The New Bulgarian Government: in Search of a Balance

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Alexander Politov, PhD in Political Science, Institute for Regional and International Studies, Sofia, Bulgaria.

Following the 2017 general election results, the 44th National Assembly of Bulgaria will be composed of five parties and coalitions.

The Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party, led by former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, was able to retain its political weight in society comparable to the previous general election, and is the clear winner with 33.54% of the vote (95 of 240 seats). It has clearly mustered the support of the pro-European segment of society.

Despite its high expectations of winning the general elections, especially following  the successful election of the BSP-supported presidential candidate and now incumbent President Roumen Radev in October 2016, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) finished second with 27.93% (80 seats).Their momentum seems to have been lost as the BSP leader and candidates adopted discursive language reminiscent of the communist period, with its anti-EU rhetoric, pro-Russian stance regarding EU sanctions, deriding victims of communist repressions in the past, and undermining democracy, which in BSP leader Kornelia Ninova’s words “has taken a lot from us”. Nevertheless, the BSP succeeded in doubling its electoral results, compared to the previous parliamentary election.

No talks on forming a coalition government have officially started as of yet, since the newly-elected parliament has not yet assembled, but unofficial talks are certainly under way. There are several options as far as forming the new government is concerned, but the two broader options are a government led by GERB, or in case they are unable to form one, the mandate will go to the BSP, which has said that it will attempt to construct a governing coalition. GERB and the United Patriots hold cumulatively 122of the 240 seats in parliament (a very thin majority), but with Volya they will enjoy a comfortable majority of 134 in terms of numbers, but such a coalition may be unstable when it comes down to actual policies and will take a lot of bargaining on a multitude of policy issues to keep the balance within the government. To complicate the situation, there are divisions within the United Patriots coalition; for instance, two of the constituent parties have expressed contradictory views on EU sanctions against Russia.

There are talks about forming a grand coalition between GERB and the Bulgarian Socialist Party, but at the moment this option seems unrealistic, since both parties are likely to incur audience costs and lose support as a result of not following through with election promises. Both have asserted during the election campaign that a grand coalition is not an option.

An expert government, justified in the name of stability, supported both by GERB and the Bulgarian Socialist Party is also circulating as an option, possibly backed up by United Patriots as well. An expert government, in fact, will be a hidden grand coalition, something they will publicly deny, but in effect both will benefit from the spoils of power. This will lead to further cartelization of the Bulgarian political system with elites having common genesis traceable back to the former Bulgarian Communist Party and Communist Secret Services. A grand coalition or expert government will also open space for parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition, and even political unrest.  Other subvariants are also possible, including a minority government, but cannot be considered here at length.

Pre-term elections are not likely to take place in the short run – at least not until the end of Bulgaria’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2018.

In a nutshell, the elections show that the largest number of voters have supported pro-EU parties, which is a positive trend in Bulgarian society since EU membership is the only viable option for Bulgaria in terms of economic prosperity and security considerations. A major problem is that no party which advocated reform of the judiciary was able to pass the 4% threshold – a fact that means that one of the most needed reforms is likely to be stalled, if not forgone altogether.

The elections took place amidst increasing evidence of interference in the elections on the part of Turkey, which met the disapproval of all the major contenders for power. Similar allegations regarding election-meddling on the part of Russia were largely overlooked but remain circulating in society. Speaking in geopolitical and strategic terms, both Turkey and Russia have structural advantages and power capabilities that cause concern in Bulgaria and which the country cannot balance on its own. This structural imbalance tightens the security dilemma for Bulgaria and is behind the strategic choice for the EU and NATO, along with decreasing the need for military spending.

Bandwagoning with either Russia or Turkey, from a security viewpoint, is not a viable option. The only option for Bulgaria is to remain firmly anchored in the EU where it has equal footing with other member states and where it can exert influence. The EU, from security perspective, should turn into a geopolitical union and security provider for its members by building its own capabilities that can effectively balance those of Russia and Turkey. An eventual EU membership of NATO is also an option.

As regards relations between Bulgaria and Russia, a government formed by GERB as a senior coalition partner is likely to be pro-European but seeking good relations with Russia. It is likely to be alerted by some attempts at interference in Bulgaria’s internal affairs such as was seen prior to the presidential elections in October 2016. One might expect that if in government, the Bulgarian Socialist Party will be constrained from pursuing policies advocated during the election campaign; if in opposition, it is likely that it will continue with its election rhetoric.

A government of the Bulgarian Socialist Party is more likely to adopt policies that advance Russia’s interests, especially regarding the EU sanctions. It can even obstruct EU decision-making at Russia’s instigation, acting as a Trojan horse, but fully anti-European stance is not likely. The BSP, and the business affiliated with it, has its own interests within the EU and, despite an anti-EU rhetoric during the elections, is not likely to pursue extreme anti-European policies. Moreover, its former Chairman Sergey Stanishev is currently President of the Party of European Socialists (PES), a fact that would further constrain the BSP at the EU level. So basically, the BSP will follow one policy within EU institution, whereas domestically it will play the pro-Russian card for its electorate. It will be pro-European with the Europeans and pro-Russian with the Russians in order to get the best of both worlds, or to use a Bulgarian expression – to suckle from two breasts if the economic interests of its elites command so.

The junior coalition partners may, in both cases, introduce intervening sets of factors that may certainly complicate the picture and lead to different conclusions, but they cannot be dealt with here.

In sum, following the 2017 parliamentary elections, Bulgaria remains firmly committed to its EU membership, since it is its only option for relative prosperity and democratic development, and together with NATO – for international security. Good relations with Russia and Turkey are to be sought bilaterally, but also in line with EU policies. And one should not forget that good relations are a two-way process. Relations with Russia and Turkey are dependent on the understanding of Bulgaria’s strategic choice and the legitimate security concerns behind this choice. As long as Bulgaria is not viewed as post-Soviet periphery by Russia and its strategic choice is respected, relations with Russia may improve, notwithstanding which party is in power. Then Russia will not be in need for local proxies to advance its interests in Bulgaria and the European Union.

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