In the runup to Bulgaria’s early parliamentary elections on October 5 2014, Boiko Borissov – leader of GERB, the party likely to win the most votes – is playing a sophisticated but politically potentially risky game with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and with the Reformist Bloc.
Winning the game will enable his return as head of government, in a reprise of his role from 2009 to early 2013. Fluffing his hand will serve only to alienate some of his own voters and those of the centre-right who might not support his party but could live with supporting its return to power as part of a broader coalition.
Whatever is going on between Borissov and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) began before the departure of the discredited and disastrous administration that was in office from May 2013 to August 2014.
In a role familiar to it from previous governing coalitions, the MRF held in power, in partnership with the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the so-called “expert” cabinet that was the result of GERB being unable to tissue its May 2013 majority share of votes into a new governing coalition, and the mandate to govern being handed to the second-ranked BSP.
Apart from its other inadequacies, the government was easy for GERB to attack by invoking the memory of the tripartite coalition of 2005 to 2009 – which included the BSP, the MRF and the now-all-but-defunct National Movement for Stability and Progress.
The 2013/14 cabinet was held in place by the BSP and the MRF with the tacit support of far-right ultra-nationalists Ataka – making this new tripartite coalition, as Borissov was wont to term it, a political oddity because of the participation of Ataka in support of its supposed bete noir, the MRF that is led and supported in the main by Bulgarians of ethnic Turkish descent.
But that same cabinet was brought down because of the decisive role played by the MRF as it insisted – against the background of the daily series of widely-supported anti-government protests but most of all because of the pathetic performance of the BSP in Bulgaria’s May 2014 European Parliament elections – that the game was up and the cabinet could not remain in office.
The BSP, already in deep turmoil over its latest failures, had to give way – and found its only revenge on its erstwhile ruling axis partner in its claims that Borissov and the MRF had done a deal.
There had been the notable sight of Borissov and MRF leader Lyutvi Mestan somewhat ostentatiously joining each other for an apparently convivial coffee, but both insisted that this was nothing more than that, supposedly a gesture of commitment to ethnic harmony and nothing at all to do with future political plans.
More recently, there have been pointed comments by Borissov, for instance underlining that his party and the MRF had common ground on the issue of the Budget amendments presented to the now-defunct 42nd National Assembly in its dying days.
On August 17, Borissov, at a photo opportunity in a village that is nearby one of the MRF’s most durable strongholds, promised to reporters that in a future cabinet with him at its head, there would be at least 10 deputy ministers who are Bulgarian Muslims.
As provocative a claim as this may be in some circles, it must be taken in the context of Borissov continuing to insist that he would be prepared to form a government only if GERB wins 121 seats in the October 5 elections – in other words, one more than half the 240 seats in the 43rd National Assembly.
It is far to early to seek to predict the outcome of those elections, and probably will remain too early until after the ballots are counted.
But the fact is that GERB has taken the largest single share of votes in every election in which it has participated since its formal founding, and now faces a main rival – the BSP – that seems even weaker than before, not only having undergone a minor split with Georgi Purvanov’s ABC movement but also having bumped through the turbulence of a leadership contest that has produced the uninspiring result of Mihail Mikov, a former Speaker and former interior minister, as its new leader.
In turn, after the political instability of recent months, GERB might well be expected to be seeking a decisive majority.
In this, its most probable partners would be the Reformist Bloc and, in another scenario, the MRF. For now, it would be going too far to imagine what form a coalition could take – one operating according to a written agreement or to a less formal arrangement.
GERB, in 2009, ruled as a minority government, but with informal arrangements with the then-parliament’s smallest parties, respectively Ataka (lest it be forgot) and later, after Borissov and Ataka leader Volen Siderov became estranged, with Yane Yanev’s Order Law and Justice party.
Bearing that past in mind, of course, it could be added that Borissov might skirt past the MRF and Reformist Bloc and instead co-operate with the ultra-nationalist Patriotic Front, made up of former partners of Ataka and the nationalist VMRO, headed by a former State Security agent.
For now, Borissov’s game with the MRF might be less of a future alliance than a lever against the Reformist Bloc.
The Reformist Bloc was formed in 2013 after the national parliamentary elections out of a group of minority right-wing and centrists parties that either had failed to return to Parliament or had never been there.
For a time, it seemed a viable alternative on the right-wing spectrum to GERB, but in the unfortunate tradition of right-wing politics in Bulgaria, has been seized by internal disputes, fractiousness, grandstanding and generally infantile behaviour in public that tends to play to the advantage of its rivals.
Most recently, the Reformist Bloc’s troubles have arisen precisely out of the question of whether to serve in coalition with GERB after October, and if so, in what form and how.
According to Borissov, the Reformist Bloc has sought to set conditions such as him not returning as prime minister.
In the first half of August 2014, apart from the advent of the caretaker cabinet that must guide the country to elections and do what it can to repair the damage left by the departed government, political news has seen regular eruptions within the Reformist Bloc and between it and Borissov’s party on the issue of a future coalition with GERB.
This seems to have prompted Borissov to step up the signals alluding to a preparedness to work with the MRF (on August 16, he told reporters he hoped to be able to work with all parties), probably as a signal that he was hardly desperate to make a deal with the Reformists.
Borissov also has repeated recently that Bulgarian Muslims are a bridge between the parties rather than a dividing line.
Such statements resulted, that same Sunday, in a reaction from BSP leader Mikov that it was obvious that a coalition between GERB and the MRF was being cooked up. (Borissov responded that anyone who said such things was obviously drunk on a Sunday afternoon and it was inadvisable to be speaking to the media in such a condition).
Borissov has refused to answer specifically whether there would be a GERB-MRF coalition after the elections, instead turning the answer around to say that he wished that the Reformist Bloc would win the most votes and Radan Kanev (the bloc’s former spokesperson and leader of one its constituent parties) would become prime minister.
Borissov clearly feels confident about being contemptuous towards the Reformist Bloc. The bloc had been written off by many anti-GERB pro-BSP opinion polling agencies but still managed to get over the threshold in Bulgaria’s May 2014 European Parliament elections, signalling that it was a factor to be considered in October.
It fell to Borissov’s deputy Tsvetan Tsvetanov to say that in the past year, GERB had said nothing against the Reformist Bloc but, he said, the bloc was now trying to create an identity for itself by seeking confrontation. “I think they have no identity,” Tsvetanov said, while adding that they could be partners in a future strong centre-right government.
There is, in the apparent flirtation with the MRF, a risk to Borissov and GERB.
While it is hardly a significant political factor, the populist Bulgaria Without Censorship (BWC) party headed by former talk show host Nikolai Barekov already has billboards up – well before the official campaign period – with the words, “Bulgaria Without Censorship and without GERB and the MRF”.
The angle of Barekov – who appears to have peaked in his well-funded European Parliament campaign that netted BWC two out of Bulgaria’s 17 MEP seats (now one after a coalition partner quit the BWC coalition) – is likely to be aped by others.
There can be little doubt that the apparent flirtation with the MRF, especially after that party’s role in recently-departed ruling axis, is a risk consciously taken by someone who feels confident about the worth of doing so.
Borissov, as prime minister, became famed – largely at his own insistence – for the achievements of the highways that his administration completed. When it comes to political bridge-building, it appears that in 2014, he is willing to be seen possibly sketching bridges while in other cases, if not actually burning them, then leaving them severely scorched.
(Photo of Borissov: Council of the EU)