BALKAN BLOG: Few routes to power in Bulgaria’s fragmented new parliament

BALKAN BLOG: Few routes to power in Bulgaria’s fragmented new parliament
PM Boyko Borissov delivers a statement proposing a technocratic government.
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia April 5, 2021

“Alone like a dog” and delivering a swan song even though he “looks less and less like a swan” were some of the scathing comments made after Gerb leader and long-serving Prime Minister Boyko Borissov addressed Bulgarians the day after the April 4 general election. 

Rather than facing awkward questions on his party’s poor performance at a press conference, Borissov made his statement in a video posted on Facebook, standing in the yard of his home under falling snow. While he spoke bullishly of Gerb’s election victory, it was widely commented that Borissov seemed abandoned and alone.

Once a highly popular leader and Bulgaria’s only prime minister to serve for three terms, Borissov’s third term was marred by scandal after scandal — from the “Apartmentgate” revelations of luxury properties bought at suspiciously low prices by high-ranking officials to the pictures of a gun, cash and gold bars mysteriously photographed from inside the prime minister’s bedroom. Along with the heavy toll the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has taken on Bulgaria and mass anti-government protests through the summer and autumn of 2020, this contributed to the fall in Gerb’s share of the vote to just 26.12%, leaving it as the largest party in the new parliament but with no obvious routes to forming a new government. 

Looking at the data from the central election committee with 96.35% of all votes counted, the chances of any party being able to form a majority coalition in the fragmented new parliament are slim. That leaves the possibility of either a technocratic government or another election in a few months, with the latter seen as the most realistic scenario (though Borissov clearly favours the former).

Limited options

Not only Gerb, but all three of Bulgaria’s main political parties — Gerb, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the ethnic-Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) — performed badly, but their new rivals that swiped a large share of the vote didn’t do well enough to form a new government either. 

Gerb was followed by popular showman Slavi Trifonov’s There Are Such People with 17.81% of the vote. Trifonov’s newly minted party pushed the BSP down to third place with just 15% support. The DPS is fourth with 10.14%, followed by centre-right reformist Democratic Bulgaria with 9.54% and Stand up! Thugs out! with 4.78%. Gerb’s former far-right junior coalition partners will not pass the 4% threshold and therefore will have no MPs in the new parliament.

This result leaves Gerb with virtually no chance to form another government unless it manages to form a broad coalition with its old rival the BSP and the DPS, which informally supported Borissov’s last government and has previously been in coalition with the BSP. However, most parties have ruled out cooperation with Borissov’s party and in his first public statement after the vote he proposed a technocratic government to lead the country out of the coronavirus pandemic by the end of 2021 and oversee the management of the European Union’s post-pandemic recovery funds.

“We accept the definite victory in the election as a vote of confidence by the people that it is exactly us who must return Bulgaria to the path of growth. We have never escaped from responsibility, we shall not do it now. I expect to see whether the parties with lower electoral support, who allow themselves to speak on behalf of the people, really do care for the people. Because if they do, we should join forces and defeat the pandemic,” Borissov said in the video statement. 

Speaking after dozens of protesters gathered in front of Gerb’s headquarters in Sofia, Borissov said (possibly joking) “We can have 20 — 30 — 50 young and strong Gerb sympathisers to chase you” before adding “I propose you peace. I propose to install the experts who will take responsibility and do what is necessary to take the country out of the coronacrisis by December.”

According to political analysts, the scenario of a technocrat government is highly unlikely as Gerb would have a very hard time securing the votes of 121 out of Bulgaria’s 240 MPs, Teneo analysts noted.

If Gerb fails to form a government seven days after receiving a mandate, it will be given to Trifonov. He has not yet commented on the election result but said previously that he sees only Democratic Bulgaria and Stand up! Thugs out! as potential coalition partners. On the other hand, Democratic Bulgaria has repeatedly said it will not enter in coalition with any party in the parliament. Even if Democratic Bulgaria agrees to enter a coalition, without Gerb, the BSP or the DPS the new coalition would not have enough MPs, leaving Trifonov to either choose to lead a minority cabinet or go for an early election.

If There Are Such People fails to form a government, President Rumen Radev can pick another party to try to make a cabinet.

According to Teneo, in this third phase Gerb, the BSP and the DPS might decide to form a technocratic government in order to avoid another vote during the pandemic and to be able to receive the billions of euros aid from EU funds.

If this third attempt fails, Bulgaria has to hold another general election, which seems the most realistic scenario, Teneo said.

“This parliament cannot and should not form a government. The desire of the DPS and Borissov for a technocratic government should not be accepted. The sooner the new early election, not organised by Gerb, the better,” prominent blogger and Sofia city council member Yvo Bojkov commented.

From no coalition to everyone against Gerb

Within Bulgaria, voters, politicians and political analysts are divided in their opinions on whether Bulgaria’s next parliament should form a government or if an early election is the better option.

Borissov has clearly indicated he is willing to form any coalition in order to stay in power.

BSP leader Kornelia Ninova ruled out the possibility of uniting with Gerb but indicated that that the BSP is open to other coalition formations, aiming to oust Gerb from power.

Meanwhile, Democratic Bulgaria has clearly said it will not enter into coalition with any of the parties that have participated in the outgoing parliament – Gerb, the BSP or the DPS – and one of its leaders, Hristo Ivanov, noted that the party will not discuss coalitions until it sees who will vote against a fourth Gerb government.

Ivanov’s close ally, Ivaylo Mirchev, clarified that Democratic Bulgaria sees no possibilities to participate in coalition in the new parliament and that early election seem the better option.

Stand up! Thugs out! said that any coalition against Borissov is acceptable as he must be removed from power as a start of the change in the country.

Key players stay silent 

After their parties’ battering in the polls, both Borissov and Ninova were slow to comment on the result. Ninova eventually addressed the media on April 5, saying that the executive leadership of the BSP has resigned but she will remain the party’s leader. Meanwhile, neither the DPS nor — crucially — Trifonov have made any comment on their positions. 

Trifonov, the former TV host and singer who at a stroke becomes one of Bulgaria’s most important politicians, said as the results came in that he has symptoms of coronavirus and has self-isolated, and declined to make any further statement on the course of action he will take. While he has said he will not work with Gerb, he is seen as unpredictable and has praised Borissov in the past. 

As Bulgarians are left wondering what government, if any, will result from the newly elected parliament, the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria strongly criticised Borissov, Ninova and Trifonov for failing to arrange press conferences after the first election results came out.

“On election night, when everyone was expecting them to go out and take responsibility for the future of the country, the three of them chose to hide from the media,” AEJ – Bulgaria commented.

Trifonov’s claim that he was self-isolating got little sympathy from the association. “[A]s a leader of the second-largest parliamentary party, Trifonov could have used the possibilities given by the new technologies and to speak with media and journalists or to delegate this to his deputies,” AEJ – Bulgaria said in its statement released on April 5.

“Hiding from journalists is not appropriate for responsible politicians and shows disrespect to their voters and to all Bulgarian citizens. It is vital for democracy for politicians to be available for questions of journalists,” AEJ – Bulgaria noted.

Borissov’s decision to comment on the election result on Facebook instead of giving a press conference was widely criticised, though expected as he has picked the same approach for a year.

His statement was widely mocked by critics and was dubbed the ‘swan’s song’ by political analyst Ivo Indzhev. “The epoch of the dumb ones and of the dumb decision of the chief of the dumb ones, Boyko Borissov. He looks less and less like a swan, but this victory is his swan song,” he wrote on his blog.

“Eight months ago, protesters suggested that Borissov goes in peace. He stayed to give away five billion [levs], to continue ruling, to buy voters. And when he saw he was collapsing, he sharply flip-flopped. He said he wanted to go. But to leave the experts who would rule. Without taking responsibility for the lost 10 years. Doesn’t he have at least a little shame,” prominent PR expert and political commentator Lubomir Alamanov, another critic of the prime minister, wrote on Facebook.

Emil Jassim, a history teacher and member of Democratic Bulgaria, called Borissov’s decision to address people by video cowardice. “This Facebook live of Borissov was the press conference of the first parliamentary force. In front of his home, in the snow. And alone like a dog. A cowardly proposal for a consensus cabinet. This is the end,” Jassim wrote.

Ruling party benefitted from use of state resources

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) commented that the general election was run efficiently despite the difficult circumstances caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but that the massive use of state resources by the ruling party was concerning.

“Bulgaria’s parliamentary elections were competitive and efficiently run despite the difficult circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and fundamental freedoms were respected. However, the massive use of state resources gave the ruling party a significant advantage, and a lack of editorial diversity was of concern,” OSCE said in a statement on April 5.

It added that Bulgaria still needs to address key long-standing recommendations to bring election legislation in line with international standards and good practice.

The OSCE also raised concerns regarding the lack of editorial diversity and analytical coverage.

“The absence of investigative or analytical media reporting, together with political advertising in the guise of news, limited the ability of voters to make an informed choice. While public media is legally required to remain neutral and objective, public television offered little coverage of the political parties, but at the same time reported the activities of senior government officials in detail. Pressure on investigative reporters and a lack of investigation into attacks on journalists contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship,” the OSCE commented.

It added that Gerb has gained wide exposure through a number of state investments related to the coronavirus pandemic and infrastructure projects during the election campaign.

“The long-term observers and many others informed the Assembly’s observation delegation about some long-standing problems, such as allegations of vote-buying, ‘controlled’ voting, and voter intimidation, attempted particularly among economically and socially vulnerable groups,” Alfred Heer, head of the PACE delegation, was quoted as saying in the statement.