavery" afflicting Bulgaria, exemplified by foreign ownership of electricity distribution companies and foreign concessions on Bulgaria's gold mines. He promised to give support to "policies not parties" – and cited the withdrawal of Czech giant CEZ's electricity distribution licence as an example of a congenial policy.
There have been obvious problems too with a BSP-mandated government. Not as far as the MRF was concerned: despite differences – notably over the flat 10% income tax, which the BSP wants to replace while the MRF wants to keep it – it had been clear for months that the BSP and the MRF are eager to cooperate, with the common and declared aim of a "programme" rather than partisan government, and with Oresharski agreed as the prospective prime minister. With exactly half the number of MPs between them, a BSP-MRF government – programmatic or not – would be in a precarious position.
And collaboration with Ataka is, well, problematic. Not so much because socialists would sit uneasily with nationalists, but because Ataka and the mainly ethnic Turkish MRF are each other's bÃªtes noires. Each made it clear that it would not talk to the other – a matter of fundamental values not just politics, said MRF leader Lyutvi Mestan – though BSP diplomacy produced hints that it might be possible for them nevertheless to support the same cabinet. The BSP meanwhile – without evident success – sought to wean Ataka off some of its more extreme positions, for instance the idea of a BGN1,000 minimum wage by end-2013.
In the meantime, GERB's reactions to the elections have varied. The most immediate was stunned silence: though Borisov and his colleagues are normally very talkative, GERB became the first major political force in Bulgaria's post-communist history not to stage an election-night press conference. When GERB's senior officials broke cover a day or two later, a somewhat curious twin-track position emerged.
On the one hand, GERB insisted that it had won the election and, once parliament convened, would take advantage of its prerogative of first try at forming a government – albeit a minority government. On the other – somewhat ironically in view of its opponents' charges that GERB would fix the polls – GERB announced its intention to contest the election's validity: party reactions to the Kostinbrod printing house affair, it argued, violated provisions for a "day of reflection" on the eve of election. And indeed, GERB has since submitted the relevant documents to the country's Constitutional Court, including for good measure the complaints of two other parties on voting irregularities among the sizable community of ethnic Turkish Bulgarian citizens in Turkey – complaints that, if supported, could reduce the MRF's parliamentary contingent significantly.
What the Constitutional Court decides remains to be seen. Meanwhile, however, parliament – ultimately valid or not – has convened, with President Rosen Plevneliev insisting, to the general agreement of political forces, that there were urgent tasks to be tackled. Even at the ceremonial opening on May 21, however, the atmosphere was acerbic, with political groups accusing each other of procedural chicanery, Borisov delivering a tough speech reaffirming his determination to contest the election results, and the GERB MPs walking out in protest at the methods used to elect a BSP-aligned parliamentary chairman.
First prize for acerbity, however, went to Ataka's Siderov, who delivered a shrilly eloquent rant that appeared aimed at offending just about everyone. Aside from invective against colonialists and foreign slave masters, he specifically insulted the diplomats sitting in the gallery by telling them not to turn up "well fed" from Brussels and lecture Bulgarians about democracy. Gesturing at the GERB contingent in parliament, he said that they all belonged "with the prosecution" and promised to be "their nightmare". He said he would not cooperate with the MRF, going out of his way to call it "unconstitutional" – a reference to the constitutional ban on ethnic-based parties (which Bulgarian courts have ruled that the MRF doesn't infringe). He said he would vote neither for an Oresharski government nor any other within this parliament. And, for an encore, he led an Ataka walk-out and promptly got into a confrontation outside parliament with a reporter from SKAT – a TV station associated with his nationalist former allies in NFSB.
Nevertheless, three days on on May 24, the prospects of getting a government in place seem reasonably good. Following his rant in parliament, Siderov adopted a somewhat more nuanced position in a TV interview. Early elections would allow misdeeds to be covered up, he said, and there needs to be institutions and a government working, with Ataka exercising "vigilance". That doesn't amount to support, but it does rule out fatal sabotage.
As to GERB, Borisov pointedly assured a possible Oresharski administration of his support for "difficult decisions". And, when the president offered him, as the leader of the main political force, a mandate to form a cabinet on 23, Borisov returned it to him almost immediately, pausing only to show him the list of ministers he would have appointed (a list mostly notable for the absence of former interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov who, Borisov has made plain, must for now concentrate on clearing his name of wiretapping charges). This left the way open for President Plevneliev to hand the mandate promptly to Stanishev, who nominated Oresharski.
An "Oresharski Plan" is in an advanced stage of preparation, with a variety of details emerging so far – including measures on maternity benefits and system of electricity pricing that involves lower pricing for a basic consumption quota. Whether the government will receive any support beyond the BSP and the MRF remains to be seen, while the other two parliamentary forces could sabotage its appointment by denying it the necessary quorum of 121 MPs. At present, however, it looks more likely that GERB and Ataka will reserve their animus for harrying the government once it is in place. They won't lack issues on which to do so.
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