Bulgarian government sitting pretty?

By bne IntelliNews February 13, 2014

Sandy Gill in Sofia -

Long qualifying for the adjective of "beleaguered" in the face of large and persistent demonstrations last year, Bulgarian Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski's Socialist-led government looks a shade less so troubled now.

On February 12 it comfortably survived the third vote of no-confidence so far in its tenure of less than eight months. Moved by the only opposition force in parliament – the centre-right GERB party of former prime minister Boiko Borisov – the motion received just 93 votes in the 240-seat parliament, with 116 MPs against and eight abstentions. A majority of all MPs, present and absent –that is, 121 votes – would have been needed for success.

Nobody was surprised. The topic – security and crime – wasn't too intelligently chosen. Accusations that the government had mishandled an influx of Syrian refugees last year (officially put at 12,000-13,000) were easily countered by reference to the last (GERB) government's failure to put the necessary infrastructure in place. And rising crime against property, especially in remote localities? Well, say government supporters, that began under GERB and, coincidentally or not, there's a 14-point action programme just now being put into effect on precisely that topic.

But there's party logic too. Neither Oresharski's Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) nor its junior ally the liberal-inclined, mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS)–which have exactly 120 MPs between them–feels like going anywhere at present. Conflicts over abolishing the flat 10% income tax and restarting the frozen Belene nuclear power project seem not to be toxic (and, for the moment, to have been resolved in favour of the DPS, which is pro-flat tax but against Belene).

As for the fourth party in parliament, the 23-strong extreme nationalist party Ataka, that seems to have no interest in precipitating elections. Recent polls suggest it might not qualify for parliament if they happened soon, with the rival National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria outstripping Ataka. Meanwhile, Ataka has its own rationalisations and political theatre to pursue.

Magdalena Tasheva, one of Ataka's more outspoken MPs, dismissing the vote of no confidence, said that the government's trouble was that it had been too nice to refugees. And Ataka's leader Volen Siderov, apart from espousing the (almost certainly hopeless) cause of lower VAT on Bulgarian-grown foodstuffs, was boosting his nationalist credentials on the day of the no-confidence vote by demonstrating in the south-eastern town of Haskovo against a DPS-nominated governor. But, for reasons that haven't been made clear, Siderov hasn't followed through on promises to raise the divisive issue of the planned and scrapped Belene nuclear power plant in parliament.

Anti-government demonstrations, too, seem to be at a low ebb, no doubt partly for seasonal reasons. With a two-month occupation of Sofia University abandoned on January 10, a reoccupation in late January turned out to be the work of a rather small hardline student faction – opposed by the mainstream of the "first occupation" – and was abandoned within three days. Protests against a proposed pay-rise for MPs, too, seemed lacklustre.

Presidential moves

Nevertheless, there's been movement at the presidency. Businessman-turned-minister-turned-president Rosen Plevneliev was elected with GERB support in 2011, though his relations with the blunt Borisov have often been tense, while he's been criticised as too political in a supposedly "unifying" job and too close to particular business circles.

"Political" he certainly seems to be: at end-January, to general surprise, he announced his attention to ask parliament to hold a referendum, simultaneously with late May's scheduled European Parliament (EP) elections, on three questions of electoral law. First, that of compulsory voting (a GERB proposal that Plevneliev seems not to agree with). Second, that of using the majoritarian, rather than party-list, principle for electing some MPs. And third, that of online voting: this would ease voting for Bulgaria's rather large and mostly not pro-BSP diaspora – besides gratifying the president's love of all things "e".

Reactions have been mixed. Some BSP figures dismissed it with annoyance as an attempt to scupper an electoral law currently in its last stages of voting – though, embarrassingly, now said by the Venice Commission, the international authority on such matters, to be inapplicable to any elections as soon as May. It was also asked why the president had waited so long to take this initiative when election law debates had been underway for months. Questions were also raised whether compulsory voting was even constitutional. Among those expressing reservations was Plevneliev's own deputy, lawyer Margarita Popova. And election law votes since Plevneliev's declaration have ruled out both online and compulsory voting.

The extra-parliamentary Reformist Bloc as well as GERB, however, expressed support for the referendum idea, with GERB's Borisov declaring that, if parliament didn't approve the referendum, his party might start collecting signatures to force the issue. The situation escalated February 12, when first social media and then Plevneliev pointed to a clause in the Transitional and Final Provisions of the electoral law that appeared to envisage presidential elections in 2014 – not, as due in the normal course of events, 2016. Constitutionally unlikely to work, this would seem to be lousy drafting if it isn't breathtaking sneakiness. All of which could be just what the doctor ordered for galvanising the protest movement again.

Meanwhile, on the left, not everything is going the way of the mastermind behind the present government, BSP leader Sergei Stanishev. Faced with the decision in January of comrade and erstwhile president Georgi Parvanov to run an alternative leftist ticket in the coming EP elections, Stanishev has huffed and puffed, persuading the party's top council to "withdraw confidence" from Parvanov and 12 others – a decision that falls short of expulsion but bars them from party office for a year.

Opinion polls, however, suggest that Parvanov may be onto a good thing. One carried out in the third week of January, but published near the end of the month, by Alfa Research – one of Bulgaria's least distrusted pollsters – suggested that Parvanov's grouping would enjoy the support of 7% of respondents if EP elections were held now, compared with 17.8% for GERB and 15% for the BSP. With about half of that 7% coming from former BSP supporters and half from elsewhere, Parvanov's arguments that his initiative could enlarge the overall leftist vote would seem to be borne out.

If such results were to continue, potential dissidents within the BSP might become bolder – and a way out of the present curious configuration might begin to emerge. And, with Parvanov's supporters making progressive taxation a key demand there's a sign that Stanishev is feeling uneasy: though Prime Minister Oresharski remains publicly vocal against abolishing the flat tax, one of Stanishev's reactions to Plevneliev's initiative was that referendums might be a good idea on things people really care about – like the flat tax.

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