The Bulgaria 2011 Review: Domestic Politics

Politics » DOMESTIC | Author: Ognian Kassabov |January 6, 2012, Friday // 17:42
Bulgaria: The Bulgaria 2011 Review: Domestic Politics Bulgaria's outgoing President Parvanov (back) and Prime Minister Borisov (front). File photo

2011, the mid-term year of Bulgaria's GERB cabinet headed by Boyko Borisov, has been marked by a string of trials for the government which it overcame, if not with ease then with confidence.

Amid a staggering economy, further stalled by ongoing financial trouble in the eurozone, dubious success in curbing organized crime, a massive wiretapping scandal, fierce criticism from the opposition, and a string of medium-sized popular protests, support for GERB and Borisov has remained strong, as evinced in a sweeping victory in end-of-October presidential and municipal elections.

Party Dynamics: Strong GERB, Anemic Socialists, Cunning Turks, Evaporating Right

GERB's clinging to both power and the trust of citizens is mirrored by a spectacularly lackluster performance on the part of their strongest rival, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which are still largely continuing to fail to cash in from GERB's vulnerable position as the ones responsible for handling the many issues still haunting Bulgaria. Support for the Socialists has failed to significantly grow, and although their candidate Ivailo Kalfin made a fine and dignified showing in the presidential race, the party performed quite miserably in the municipal vote.

However, the Bulgarian Socialists scored a somewhat important point when early November their leader and Bulgaria's ex-PM (2005-9) Sergey Stanishev was elected temporary leader of the Party of European Socialists to replace the resigned Poul Nyrup Rasmussen before a regular PES congress scheduled for November 2012. This turn of events boosts Stanishev's position within his party, just after a period when he has been put to blame for the Socialists' relative lack of energy and success.

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms has not violated the tradition of remaining a player with stable political support and influence. A "right turn" announced by front-bench MP Lyutvi Mestan (September 2010) was confirmed, with the Movement gradually but palpably moving away from their erstwhile allies, the Socialists, and towards a possible future cooperation with GERB. GERB and Borisov have singled out the Movement and its leader Ahmed Dogan as a key political rival, but the PM has also multiply lauded Dogan as the most intelligent politician in recent Bulgarian history.

Dogan himself experienced troubles within 2011. He was tried – and then acquitted – for strangely receiving a fee as a consultant for a hydro project (Tsankov Kamak) during the time his party was a junior partner in Stanishev's 2005-9 coalition cabinet. Former right hand and Movement vice chair Kasim Dal staged a revolt of sorts, slamming Dogan's authoritative ways and alleged ties with former communist secret services, to be followed by young and promising MP Korman Ismailov. Both of them were promptly expelled from leadership positions in the party. The 2011 elections showed that the Dal split failed to perceptibly split the vote of the Movment's largely ethnic Turkish supporters.

Moving right in the political spectrum, Bulgaria's so-called "traditional right", the Union of Democratic Forces and Democrats for Strong Bulgaria, united in the Blue Coalition, might be drifting towards non-existence as their candidate Rumen Hristov failed to even get 2% at the presidential race. Further, strong rifts were noted between Martin Dimitrov's UDF and former PM Ivan Kostov's DSB. Kostov continues to stand out as an important political actor in Bulgaria, but support for Dimitrov starts to feel feeble even within his own party, as he received a borderline confidence vote after the election fiasco.

The leading nationalist party, Ataka, which strode on the scene at 2005 parliamentary elections, might also be nearing its end, as signaled by a still unquenched intraparty family scandal which erupted right after leader Volen Siderov made an unconvincing 3.6% showing in the presidential race. MEP and Siderov's stepson Dimitar Stoyanov asked for Siderov's resignation – to no avail, but signaling that trust for him is low within the party. To top that, a number of MPs left the Ataka parliamentary group, leaving the number of MPs just at the minimum required (10 MPs).

This development comes notwithstanding the fact that in May Ataka staged a high-profile performance that ended up being among the most disgraceful in recent Bulgarian history. Ataka supporters, including MPs, engaged in a violent fight with praying Muslims at the Banya Bashi Mosque in central Sofia. No-high profile participant in the unfortunate event was convicted by Bulgarian courts.

Institutional Dynamics: the Crushing Strength of Executive Power

On the interinstitutional scene, little has changed, with a heavy, overweening dominance of the executive over the legislative, and, to some extent, over the judiciary. The Bulgarian Parliament has been little more than a voting machine for legislation tabled by or developed at the behest of cabinet, with GERB relying on the comfortable support of 117 MPs out of 240 plus a number of trusted independents. To the credit of GERB leaders, their group in parliament exhibits adamant discipline, showing one of the very few Bulgarian instances in which such a large parliamentary group has seen no leaving of MPs.

Parliamentary debates have been marred by lack of substance, with opposition MPs shoveling often justified criticism at the ruling party, only to be met by rejection on the part of GERB MPs and ministers. An interesting tendency of convergence of positions on the part of the Socialists and the Blues, arch-rivals in Bulgarian politics since the early 1990s, still continues to hold. Without mutual coordination, left and right often use identical arguments against Borisov's policies. This has nonetheless led to no constructive opposition rapprochement.

End of July the Borisov cabinet expectedly and easily survived its third non-confidence vote, with 143 MPs rejecting the motion, 91 supporting it, and 1 abstaining. Few ministers and hardly the PM himself were present at the debate. End of January the government had received a confidence vote, with 141 MPs supporting it.

Wiretapping in a "Police State"

PM Boyko Borisov's background as secretary general of the Ministry of Interior (2001-5), as well as the key role of vice-PM, Minister of Interior and GERB vice-chair Tsvetan Tsvetanov has led to an entrenching in Bulgaria of the peculiar term of a "police state". This refers not so much to what is known as the police power of the state, but rather to a state apparatus ran primarily by policemen using police methods, implying methods that frequently prefer the discretion of force to democratic procedure.

This hypothesis was confirmed by a peculiar "Tapegate" or "Tanovgate" scandal that erupted in early January 2010, when tapes of secret surveillance were leaked on which the voices of Customs Agency head Vanyo Tanov and other key Ministry of Finance officials were recorded. In them, Tanov apparently alleged that Tsvetanov has pressured for protection of certain smuggling circles.

To top that, Tanov was also heard saying that PM Borisov had asked him to cancel a customs check on assets held by famous businessman, beer producer and Basketball Union president Mihail Mihov. It was the Tapegate scandal that prompted the Borisov cabinet to ask for and win the January confidence vote in Parliament. Mihov himself suffered a heart attack and passed away end of March.

Intracabinet Dynamics: Finance and Energy

If there is a divisive figure in the GERB cabinet at all, it still can be only that of Minister of Finance Simeon Djankov who has irked a number of his colleagues with his unwillingness to pay for their sectors. Symptomatic among those was a continued conflict with Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Totyu Mladenov, in which Djankov imposed a social services reform unwanted by Mladenov. Borisov stepped in to support his FinMin and vice-PM, threatening Mladenov with dismissal.

An unusual end-of-year vaudeville was played out at the very end of 2011, between Christmas and New Year's, when Borisov lashed out – for the very first time – at Djankov to defend Minister of Agriculture and Foods Miroslav Naydenov. Djankov had criticized what he saw as the ineffective work of Naydenov and his requests for more funds for agriculture, quipping in his usual tongue-in-cheek manner that if the latter persists, he might need to leave cabinet. Borisov played out severe irritation at that judgment, retorting in anger that it might be Djankov who will be the first to leave. In an unprecedented display of harshness towards him, he said that the cabinet and GERB party have had to continually deal with "the negatives" of Djankov's austerity policies.

A special nod needs to be made to Bulgaria's Minister of Economy and Energy Traicho Traikov, who had to withstand a number of strange situations in which he came out as the more probable winner, albeit his non-presuming attitude. In April Traikov had to face threats to be "fired" by PM Borisov for dismissing National Electric Company head Krasimir Parvanov over signing a controversial agreement with Russian energy company Atomstroyexport over the joint Belene NPP project. Just months later, Traikov had to face Borisov's energy ire again, when the minister pressed for an anti-monopoly probe against Lukoil Bulgaria, the major distributor of petrol in the country.

Protests and Communication with Citizens

2011 was also marked by a string of medium-sized popular protests that failed to considerably shake up the cabinet or its policies.

A number of car drives were held against what was perceived as excessively high prices of fuels in the country. Environmentalists protested the contract for shale gas exploration with American company Shevron, concluded in the early summer. At this point, this has apparently led to a more cautious and environmentally sensitive approach on the part of the Bulgarian cabinet, but the contract is still on. A yet negligible "Occupy Bulgaria" movement was started in the fall months.

September was marred by the worst inter-ethnic tensions in Bulgaria for years after Roma killed an ethnic Bulgarian in the Plovdiv village of Katunitsa, which led to the burning of property belonging to local notorious Roma clan leader Kiril Rashkov, and a string of protests against "unpunished crime" in many Bulgarian cities, regrettably taking on anti-Roma racist undertones. Fortunately the Katunitsa case did acquire a political dimensions. (Read more in The Bulgaria 2011 Review: Society.)

The end of the year was rounded off by a major 2-week strike of employees of the Bulgarian State Railways and massive road marches by agricultural producers. Apparently the government had agreed pre-election to larger farming subsidies for 2012, which were then not held out in the tabled budget for next year. Railway workers in turn protested against massive layoff and privatization plans at their financially ailing company. Albeit garnering some sympathy with some fellow citizens, neither protest managed to achieve a significant change of policy on the part of the government.

New Political Actors?

Former secret agent, security expert, businessman and alleged organized crime leader Aleksei Petrov failed to become the next star on the Bulgarian political horizon. Back in 2010, Petrov had a high-profile organized crime trial staged against him (the trial is still on), and was stylized by Borisov and Tsvetanov as the mastermind of Bulgaria's criminal world. To boot, Petrov has a record of business ties to Borisov in the murky past of the early 1990s. In a situation in which many commentators said he was in a good position to exercise influence, the businessman decided to run for president. However, he failed to garner even 1% of the vote.

By way of contrast, Bulgaria's first EU Commissioner Meglena Kuneva's re-entry into national politics was little short of brilliant. Announcing over the spring that she would run for president and eschewing party support, the liberal politician came out third in the race, with 14% of the vote. In December Kuneva announced the founding of a new "Bulgaria for Citizens" civic movement, aimed to address key problems of Bulgaria's politics, society and economy. Although Kuneva seems reluctant to founding a new party, commentators have said the movement is in a good position to morph into a force attracting rightist and liberal voters who have shied away from GERB and the Blue Coalition.

You can read more about Bulgaria's October elections in The Bulgaria 2011 Review: Presidential and Local Elections.

2012: The Fate of the Presidents

Elections 2011 bode radical changes in the roles of two actors who as such are not new for Bulgarian politics. Outgoing president Georgi Parvanov steps out of office end of January 2012, after fulfilling his two constitutional terms. In comes Rosen Plevneliev, Borisov's erstwhile popular Minister of Regional Development in charge of the GERB cabinet's much vaunted infrastructure projects, chiefly highways and other roads.

Plevneliev struck the figure of a technocrat, foreign to ideologies and vain politicizing, but warm and kind by heart. While some dismissed him as politically incompetent and not articulated enough to be a country's president, others saw the former construction businessman as a welcome change of style in contrast with Parvanov's alleged stilted ways and socialist leanings.

A key argument that troubled the minds of Plevneliev's supporters and adversaries alike was the degree to which he would be independent from Borisov's cabinet and the PM himself to ensure an adequate balance of powers in Bulgaria. Plevneliev's meek ways, combined with Borisov's traditional macho attitude have added to skepticism, only to be confirmed by a string of crucial grossly patronizing remarks on the part of the PM to the effect that Plevneliev under in his full control.

To make matters even clearer, at the very end of December it was PM Borisov himself who announced that Bulgarian State Agency for National Security ex-head Tsvetlin Yovchev will be Plevneliev's chief of staff once the latter assumes office. Yovchev had resigned from Bulgaria's secret services in February due to the Tapegate scandal, upon which Borisov commented that despite this incident Yovchev still is a good expert who needs to be used by the state.

On his part, Parvanov has not hidden intentions to return to the Bulgarian Socialist Party he chaired before becoming president in 2001. The ABV movement initiated by Parvanov at the end of 2010 has done virtually nothing throughout 2011, and it is clear that Parvanov does not intend to use it to create a new leftist party. It is almost certain Parvanov will not be content to stay a mere BSP activist but will try to replace current leader Stanishev at the upcoming party congress in May or October 2012.

Parvanov has a strong circle of supporters in the party, and Stanishev's performance as an opposition leader has not been brilliant, so a Parvanov win is not unlikely. On the other hand, the degree to which Stanishev's standing in BSP has been boosted due to his election for interim PES leader is still not clear. An interesting topic for future reflection has to do with the direction a freshly Parvanov-led BSP might take in 2012 and after. Over the summer, Parvanov said he wanted to open up the party to "new political allies". Could that pave the way to a strategic alliance between Bulgaria's current two most popular parties, GERB and the Socialists?

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