Bulgaria's Grand Parliament Chessboard Might Be Both Ailment and Cure
Never in Bulgaria's recent history has such a result been observed - eight parties, meaning an extremely fragmented Parliament, with political deadlock among warring factions preventing any two-party majorities. To make matters worse, this outcome is generated by a 49-percent turnout, a historic low at general elections. At the same time it looks as though 95 percent of voters were represented (under 4.5 percent of the ballots have not produced a parliamentary force), but the low share of those refusing to go to the polls suggests even the winner GERB talked just 15 out of 100 people into backing it.
This disastrous, nearly apocalyptic picture, hides another side, however: it puts parties to the challenge to prove the phrase that “only when it is dark can you see the stars” is more than a clich?.
GERB Reached Its Own Electoral Threshold
Ex-PM Boyko Borisov's Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) reached 39.7 percent in 2009, delivering a huge blow to the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). Since then it has always boasted its triumph at a series of votes, but has never gone beyond that figure. And even five years ago it needed a minority cabinet (falling just 4 lawmaker seats short of its own majority) to govern; in other words, it needed other parties' support and could not go it alone. Strangely enough, after reiterating for weeks the Reformist Bloc, a right-wing alliance, is a natural partner, it returned to the “minority” scenario – one that it has already played out.
Sinking trust in politicians obviously forces Boyko Borisov back to his old habits – drawing eschatological sketches to inform Bulgarians what happens if he is not in power. “Early elections around Christmas,” he warned a few times, both before and after the vote. It strikingly resembled the caretaker government's constant warnings Bulgaria is about to collapse due to actions of the previous government, which, for their part, reminded of Borisov's own behavior while in government from 2009 to 2013... We can conclude GERB failed to mobilize additional voters despite promulgating their apocalyptic images for months. (Recent) history has shown Borisov resorts to the Apocalypse to retain support. And if he is becoming increasingly incoherent and radical in his remarks, he might either feel insecure or fully realize, for the first time, he might now fail to go it alone.
Can BSP Sink Any Deeper?
If there is anyone to be disappointed, it is the BSP, though.
Since it renamed itself and evolved (I use that word intentionally) from a “communist” into a “socialist” party back in the 1990s, the sheer idea of under 40 MPs representing this party in Parliament had always been pure science fiction... until now. “You should find water for this rose,” a TV host at the Bulgarian National Television advised a socialist member on Monday, referring to the symbol of the party, now doubtlessly withering.
Dubbed “the Centenarian” for being among Bulgaria's oldest parties, for being experienced and always able to rise on its feet, the BSP's result is now a historic low. Its recently-appointed Chairman, Mihail Mikov, who took over from MEP Sergey Stanishev in end-July, was rather reluctant to openly comment on the reasons, despite being as loquacious as usual, at the party's press conference on Sunday evening. He said he would take responsbility for the figures, and apparently he has a good reason to do so. Records piled up over the past hours, many of them related to the BSP: no lead in any Bulgarian region, almost no distance with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), with socialists on the brink of a heart attack while waiting to see whether liberals will oust them as the second political force.
However, history has shown the BSP – indisputably the best-organized and structured Bulgarian party for various reasons – has always emerged from the ashes after any terrible defeat: the catastrophic 17.15% in 2001 grew to over 30 percent in 2005; the nearly 17 percent in 2009 turned into more than twenty-six in 2013. Now, at 15.4 percent, it has to tackle the splintering of President (2002-2011) Parvanov's ABV, or Alternative for Bulgarian Revival. And Mikov's refusal to blame others for the poor showing (even though certain phrases made it clear he could have done so if he had wished to) is a proof the party knows it either has to become a small-electorate party or to evolve further.
Nobody Wants to Play with DPS
If Bulgarian parties (leaving the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, or DPS, aside) have already agreed on anything, it is not to let the DPS into power. Even Parvanov, occasionally portraying himself as a guarantor of national unity (what he was as President under the Constitution), was adamant in his first statement after the vote the party had to remain out of power, and the Patriotic Front admittedly described it as a foe. Mihail Mikov acknowledged socialists’ low performance was partly an assessment of relations with “the coalition partner” in the previous cabinet, a partner many experts say brought it harm.
In effect, the DPS has been subject to demonization, accused of fomenting divisions along ethnic lines. Honestly speaking, the latter can hardly be denied, given that it retained support of ethnic Turks as usual and squeezed the bulk of the Roma vote from the hands of the BSP, which had traditional influence there, but appealed only to 3 percent of Bulgarians, even though a large share of its MP candidates were of the majority ethnic group exactly to help it achieve that end. Many of its critics also say the party is now “overfed with power” and has only formally renounced its governmental role in the last cabinet, silently leading from behind.
The DPS is not actually growing, however; if it is the de-facto winner (and nobody likes winners), it is manly because of profiting from low voter turnout, from other parties’ weaknesses and the fragmented vote in which with smaller parties drained support from GERB and the BSP. In nominal terms, its electorate has remained the same.
If the liberals really stay out of government, Bulgaria will have the opportunity to subject itself to a test: is silent support for DPS interests what drives the country down, or is it bad governance and failure to preserve citizens' interests? If they remain in opposition, the DPS will, at least for some time, stop being a major justification for any wrongdoing.
Reformists Evidently Preparing to Backtrack
The Reformist Bloc, a coalition of right-wing parties purporting to offer an alternative for “the right-leaning voters”, was quick to show off with what it described as a twofold increase of its results compared to those at the EU Parliament elections in May. The bloc, where the core parties are the former “anti-communist” successors of the United Democratic Forces, the coalition of ex-Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, could hardly expect the previous two-digit figure that brought them to power in 1997. That notwithstanding, they seek to portray themselves as a keymaker for the next government, with one of the leaders, Bozhidar Lukarski, first arguing the alliance would never accept a GERB-led cabinet if Boyko Borisov is Prime Minister. At the same time Meglena Kuneva, another leader, unofficially aspiring to become Chair of the bloc at the next elections, announced she could call a referendum if the bloc decides on a government coalition with the victors. Radan Kanev, who heads of a third party (and a potential leader of the bloc itself) and his fellow colleague Petar Moskov, took a few U-turns in their stance twice or trice in a week, first saying they backed Borisov as PM and afterwards voicing dissension.
Commenting on the bloc’s behavior, Borisov joked he did not know whom to turn to if he wanted to hold political negotiations, since reformists have no single leader and have not consolidated themselves as a political subject. But he could most likely be calm about their loyalty: the more time passes after elections, the more frequent they reluctanly admit they do not mind seeing him in power.
Smaller Parties Have No Interest in Allowing Government Talks to Fail
The Patriotic Front came as a huge surprise in terms of results, coming fifth ahead of the recent phenomenon Bulgaria without Censorship, but shows the far-sightedness of VMRO and NFSB, the two partners in the nationalist coalition. Over the past months in drained a lot of support from another party claiming to be nationalist, Ataka, given that the two entities’ leaders were once close friends, and NFSB’s Valeri Simeonov was the groom of Ataka’s Volen Siderov.
"We do not have ambitions to become ministers, Prime Ministers, Presidents, Popes... not least the Armenian Priest, of course," VMRO leader grinned at the PF press conference. His joke tells us something: what is it they want if not to be in power? Maybe to remain in opposition, where only the VMRO has been, and the last time was in 2005 as part of yet another coalition (the party recently shifted from an alliance with Barekov’s Bulgaria without Censorship to NFSB)? Surely both would like to stay in the 43rd National Assembly, since most smaller Bulgarian parties believe if they have secured seats, they should defent them whatever the cost.
The results of former journalist Nikolay Barekov, on the other hand, was rather disappointing and unexpected after the huge success in the EU elections, the party’s debut in the voting process, when it gave some experts ground to believe it could boost its support even further. Now its statements were rather a signal of retreat, since Barekov was clear he would personally stay out of power. “Nikolay Barekov will be member of Parliament – whether a European or a Bulgarian one is not important,” he argued. But it does make a difference. In Bulgaria, when a leader stays out of power despite having any kind of opportunity, it is usually a sign he/she is about to shun responsibility. Although Barekov himself admitted his own fault for the political crisis, his behavior suggests he will not be at the spearhead if a next stage of a crisis unfolds.
President Parvanov is yet another example, though ABV’s results mark his return in politics. What role precisely he could have as Chair of the party without entering legislature or executive (of course, his dignity as President is still a good motive) is unclear. Still, his statements about possible coalitions bore the usual vagueness.
Ataka’s results were also beyond most projections – at least until last week, when a controversial decision of energy watchdog DKEVR (appointed during the interim cabinet, criticized for openly giving a hand to GERB) to raise the electricity bill prompted fresh protests where Ataka was among the key parties – just as it was when it tried to flow into the masses protesting against the energy price hike adopted during Borisov’s tenure (the protests toppled down his government).Its leader Volen Siderov vowed not to conform to bigger parties’ caprices. Its recent record, however, tells a different story: Ataka’s unofficial (and definitely unholy) alliance with the BSP-DPS coalition in the previous Parliament, where it maintained the status quo, shows it would also prefer to cling to power than eventually drop out at a prospective next election if there is no incidental cause to help it mobilize voters.
Parties Need Unusual Cautiousness This Time
In the eve of coalition talks between the eight (or seven, one excluded?) parties, it would be hard to predict a final result, and the task is not even up to political scientists; it is rather only time that can tell. At the same time the fragmented vote of the “poor relatives”, as certain media outlets described Bulgarians after the vote, will certainly enrich the country’s political experience. There are too many small parties fervently desiring to maintain the status quo; the BSP is too weak to even think of other elections; and GERB will definitely refrain from throwing away its victory to the wind after virtually a year and a half of political campaigning – not only in the past month of the official race, but also during and after the 2013 anti-government protests, and even (again unofficially) in the term of the interim government. The DPS would certainly be interested in polishing its image, leaving others to be blamed in case of new blunders in government and then coming back to power to prove its point, showing it is “the most pro-EU, pro-NATO and value-based” party of all.
Who would like to cast this wonderful status quo to the wind? Much discussions and much fuss should be expected in the incoming legislature, whatever the configuration. This is where the beam of hope shines, since they say truth is born in argument, and much dispute will be required to keep the Parliament afloat. Interaction between different parties might at least require some evolution and thus bring change.
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