Bulgarian politics set for months of uncertainty but will Borissov bounce back?

Bulgarian politics set for months of uncertainty but will Borissov bounce back?
Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov may be down but is not out. / Photo by CC
By Andrew MacDowall in Belgrade November 16, 2016

Bulgaria looks set for months of political uncertainty and horse-trading after parliament on November 16 voted to accept the resignation of the government led by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov – a move that will usher in a technocratic caretaker government until fresh elections, the third in five years, are likely triggered in the spring.

“Elections are due of course, but not until the new president enters office in January and calls them – probably in spring,” says Stefan Ralchev, programme director and policy analyst at the Sofia-based Institute for Regional and International Studies (IRIS). “Until then, there will be a caretaker government formed by outgoing President Rosen Plevneliev, his third. We can't forecast what configuration at this point - everything is possible.”

The caretaker government will likely comprise ‘technocrats’ with a smattering of people from the ruling GERB party and its junior coalition partner Reformist Bloc. But jockeying for a place in the next post-election government will be a motely collection of Borissov’s ostensibly right-wing Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (known by its Bulgarian acronym GERB), the ex-Communist and Moscow-friendly Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), nationalists, populists, two largely Muslim-backed parties, and beleaguered reformists.

Borissov stood down as PM after his candidate, Tsetska Tsacheva, was convincingly defeated by the BSP-backed Rumen Radev in November 13’s second-round presidential election. Borissov had said during the campaign that he would stand down if Tsacheva did not win, and even though he modified his position as it became apparent that Radev would top the poll, in the end he followed through with his resignation.

The contest was largely fought on domestic issues, and the result is widely seen as a defeat for Borissov, a former bodyguard and karate coach who was in his second term as premier. While his election in 2014 was widely welcomed in the West, the outgoing PM has been accused more recently of centralising power and failing to tackle murky interests in politics, business and the judiciary. His minority government’s junior coalition partner is a grouping of reformist parties, which has struggled to stay together and is criticised for failing to hold Borissov to account, particularly on judicial reform. The outgoing administration also receives parliamentary support from the hard-right.

“The results show that there was a massive protest vote against the Borissov government and its power,” says Ivailo Kalfin, a former BSP foreign minister, who broke away from the party and was Borissov’s deputy prime minister until May, as well as the presidential candidate for the left-leaning Alternative for Bulgaria (ABV). “We have a strange situation with an incumbent president, an incoming president, and Borissov still playing a role. It’s not a good time for elections, but it’s the only way to form a stable government.”

GERB again?

Nonetheless, Borissov’s GERB is widely expected to win any snap parliamentary election – Bulgaria’s third in just five years – and would be helped by the possible introduction of new electoral and party-funding systems that favour big, cash-rich parties. By resigning, the prime minister can portray himself as a man of his word, while also rejigging his flagging coalition and moving before the BSP gathers strength under its new leadership.

GERB will almost certainly need a broad coalition if it is to stay in power. A period of complex pre- and post-election horse-trading looks likely, with Borissov looking to preserve his role as locus of power. The tenacious outgoing prime minister is reputedly fond of quoting the “Lion King”, seeing it as an allegory for Bulgaria’s law of the jungle. It may be time for him to dust off the DVD again.

According to Dimitar Bechev, a Balkan expert at Harvard University, GERB’s potential partners include the fractious hard-to-far-right United Patriots, whose candidate came third in the first round of the presidential vote. This could presage a shift towards a more aggressive stance towards illegal migration. Bulgaria has seen tens of thousands of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Central Asia cross its territory over the past two years, and the government has been criticised by the BSP and the far-right for its handling of the crisis, while xenophobic incidents have risen. The Patriots include the ultranationalist Ataka (“Attack”), a pro-Kremlin movement which has promoted anti-Western rhetoric, as well as pro-Nato parties.

“We saw a very strong nationalist vote, which if replicated in the parliamentary elections, would see much stronger nationalists in parliament, and some populists,” says Kalfin. “They are clearly outside the mainstream, and create quite a lot of uncertainty.”

If Borissov can reclaim power after the election, an awkward cohabitation with President-elect Radev could lead to a more even balance of power. Despite his backing by the Socialists, Radev is a non-party figure and has said that he will chart an independent course. But he has also backtracked on anti-corruption efforts, and mysteriously deleted a tweet committing to reform of the state prosecution – an area where Borissov has repeatedly stalled, says Nikolay Staykov, a co-founder of the pro-reform “Protest Network”, which has opposed both BSP- and GERB-led governments.

One factor contributing to Radev’s victory was the support of the influential Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a moderately-sized but influential party largely supported by ethnic Turks and Slavic Muslims. Even when outside government, the party has often played a role in king-making, and there is a chance that it could bring the BSP back to power. The DPS is deeply controversial outside its loyal voter base, particularly due to its association with businessman-cum-politician Delyan Peevski, seen as an eminence grise in Bulgarian politics. But the DPS faces a new challenge from Democrats for Responsibility, Solidarity and Tolerance (DOST, meaning “friend” in Turkish), a breakaway party apparently supported by Ankara.

Socialists look for presidential boost

Despite trailing distantly in the polls, the BSP will be hoping that Radev’s victory can help propel it back to power. The party – the direct descendant of the slavishly pro-Soviet Bulgarian Communist Party – is generally seen as being on cordial terms with Russia, and has pledged to rebuild ties with Kremlin should it win the forthcoming election. In its last spell in power, it was backed by the DPS. That government was controversial and only lasted just over a year, with its support for Gazprom’s South Stream gas pipeline and other Russian-backed energy projects, as well as its promotion of Peevski, leading to clashes with the EU and the US.

But despite differing rhetoric, analysts in Bulgaria point out that Borissov is scarcely less pro-Moscow than the BSP, having himself backed South Stream, and called for the “demilitarisation” of the Black Sea.

Bulgaria’s president theoretically has a largely ceremonial role, but holds influence over foreign policy and parts of the internal security apparatus. In contrast to the Atlanticist outgoing President Plevneliev, both candidates had called for rapprochement with Moscow and an end to sanctions with Russia.

Analysts including Ralchev and Bechev, who focuses on Russian policy in the Balkans, caution against the widespread idea that the new president’s victory will see Bulgaria move back towards its historically pro-Moscow stance. “I don't think there will be a pro-Russia re-orientation under Radev; he will respect Nato commitments. There was a lot of scaremongering by the government,” says Ralchev, who adds that any sign of a significant shift towards the Kremlin would lead to anti-government street protests similar to those seen in 2013.

Kalfin agrees about the new president, but warns about the power of the fringe parties in any new coalition. “I don’t think the new president will change Bulgaria’s orientation – the nationalists and populists are more able to change it, however.”