Power Protests: The Bulgarian Prime Minister Unexpectedly Resigns
"IF THE finance minister falls, so does the government," said Boyko Borisov, Bulgaria's flamboyant prime minister, three years ago. On February 18th he fired Simeon Djankov, his finance minister, who was also deputy prime minister. Two days later, Mr Borisov himself and his whole cabinet resigned. The former wrestler, bodyguard and police chief had hoped to become the first prime minister to be re-elected after the fall of communism. That has never looked harder.
For the past two weeks thousands of Bulgarians have taken to the streets, initially to protest against electricity and fuel prices. But the demonstrations became violent, and turned into general anti-government protests, with people marching in front of parliament shouting "mafia!" and "resign!" Dozens were injured or arrested. Two men set themselves on fire.
The day before his resignation, Mr Borisov vowed to “fight until the end”. He had hoped to calm the protests by sacking Mr Djankov, a former World Bank economist who is respected by his peers but unpopular with the public because of his stringent austerity policies. Mr Djankov squeezed the budget deficit from 2% in 2011 to 0.5% of GDP, one of the lowest in the EU. Yet deep cuts in wages and pensions have made the people of the poorest EU country even poorer. Some 22.3% of the population live below the poverty line.
Mr Borisov tried to defuse the protests by giving in to some of their demands. He disagreed with Mr Djankov’s refusal to pay about 1 billion levs ($683m) in subsidies to farmers until April, when the EU will transfer the funds. The farmers threatened to protest too, which might have swollen the street demonstrations hugely. Overruling the minister, Mr Borisov decided to pay the subsidies—and issue government debt to fill the gap.
Responding to demands for the expulsion of three foreign-controlled power distributors from Bulgaria, he announced on February 19th that the licence of CEZ, a Czech energy distributor, would be revoked because of systematic irregularities. (CEZ denies any wrongdoing and calls the government’s move “a gross breach of legal norms”.) Mr Borisov also proposed a cut in electricity prices, by 8%, to the energy regulator, and asked for audits of the corporate trio that dominates the market.
Yet nothing seemed to satisfy the protesters. The night before Mr Borisov resigned the demonstrations were especially violent. “I will not participate in a government under which the police are beating people,” said the prime minister, before submitting his resignation. More to the point, he does not want to be part of a government which faces dwindling chances of re-election in July as the protests grow.
Several opinion polls show support for the Socialist opposition rising to match that of GERB, Mr Borisov’s centre-right party. A poll by Gallup International put backing for GERB at around 22% in February, down from 23.8% in January, while support for the Socialists had risen from 19.7% to 22%.
With his unexpected resignation, Mr Borisov has caught the opposition by surprise. The Socialists have not even chosen a candidate for prime minister. Rosen Plevneliev, Bulgaria’s president, is likely to propose bringing forward the election from July to April or May, appointing a caretaker government until then. Mr Borisov says he will not be part of that. Instead, he is likely to devote his time to winning back the political support that he has lost in the past few weeks.
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