BALKAN BLOG: Bulgaria is heading for its third general election this year

BALKAN BLOG: Bulgaria is heading for its third general election this year
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia August 8, 2021

Bulgaria has held two general elections already this year, and is most likely heading for a third as the chances of popular showman Slavi Trifonov’s There Are Such People (ITN), which won the July 11 election, getting backing in parliament for his proposed government are looking slim. 

President Rumen Radev signed a decree on August 6 ordering the parliament to vote on the government proposed by ITN, despite the low chances of the party getting the support it needs from the reformist Democratic Bulgaria and Stand up.BG! We Are Coming (ISBG). Trifonov says he will only go head and form the government if it is backed by the two reformist parties but the differences between the three became deeper as negotiations progressed. 

ITN won the July 11 snap general election with around 24.08% of the vote, leading former ruling party Gerb by less than 1%. Trifonov’s party has repeatedly said it would only negotiate for support with Democratic Bulgaria and ISBG, ruling out any coalition with the established parties in parliament – Gerb, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and ethnic-Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS).

However, the three formations together have only 112 out of 240 MPs and the BSP was seen as the most acceptable fourth ally as Gerb and DPS have become synonyms for corruption and highly controversial connections with businessmen.

On August 6, ITN’s prime minister-designate Plamen Nikolov gave Radev a list of proposed ministers, clearing the formal step needed for parliament to be able to vote on the government.

The rift

It is hard to predict the outcome of the vote, expected to be scheduled by mid-August. According to latest indications from representatives of Democratic Bulgaria and ISBG, the support of the two formations is highly unlikely, while the BSP has started demanding more formal commitment to its priorities in order to vote for Nikolov’s government.

Once seen as natural allies, ITN on the one hand and Democratic Bulgaria and ISBG on the other are now in tense relations with Trifonov accusing the other two formations, and more specifically Democratic Bulgaria, of being greedy and wanting to appoint ministers.

The rift came after a meeting between Democratic Bulgaria and ISBG, after which two of their leaders – Hristo Ivanov of Democratic Bulgaria and Maya Manolova of ISBG – said they are worried by the decision of ITN to invite the DPS to talks too. The two formations said that if they are to support an ITN-led government, they want written guarantees that the agreed priorities and policies will be implemented. They also said they want to know the names of the proposed ministers in advance so that they can determine whether they can implement the deep reforms needed in the country.

At the time, Ivanov said that Democratic Bulgaria would back a government that included people with proven qualities such as three ministers from the current caretaker government – Kiril Petkov (minister of the economy), Assen Vassilev (finance) and prof. Nikolai Denkov (education). The same three ministers were invited by ITN to become members of the government initially outlined by the party the day after the July 11 vote.

However, the three ministers – seen as some of the most successful ministers in Bulgaria in decades – declined the invitation. They issued a joint statement attributing their refusal to significant differences in their vision for financial policy and the priorities for the coming period. Moreover, ITN proposed that Vassilev head another ministry, not the finance ministry.

A day after Ivanov’s and Manolova’s statement, ITN attacked them, saying they were “inexplicably changing the game”. They also attacked the three caretaker ministers and accused Ivanov of trying to appoint ministers without having the right to do that.

In the following days, Trifonov gave an interview to his right hand man, the leader of ITN’s parliamentary group Toshko Yordanov, attacking Ivanov even more aggressively. Ivanov has not responded to the attacks so far.

Controversial candidates

The government proposed by ITN raised a lot of controversy as the nominated ministers and premier are neither well known nor seen as capable of carrying out tough reforms.

The prime minister-designate Plamen Nikolov has never been involved in politics and has become a target of numerous jokes as he was picked by ITN as a party member during a casting for politicians in 2018. There were also claims by members of Democratic Bulgaria and ISBG that Nikolov was picked in the last two hours before ITN’s representatives were given the mandate by Radev to form a government. They said that earlier on that day that ITN had indicated it would nominate Petar Iliev as the next prime minister, but this plan was abolished after Democratic Bulgaria and ISBG indicated they would not back this nomination.

In his first interview on the day of the nomination, Nikolov indicated he would not initiate reforms but will rather execute what is ordered by ITN’s leadership. Moreover, Nikolov also has said he believes in building up what has been achieved in Bulgaria so far, instead of destroying what many see as a corrupt model created by Gerb during its three governments.

The controversies do not end with Nikolov’s nomination. Iliev, believed to have been the original candidate, was nominated for deputy prime minister and minister of interior. His name is now at the centre of a scandal when information that he might have plagiarised a colleague’s dissertation for his own doctorate emerged.

The candidate for justice minister, Momchil Ivanov, has become well known for his controversial posts on Facebook against Democratic Bulgaria. The posts have been deleted by their author but not before other Facebook users saved them as photos and distributed them on social media. The language was similar to that heard from far-right parties and Gerb, and the attacks on Democratic Bulgaria resembled those from Gerb and the DPS. Ivanov gave up the nomination at the last minute on August 6 to be replaced by ITN MP Ivo Atanassov.

Atanassov also raised controversy as he has made statements against the Istanbul convention on violence against women, claiming it would open the door to the introduction of a third gender in Bulgaria and saying that only women can be mothers, not transgender or homosexual men.

Yet another nominee, Silvia Barardzhieva who is proposed for environment minister, was revealed by Radio Free Europe to be married to Zhivomir Bakardzhiev, who has been sentenced for attempted robbery. The same information was published by several other local media in the last few days.

Several other nominations have also been criticised for their lack of qualifications.

New-old allies?

While the rift between ITN and Democratic Bulgaria and ISBG was deepening, Trifonov’s party worked with Gerb and DPS to propose a parliamentary committee to investigate the property of Ivo Prokopiev, the businessman who owns  news outlets Dnevnik and Capital, which are among the few media in the country critical of Gerb and the DPS.

This alliance backed up speculation that Trifonov might be in unofficial coalition with the DPS, Gerb or both.

Theoretically, ITN can get enough votes in parliament for its government in two cases – if backed by the BSP and either the DPS or Gerb, or if MPs from any political party do not attend the vote, lowering the quorum and thus the required number of MPs to back the government. Analysts say any of these options is possible.

However, ITN insists that would only move forward if backed by Democratic Bulgaria and ISBG. The two formations have not yet decided whether they will support Nikolov’s cabinet.

Borislav Sandov, one of the leaders of the Green Movement party, which is member of the Democratic Bulgaria coalition, said their MPs will most likely decide not to back the government. However, Sandov said this would only be a recommendation by the party, which its MPs could chose to respect or ignore.

Tatiana Doncheva, of ISBG, indicated that she does not see people on the proposed list of candidates who are capable of implementing tough reforms. The BSP is also giving mixed signals on its support for ITN.

Gerb’s leader Boyko Borissov has said his party will vote against the government, while DPS is not commenting.

Anti-system player or push for a new snap vote

Analysts and voters are split in their suggestions on the reasons why Trifonov’s party is behaving like this. The tone of the party’s leaders and his deputies is seen as rather arrogant and analysts say that they have either gained too much confidence in themselves, or are addressing their voters, preparing for another snap election.

Trifonov gave a strong signal his party would not enter in partnership with any formation on July 12 – the day after the vote, when it was still unclear whether ITN or Gerb would come out ahead.

Trifonov said that ‘coalition’ has become a dirty word in Bulgarian political life, saying his party will carry the responsibility for a government on its own, without seeking partners. He has then proposed a government led by Nikolai Vassilev – former minister in two governments of National Movement Simeon II (NDSV), which ran the country in coalition with the DPS and BSP. This proposal provoked outrage and was strongly criticised not only because of Vassilev’s alleged connection to the DPS but also due to ITN’s decision to propose it without talking to any other party. ITN has only 65 MPs – far from enough to rule on its own.

A few days later, Trifonov backed off from this proposal, saying his party will initiate talks with other political parties on its policies. ITN has invited Democratic Bulgaria, ISBG, the BSP and the DPS. It continued talks with the first three parties on their priorities and policies but refused to draft a written document on common priorities or to discuss nominations for ministers.

Democratic Bulgaria and ISBG have repeatedly said they do not want ministerial seats but want to know the nominations in advance so that they can decide whether to back the proposed government.

If ITN’s proposal for a government fails to attract support, Radev should give a mandate to the second-largest party in parliament – Gerb. However, Borissov has said his party will return the mandate immediately.

Radev then is obliged to give the third and final mandate to any of the remaining political formations. The BSP has said that, if given that mandate, it would propose the current caretaker government of Prime Minister Stefan Yanev to become the regular cabinet. According to polls, this government enjoys very high approval from citizens, with the support of around 50%, the highest for any government in the country for decades.

Yanev’s government has gained approval with its actions, managing to reveal numerous cases of large-scale corruption, misuse of funds or abuse of office by the previous government and taking the necessary steps to stop it and to improve the fiscal discipline in the country.

So far, the interim government has managed to significantly increase the budget revenue, drafted a budget revision that would prepare the country for the expected new wave of coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, new elections and increase pensions above the poverty line for the first time ever.

Although Yanev has said that re-appointing a caretaker government as regular is rather unusual, in the past days he indicated that his cabinet would be ready to take that responsibility if necessary. However, analysts do not expect the BSP to manage to gain enough support even for that government and the country seems to be heading for another snap vote in the autumn.