Bulgaria's Borisov 2.0 Cabinet: Bringing Opponents Together
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Were coalition talks held after Bulgaria's October 5 early elections a well-directed drama or an improvised tragicomedy?
The answer is of no importance: political forces sat at the same table accidentally, after the election results put a wheel on the plans of the two biggest parties, center-right GERB and center-left BSP, which were finding it hard to keep them a secret: both hinted before the vote and admitted afterwards the goal had been a "grand coalition". The unprecedented eight parties in Parliament however made the mission impossible.
In less than 24 hours after the vote the first natural instinct of election winner GERB was to declare it would expect support from the rightist Reformist Bloc (RB) and the Patriotic Front (PF) to form a coalition. Boyko Borisov, who is now Bulgaria's Prime Minister for a second time, chose this time to avoid the mistakes of his previous mandate which ended abruptly in 2013 months before a new general poll. Back then, policies were solely his minority government's responsibility. Now, he wished it should be shared and proposed that other parties back his cabinet and get ministerial seats in return.
A few weeks of negotiations followed suit and were held in three rounds, two of them official. GERB first "explored" the opportunity to strike an alliance with each one of the remaining seven parties through "mediators" (since Borisov himself did not take part). It then announced four parties had been "selected" for another round of talks: these were the BSP, the RB, the PF and leftist Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV). GERB's step caused mixed reactions, with some experts calling its negotiation tactics "a government casting".
In reality, there was third - and "parallel" round of negotiations wherein those "coalition bidders" who were more dissatisfied with the current stage of talks were roaming around the sidelines of Parliament seeking clarification of positions and conditions. Reformists were the most spectacular player in this round: it was as if they had been certain from the beginning a government could not be formed without them (something to which Borisov himself pointed). Within a few weeks, had been constantly changing their positions, even refusing to accept Borisov as Prime Minister, until GERB's move brought the game to a twist by publicly accepting the option that Reformist Bloc co-leader Radan Kanev could become Prime Minister. At the same time, despite often embarking on U-turns during the talks, they rushed to GERB's headquarters after every step of Borisov that put their government participation in jeopardy.
The Patriotic Front declined to send ministers into the government and that meant a minority coalition was the only viable option to form a cabinet: taking PF out of calculations, the prospective "ruling parties" reached a parliamentary majority of 118 out of 240 MPs, just below the half. PF co-leader Valeri Simeonov said he was ready to propose names of experts to become ministers; what his coalition actually managed to do was to secure both the role of a government "supporter" and a "partial opposition" without creating the impression of being "a status quo", pro-government formation among its voters.
Europe tried to prevent the PF's involvement in the government after European liberals (ALDE) and center-right EPP declared they were against the inclusion of nationalists in Bulgaria's governance. In the latter case, the visit to Bulgaria of EPP Group Chairman Joseph Daul was a genuine test for Borisov. "There should be no nationalist parties in Bulgaria's cabinet," Daul openly said while in Sofia, questioning the country's sovereignty. Borisov initially seemed inclined to heed his call; but the final result was different and was even better for the cabinet, since he opted to strengthen the parliamentary majority and later invited ABV to enter the coalition.
ABV had initially resisted to join, arguing it would remain in opposition. Its final decision prompted an expert to say "these negotiations are historic, because they will make Ivan Kostov and Georgi Parvanov [who heads ABV] sit at the same table for the first time in ten years." The observer was referring to the fact that Kostov, who was Bulgarian PM in the first years of Parvanov's first presidential term, is widely suspected of leading RB from behind.
But actually it was GERB that had to cater for all coalition partners: the agreement with Parvanov was signed in Parliament's East Hall, while that with Reformists and Patriots was in the West Hall. This turned the coalition including conservative, leftist and nationalist parties in a combination of Borisov's bilateral commitments, with the Prime Minister having to balance carefully between all of them.
One cannot help thinking that creating the government did not put an end to the negotiations; weeks after the new cabinet was officially agreed, conflicting demands of the ruling parties put the coalition's integrity into question. Some aspects of these weeks of tense dialogue are most likely to remain a secret. But is there a democracy where all cards are laid on the table?
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