Tricky times to follow Bulgaria's July elections

By bne IntelliNews June 29, 2009

Rob Whitford in Sofia -

It could get quite complicated. Following European Parliament (EP) elections earlier this month, Bulgarians will go to the polls again on July 5 to choose the 240 members of their national parliament. And all the signs are that the outcome will be unprecedentedly complex – and putting together a government correspondingly tricky.

Not that these elections have been precipitated by political crisis. Far from it. The incumbent coalition is a broad one. There's the former communist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). There's the mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF). And there's the National Movement for Stability and Progress (NMSP), which, as the Simeon II National Movement, had swept to power in 2001 with 120 MPs on the strength of the reputation of the former boy king Simeon-Saxe Coburg (then winning 54 seats in 2005). The coalition has just completed its full four-year term in office – the third Bulgarian government in a row to do so. And, despite sizeable MP defections from NMSP, it's preserved a pretty comfortable parliamentary majority and a fair degree of unity throughout.

But public support is another matter. Aside from the usual effects of incumbency, support has been eroded by a failure to deal adequately with crime and corruption – together with the ramifications of this failure for EU approval and EU funding. Many see elements in the BSP as too close to the problem to be a credible provider of solutions. Many also object to the putatively corrupt and baleful influence of wily MRF leader Ahmed Dogan. As to the NMSP, that's an avowedly right-of-centre force whose credibility has been undermined by four years in bed with leftists.

All of which will add up to a lot fewer MPs this time round. Given its stable and disciplined ethnic constituency, the MRF's contingent won't shrink much, if at all. The BSP's certainly will, however: having had over a third of MPs in this parliament, it will be very lucky to get a quarter in the next. And, till the EP elections, most pundits were assuming NMSP wouldn't even clear the 4% threshold needed to enter the national parliament. It still mightn't: the good EP election performance was in part down to the NMSP candidacy of Meglena Kuneva, Bulgaria's feisty EU commissioner.

The right stuff?

The main gainer, it's been clear for some time, will be Boiko Borisov, former bodyguard of communist leader Todor Zhivkov and former protege of Saxe-Coburg, who went from being Bulgaria's top cop to a successful independent runner for the Sofia mayor's post in 2005 – and, in 2006, to setting up his own political force, Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria, known by its Bulgarian acronym of GERB. Strong on law and order, the centre-right GERB has also developed a pro-business economic platform and still relies heavily on the macho, "action man" appeal of the charismatic Borisov.

Charisma fades with time, however, and a reasonably successful but far from miraculous term as Sofia mayor has provided some "reality check." Despite early hopes that GERB might achieve an overall majority in parliament, it's now clear that it will be considerably short of one.

A logical partner for GERB is the traditional anti-communist right, which has conspicuously got its act together in recent months. That wasn't a foregone conclusion: successful in government in 1997-2001, the right has been fragmented and fractious since it was electorally humiliated by Saxe-Coburg in 2001, and it was real progress when its two main splinter groups – the hardline Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB) and the milder Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) – agreed this year to run together in the "Blue Coalition". EP results were encouraging and the Blues, reinforced by some smaller formations, are now reckoned a shoe-in for parliament.

Moreover, the austere and difficult DSB leader and former prime minister Ivan Kostov, once rather hostile to Borisov, is nowadays decidedly well disposed to cooperate with him, even if he and his UDF counterpart Martin Dimitrov haven't been best pleased at Borisov's refusal to allow joint candidates for the 31 MPs to be elected, for the first time in these elections, on a majoritarian basis.

A broader field

The parliamentary constellation will be more complicated than that, however –perhaps considerably more complicated.

Aside from the NMSP – which might or might not make parliament and, if it does, might choose to look right instead of standing with its long-term allies – there will definitely be a sizeable contingent of MPs (perhaps 20-25) from the extreme nationalists of Ataka, virulently anti-Roma and anti-Turkish. No one regards Ataka as an acceptable partner, while Ataka itself has a kind word for almost no one except Borisov. Its votes in parliament might still count, however.

Moreover, EP election performances suggest that two other political forces stand a chance – though well short of certainty – of entering parliament. The first is the Order, Law and Justice (OLJ) party of Yane Yanev, a relatively new right-of-centre anti-corruption party notable for the sweeping nature of its denunciations and the interestingly large number of billboards it has been able to afford. The second is LIDER, a centre-right business party whose most prominent backer is local energy magnate Hristo Kovachki – and whose high vote is largely ascribed to, well, the loyalty of his numerous employees.

On these two, conspiracy theories abound, with OLJ seen by some as influential groups' way of splitting the rightist vote and diverting anti-corruption energies, while others point to Kovachki's previous closeness to the MRF and Dogan's efforts in the past to create a pro-MRF right.

Parliament, thus, could potentially contain as few as five groupings or as many as eight – with coalition arithmetic tricky in any case and possibly very tricky indeed if the number is high and parliamentary representation fragmented.

Might GERB and the Blue Coalition achieve a majority between them, for instance? Perhaps, but most pundits think it's unlikely. If not, could they enlist a third partner? Again, perhaps, but it's not a foregone conclusion. Take OLJ, for instance: influential groups or not, Yanev has been relatively well disposed towards Borisov, but notably vituperative about Kostov.

Might there be another broad coalition, this time with Borisov linking up with the BSP? There's been some speculation on this, but Borisov has gone out of his way to rule out the possibility of coalition deals with the BSP – and also with the MRF. Like all politicians, he'll no doubt be capable of sinking "irreconcilable" differences if he needs to. But by his statements, he's maximised the political cost of doing so.

Might the BSP and the MRF – with or without the NMSP – somehow use unlikely allies to sneak into government again without Borisov? Unlikely, since they would need to contend not just with GERB and Blue Coalition opposition, but also with the implacably anti-MRF Ataka.

Might a possible impasse be broken by a national unity government or a "government of experts"? Eventually, perhaps, with the forceful Kuneva – in a non-party capacity – an obvious candidate to lead it. But only eventually and after much exploration of alternatives.

One way or another, getting a government together could be quite a time consuming process. Let's hope Bulgaria has the time to spare. With exports, output, budget revenues and the budget surplus falling, the government indulging in a modest pre-electoral splurge in recent months, and developments in Latvia ominous for emerging European states with currency board regimes like Bulgaria, it remains to be seen whether firm government action – and maybe an International Monetary Fund deal – will be needed in the coming months. The outgoing finance minister, Plamen Oresharski, thinks the reserves and budgetary buffers in place are sufficient. If he's wrong, it would be nice to have a government quite soon.

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Tricky times to follow Bulgaria's July elections

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