Troubled Bulgaria heads for complicated election result

By bne IntelliNews October 3, 2014

Sandy Gill in Sofia -


As Bulgarians prepare to vote this Sunday, October 5 in their second elections for the national parliament in less than 18 months, opinion pollsters are predicting a complicated outcome with no party gaining an overall majority – and anywhere between five and eight groups clearing the 4% hurdle needed to qualify for parliament under the country’s electoral system. And this when the country is beset by urgent problems, and could do with a little decisiveness.

A bumpy ride

It’s been mayhem, in fact, since early 2013, when Boiko Borisov, the tough-guy centre-rightist prime minister, was pushed from office by mass demonstrations about high electricity bills. Though his Citizens For European Development of Bulgaria (GERB, in Bulgarian) remained the largest political group following resultant 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agency triggered mass protests that continued in general anti-government mode months after the appointment had been withdrawn.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 these 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 the Russian 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 loomed. Populist tariff cuts had produced a massive and threatening hole in electricity system finances. No decision was 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, making extensive personnel changes, and has a draft budget ready.

A crowded field

With campaigning overall rather lacklustre, Borisov’s GERB is clearly well in front. Its slogan, “A Stable Bulgaria,” is one for the times and it can appeal to a reasonably successful government between 2009 and 2013. GERB touts its demonstrated ability to get infrastructure built and – with some credibility lent by high-profile support from European People’s Party colleagues during the campaign – on getting access to EU funds, in respect of which the previous government had suffered some suspensions.

Big on financial soundness in the energy sector, Borisov softens that message by the promise of targeted aid with payments to those who need it and a massive programme to reduce energy bills by refurbishing socialist-era residential blocks. The result isn’t massive enthusiasm: “The vote for GERB will not be a matter of confidence in GERB, but rather a vote for whoever is likely to muster the coherence and direction to get something done,” remarks political scientist Vladimir Shopov of the New Bulgarian University. “There’s nothing reminiscent of the hoopla and expectation that attended Borisov’s election in 2009.”

But pollsters reckon it will get GERB a sizeable chunk of the vote: Alpha Research – one of the agencies least distrusted by Bulgarians – put it at 34% in the last few days of September. Which probably means around 100 MPs. And no one thinks Borisov will get an outright majority.

His most logical partner – described by GERB figures earlier in the campaign as its only possible partner – is the Reformist Bloc, a coalition of several right-wing parties formed after division had excluded the right from the last parliament. It will almost certainly make parliament this time: Alpha predicts 6% of the vote and 16-18 MPs. Continued internal fractiousness and a tendency to try to dictate terms to Borisov, however, makes it unlikely that he would want to rely on it solely, even if he could, arithmetically.

Meanwhile, the senior partner in the previous government coalition, the BSP, is very much down, though by no means out: Alpha reckons 19% of the vote and 53-55 MPs. With many of its supporters disillusioned by its failure to advance Russian-linked energy projects and deliver on promises for progressive income tax, by excessive cosiness with Peevski, and by the government’s poor performance and ignominious collapse, the BSP has signally failed to overhaul its leadership since its long-term leader Sergei Stanishev beat an undignified retreat to the European Parliament at end-June. “Stanishev’s favoured successor Mihail Mikov was appointed to replace him and there are no new faces at the top following his departure,” notes Daniel Smilov, political expert at Sofia’s Center for Liberal Strategies.

That might give a chance to the Alliance for Bulgarian Revival (ABV in Bulgarian), an alternative leftist formation established erstwhile president – and former BSP leader – Georgi Parvanov. Smilov is sceptical of its appeal: ideologically ABV is incoherent, social democrats rubbing shoulders with BSP traditionalists and Russophiles. “But it’s getting the benefit of the general weakness of the BSP and people’s anger at the BSP’s leadership.” Alpha doesn’t think it will make parliament. Some agencies do, however. It’s “on the cusp”.

More likely to enter parliament is the curious populist formation Bulgaria Without Censorship, led by former TV host Nikolay Barekov. Probably past the peak it reached during the European Parliament campaign, it’s suffering from loss of allies and will probably be disadvantaged by higher turn-out than for the European Parliament elections. But it’s still conspicuously well-financed – by Peevski, some rumours have it. Alpha puts it just about on a level with the Reformist Bloc.

At least one Bulgarian nationalist formation will probably make the grade, too. Discredited in some quarters by support for a government including ethnic Turks, by rather obvious subservience to Russia, and by the erratic behaviour of its leader Volen Siderov, Ataka is widely expected to fall below the 4% threshold – though it may not do so by much, speculates Shopov, while some agencies are predicting success. And then there’s the Patriotic Front coalition, led by the very unerratic businessman Valeri Simeonov and adorned by the historic Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation – formerly Barekov’s ally. Simeonov’s National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria is avowedly pro-European and not given, like Siderov, to leftist economic ideas, notes Smilov. The Patriotic Front will scrape in with 12 MPs, thinks Alpha – which doesn’t quite rule out Ataka either.

Finally, there’s the MRF, a definite entrant given that it is, in effect, a patronage party with a very solid regional and ethnic support base. That should get it over 15% of the vote and 44 MPs, thinks Alpha. But it’s a very problematic partner. “The MRF is the legitimate representative of the Turkish minority, but it’s also a corporate structure and is behind most of the problems with the banking sector,” says Smilov, alluding to connections with the ill-fated KTB.

It also still prominently features the controversial Peevski, who’s standing again as an MP. “If political life in Bulgaria were normal, a politician suffering so many scandals would have stepped down,” sighs Smilov. “The fact that he hasn’t done so indicates that something is wrong. DPS for some reason can’t afford for him to withdraw.”

Burned by its partnership with the MRF in government, the BSP has sworn not to touch the Turkish party again – and has used the notion that Borisov was contemplating a coalition with the MRF as a campaigning point.

Boiko’s choice

A lot – though not everything – obviously depends on the precise outcome of Sunday’s poll and the parliamentary arithmetic that it entails. Borisov’s declared position, occasionally a guide to his actions, has evolved somewhat over the last three months. Originally, he was insisting that he would only govern if the electorate gave GERB an absolute majority in parliament (a somewhat unconvincing attempt to scare voters with the financial Armageddon presented as the alternative). Next, he presented Reformist Bloc as the “only possible partner” for GERB, while he and his associates heaved sighs over Reformist Bloc’s tiresomeness and adolescent behaviour.

In late August, while ruling out a coalition with the MRF, Borisov predicted that a GERB-led cabinet would include ten ethnic Turkish deputy ministers – which would be something of a feat if the MRF wasn’t in some sense on side. A week before the polls he was cited by Reuters as talking of a “broad coalition,” though he insisted that he hadn’t and merely alluded to the need for “responsible and constructive talks between the political forces" because of the necessity for “political and public support as regards nationally important sectors.” He’s also recently remarked that Reformist Bloc appears unwilling to form a centre-right coalition. He’s also worried aloud about possible failure to form a government leading to further elections early next year.

Things will be just a little clearer after the polls, when it emerges what potential partners Borisov has to choose from. Reformist Bloc may not have exclusive rights. Borisov has openly pooh-poohed the idea of cooperating with Barekov. But if ABV enters parliament, it could be a useful counterweight. So could the conveniently EU-friendly Patriotic Front. And the chosen formula may turn out not to be a coalition but a GERB-led government with participation of individuals from other political formations, underpinning those formations’ consent.

At any rate, the pressure will be on to find a solution quickly. That budget update needs to be enacted soon, with due regard for expenses associated with the banking and energy sectors. Some clarity needs to be brought to the situation of bankrupt lender KTB, though Borisov hasn’t yet committed himself to a solution, noting recently that, “we still don't know how many bad loans there are, can this bank actually be rescued?”

And some sort of consent needs to be engineered on the question of electricity price: the regulator has just raised tariffs by almost 10%, with several parties vocal in protest. Borisov is only too aware of the potential threat of “power politics,” so he’ll need to get those energy benefits for the poor in place pretty quickly.

If, that is, he decides to become prime minister. That’s not certain, points out Shopov. “If he realises just how big the problems are and doubts whether he can solve them, the chances of him declining the post are quite high: being driven out of office twice would just be too humiliating. In this case he might task a technocrat or another GERB politician.” An interesting possibility.

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