Sandy Gill in Sofia and Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -
After failing so far to strike a coalition deal, former prime minister and GERB party leader Boiko Borisov said October 20 he would hold another round of talks with potential allies in an attempt to avoid a repeat of elections in Bulgaria. The largest party in Bulgaria’s fragmented new parliament, GERB is struggling to find partners, and more than two weeks after the snap elections were held on October 5, it is apparent they will not deliver the desired stable government.
GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) announced October 16 that it had agreed with the nationalist Patriotic Front coalition to work together in government. The Patriotic Front also agreed to support centre-right tough-guy Borisov as prime minister. This gives GERB the 19 seats held by the Patriotic Front – comprising the Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO) and the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) – in addition to the 84 seats that it holds, meaning Borisov will need to find at least another 18 seats for a majority in the 240-seat national assembly.
Striking the deal with the Patriotic Front was good news for GERB, which the previous day had failed to make headway in talks with the Reformist Bloc, the rightwing coalition considered to be its most likely ally in government. Six hours of talks on October 15 ended with no agreement between the two parties, with the GERB delegation expressing frustration with the Reformists. Writing on his Facebook page after the talks, Borisov slammed the Reformist Bloc as “ill-prepared” and "an unstable” partner. "I am extremely dissatisfied with the Reformist Bloc's preparation for today’s consultations,” he wrote.
After meeting all seven of the parties represented in Bulgaria’s new parliament, GERB now plans to hold another round of talks with four parliamentary parties including the Reformists, the Patriotic Front and – more surprisingly – the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the leftwing Alternative for Bulgarian Revival.
"The natural ally for GERB is the Reformist Bloc, which shares many points of their platform, but there is a very strong animosity between the parties’ leaders," says a report from the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW). "The Reformist Bloc... are traditionally reluctant to engage with Borisov, as he has taken over the centre-right electorate." Other areas of conflict include the Russian-led South Stream gas pipeline project and the expansion of the Kozloduy nuclear power plant.
Far end of spectrum
The deal with the Patriotic Front confirms forecasts that Borisov would have to search among Bulgaria’s far right and nationalist fringe parties to put together a coalition. Tim Ash of Standard Bank forecast after the vote that forming a new government would be “acutely difficult” for GERB, which faces “some unpalatable choices, including an alliance with nationalist parties which might strain relations with some of Bulgaria's Western allies.”
The Patriotic Front "seems willing to enter into a coalition, but its nationalistic rhetoric may raise tensions with Bulgaria’s neighbours and the EU," agrees OSW's report.
Should Borisov fail to put together a coalition, Bulgaria may have to yet again head for early elections. However, President Rosen Plevneliev spoke out against this option on October 20. “To me there is no option for new elections,” Plevneliev told journalists, according to local daily Sega.
The October 5 elections were Bulgaria’s second early elections in less than two years. It’s been political mayhem, in fact, since early 2013, when Borisov was pushed from office by mass demonstrations over high electricity bills and other factors such as high-level corruption. Though his GERB remained the largest political grouping following the elections, there emerged a precarious government of the former communist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), commanding exactly half the members of the 240-seat parliament – and incongruously supported when necessary by the extreme nationalists of the Ataka party.
The attempt in June 2013 to install Delyan Peevski, a controversial MRF parliamentarian and businessman, as chief of the national security agency triggered mass protests that continued in general anti-government mode months after the appointment had been withdrawn. The government rode those out, only to succumb in June this year to a cluster of catastrophes: poor BSP results in European Parliament elections unsettled the coalition, while Brussels’ objections to Russia’s South Stream gas pipeline – a project dear to BSP hearts – divided it further. Then a fallout between Peevski and his old ally Tsvetan Vasilev provoked massive withdrawals from the latter’s Corporate Commercial Bank (KTB), sending Bulgaria’s fourth biggest lender into special administration.
With the government promising to resign in late June – and actually doing so in late July – unfinished business looms for Bulgaria’s next government when it is actually formed. Populist tariff cuts have produced a massive and threatening hole in electricity system finances. No decision has been taken on rescuing – or failing to rescue – KTB, whose depositors are currently in limbo, denied access to their deposits or to deposit insurance. And parliament failed to agree on a budget update that would manifestly be necessary well before the year’s end. Not empowered to alter the budget or raise foreign debt, the presidentially appointed caretaker government of Georgi Bliznashki that took over on August 6 has been holding the fort.
GERB has a reasonably successful record in government between 2009 and 2013, and during its election campaign the party touted its demonstrated ability to get infrastructure built and on getting access to EU funds, in respect of which the previous government had suffered some suspensions. However, the party first needs to bring new allies on board if it is to create a stable government capable of addressing these problems.
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