What is to become of them?

Written by on May 31, 2013 in Bulgaria, News, Perspectives - No comments

Gazing on Bulgaria’s newly-elected 42nd National Assembly and the personalities that dominated that day of high drama that was the endorsement – by some, at least – of the Oresharski government, it was impossible not to think about the 43rd National Assembly.

The mathematics of this Parliament make it seem impossible for a motion of no confidence in the government in which Plamen Oresharski has been installed as prime minister to succeed.

That implies that this government could last a full four-year term. That is their intention, barring the unforeseen, but in Bulgaria by now, most have learnt to expect the unforeseen.

More realistically, it means that the figures who so dominated the sometimes stormy proceedings on May 29 have a maximum four years to improve their political fortunes.

For the leader of the party with the largest single share of seats, Boiko Borissov, the task is to manoeuvre himself out of the anomalous role of opposition leader and back into government. For those who put Oresharski behind the desk at 1 Dondoukov Boulevard – Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Sergei Stanishev, Movement for Rights and Freedoms leader Lyutvi Mestan, Ataka leader Volen Siderov – their task will be, at very least, to continue the process they have begun of seeking the utter political destruction of Borissov and his GERB.

And for that matter, for the head of state watching on that day from the public gallery above, President Rossen Plevneliev, the landscape has changed. If this Parliament lasts to the elections of 2017, it will be the elections of late 2016 that will determine whether Plevneliev will be sitting again, next time, in that place of honour on that red velvet and gilded chair.

From the speaker’s podium, during debate on the vote on the government, Borissov’s deputy Tsvetan Tsvetanov called out a warning to Plevneliev that the new regime was seeking to isolate him. The fact is that they will be wanting to do more than that. At the presidential elections at the latest, they are sure to seek to unseat him.

So what lies ahead for these six?

Plamen Oresharski

The first interview given by the new prime minister was to public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television. In it, we heard little or nothing more in the way of clarity on “Plan Oresharski”, the smorgasbord of intentions for governance in the coming four years.

Oresharski was put in place to convey the idea that this is somehow an “expert” government, with a former finance minister at its head to lead the country to economic recovery and growth.

The cabinet is the result of political negotiations and clearly was not of Oresharski’s own choosing – his lack of familiarity with some of his ministers was indicated by his fluffing of at least two names, though in the latter case it may be forgivable, given that it was the result of a rapid substitution when a nominee withdrew amid controversy.

In debate, Mestan said that Oresharski was the first Prime Minister of Bulgaria in 20 years not to be the leader of a political party (an odd oversight on the part of the MRF leader, given that sitting a few feet away was outgoing Prime Minister Marin Raykov, who had headed the caretaker government for the previous 77 days and is a diplomat by profession, most certainly not a party political leader). The counterpoint is, of course, that Oresharski has scant political base and will be beholden to socialist leader Sergei Stanishev, who already has spoken of this term in office as a chance for the recovery of the party.

In his interview, Oresharski repeated the promises, the minimum salary of 450 leva by the end of a four-year term, as well as speaking of the BSP fetish project, the Belene nuclear power station, about which he said that a decision would be based on its being “economically viable”. That it would be just that is the claim we heard in the January referendum from the BSP camp.

The recipe from counteracting what Oresharski referred to as fast-growing unemployment was, he said, encouraging investment and entrepreneurship, removing administrative pressure and an eased tax system for small and medium enterprises. Details remain vague.

But, elections over, Oresharski also cautioned that the end of the term of this government would not see Bulgarians reaching the income levels of Germany, France and the UK. Bulgaria would still have the lowest minimum wage. He said that, for him, it was more important first to reduce unemployment.

Oresharski pledged that within a month, a comprehensive plan would be prepared to “rebalance” the energy system in the country and coming up with a new methodology for setting electricity prices.

The first task, he said, would be to establish a stabilisation plan in which the ultimate goal would be not to raise electricity prices.

Oresharski’s plan may not be fully clear on detail, but what is clear is that he faces a tall order in meeting whatever expectations the Bulgarian public may have. Much more than his CV rides on that. Among the many things riding on it is the CV of Stanishev.

Sergei Stanishev

BSP leader since 2002, Stanishev has staved off leadership challenges, including from heavyweight former president Georgi Purvanov. While Stanishev, under whose leadership the BSP has lost several elections, won one indecisively and ran second in this one, may have been described by one BSP veteran as having proved himself to be the master of losing elections, he has fashioned a triumph from the situation.

Oresharski was put forward after Stanishev said that he did not intend returning as prime minister. Now also the leader of the Party of European Socialists, he may have bigger things in his sights. Fond of speaking of the “red wave” that supposedly has swept recent elections in Europe, Stanishev may have set his cap at the post of European Commission President that will come up for grabs in 2014, after May next year’s European Parliament elections.

Naturally, Stanishev has linked the events of May 2013 to what he describes as a chance for his BSP to win back people’s confidence.

Interviewed by Bulgarian mass-circulation daily Trud, Stanishev said that the socialist party had “unique chance to pay for old sins and show that its representatives in the legislature and in the executive are not there to work for their private interests. Being the leader of the party which has the government mandate, I clearly told the ministers, regardless of where they come from, that I expect them to work in the interest of people, not their own interest. There will be no compromises”.

Stanishev, having returned to effective power on the back of protests and scandals, should be well aware of the perils that they could hold for this administration and his party. He has spoken darkly of the alleged plans by Borissov to “destabilise” the country. It is little wonder that Stanishev has devoted so much of his recent speeches to excoriating Borissov and the GERB cabinet; again, faced with the fact of GERB having got the most votes (though he hints at this being the result of cheating), Stanishev also should know that the mathematics of the 43rd National Assembly may not offer the same opportunities as that of the 42nd.

Boiko Borissov

As leader of the opposition in Parliament, Borissov is an unaccustomed role in his career.

One way or another, he always has been in charge. It is true that previously he was the leader of a political alternative, but that was in the days when GERB was formed between parliamentary elections and its path to power at the next vote was apparent. This is not the same as being a leader on the benches of a Parliament where he did not spend much time when he was in government.

Out of power, photo opportunities for Borissov are automatically reduced. Significant parts of the media that was allied to him when GERB was in power swiftly have become critics and with lightning fickleness have become giddy praise-singers for the new government. Parliamentary question time on Fridays, with its limited audience, may not be quite enough of the oxygen needed for GERB to maintain its place in public awareness. And that is without considering the hurdles that Borissov still has to overcome, notably and immediately, the intended prosecution of his deputy Tsvetanov.

Barring other circumstances, he may be left with few options but to await the failure of this government that he appears to expect. And, given the unforeseen, there is no guarantee that should some form of scandal or social unrest bring down the Oresharski administration, it would mean a return to power for Borissov.

One wonders who will be the first to ask whether he intends being GERB’s candidate in the next presidential elections.

Lyutvi Mestan

On a heady day in January 2013, remembered for the “gas pistol” incident, Ahmed Dogan vacated the post of leader of the MRF for it to pass to his deputy Mestan.

The election posters showed the faces of Dogan and Mestan together, an indication that the long-serving deputy still is not quite his own man in the internal complexities of MRF politics.

Yet, Mestan has the benefit of the MRF’s return to power, with it having done well in its share of post and influence in the administration, even in the absence of a formal formula for sharing out cabinet posts, a la the tripartite coalition of 2005 to 2009.

Inescapably, however, the number of MRF votes in this election has gone down, a matter sure to be a priority – the most essential of them all – to address ahead of the next parliamentary elections. That, and everything that will be required to hold together what amounts to a coalition government agreement.

Volen Siderov

Borissov jeered at Siderov after the ultra-nationalist leader, so well-known for treating the MRF as his nemesis, providing the vote needed for the quorum that in turn enabled the return to cabinet offices of MRF nominees.

First, Siderov said that he had done so as a matter of responsibility, second, as a means of preventing a return to power of GERB. Siderov embroidered on this in a Trud interview, saying that he had taken the step he had in order to prevent proceedings reaching a third stage, that of the President offering a mandate to the MRF to form a government.

“GERB chose the high-school approach of not registering (at the May 29 sitting of Parliament to vote on the Oresharski administration) in the hope that they would frustrate the meeting,” Siderov told Trud.

“Doing that was irresponsible, especially in the presence of the Patriarch, the President, ambassadors and representatives of all state institutions and public organizations were there. And what if the meeting had failed? This is what I asked GERB in the plenary chamber: what exactly is it they wanted? If we don’t have quorum today, we will have tomorrow. We can’t play this game every day. Obviously their goal was to be able to say that Ataka gave its support (for the government),” Siderov said.

Of all the four leaders of parties who got into the 42nd National Assembly, the position of Siderov may be the most tenuous. Not that Ataka is not his personal fiefdom; the party has a history of defections from it (Siderov alleges that GERB wallets paid for that); the question is more whether Siderov would be able to lead his party back into Parliament for a fourth time at the next elections.

He had been written off at the end of 2012, but the mobilisation around electricity prices was of benefit to him, given his now-traditional role as a rallying point for the disgruntled and the fact that he had been running an anti-electricity monopoly campaign for long months before the street protests were called up. Possibly compromised in the eyes of at least some of his base for the deal that made the BSP-MRF cabinet possible, ever vulnerable to the fractiousness and risk of defections, Siderov will have only his role as self-appointed crusader for the oppressed consumer to guarantee a political future. It is not impossible that may be enough.

Rossen Plevneliev

The career of the head of state who took office in January 2012 has been, obviously, rather different from what was envisaged. To say nothing of the fact that Plevneliev’s lawyers, especially those who specialise in constitutional matters, must have been rather busy.

Plevneliev took leadership initiatives in the face of the protests and was, of course, at the centre of the difficult process of coming up with a caretaker cabinet.

Ironically, many of the very issues that he has spoken about since taking office – energy market reform, even e-government – have come to the fore one way or another.

With the process that led to the appointment of the caretaker cabinet, and now after the elections, Plevneliev has had plenty of practice at the ritual of offering mandates to govern. Since February, he has done so five times.

Inevitably, he has been a partisan political target. But his public responses have been calm and measured and his messages, about being guided by the constitution, about the need for stability to be established as swiftly as possible, have been consistent. However, none of this is likely to spare him being the target of further attacks, especially in a long game ahead of the 2016 elections.

When GERB was in government, it was a favourite message of the socialists that Borissov controlled all the institutions – government, parliament, the presidency. It is simple logic that the political elimination of Plevneliev will be sought.

Already, the first sabers have been rattled, fairly subtly. Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin has spoken of his intention of what would amount to rehabilitation of the diplomats named as State Security agents. Plevneliev responded swiftly that he would not sign authorisation of any such diplomatic appointments. All of this took place on the first full day of the new government being in office – and for now, signs are that there are a number of years to go.

(Photo montage: From left, Oresharski, Plevneliev, Borissov, Mestan, Siderov, Stanishev)

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About the Author

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015).