Bulgarian elections 2014: Setting the scene

Written by on October 3, 2014 in Perspectives - Comments Off on Bulgarian elections 2014: Setting the scene

As Bulgarians, or at least a percentage of them, prepare to head for the ballot booths on October 5, the question is not whether Boiko Borissov and his GERB party will win the most votes, but whether he will form a government.

There are the memories among many Bulgarians of May 2013 and the bitterness of it all. Back then, Borissov’s party won the most votes but found itself with no allies with which to form a government.

The result was a ruling axis that many, including those who would not have wanted to reprise his role as head of government, found reprehensible.

The result of that was the widely-supported public protests, for which the catalyst was the appointment of controversial figure Delyan Peevski as head of the State Agency for National Security, demanding the resignation of that ruling axis.

Those supporting the cabinet formed in May 2013 were obstinate in the face of these protests, but matters came close to culmination in May 2014 when the nominal mandate-holder, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, was routed in Bulgaria’s European Parliament elections.

While the BSP, under then-leader Sergei Stanishev went into a form of obtuse denial about the message sent by the electorate, the plugged was pulled by the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which made it clear that the show could not go on and the country should again be asked to vote.

Now, every opinion poll, respectable or ridiculous, suggests that Borissov’s centre-right GERB will get the most votes. (The point on which they differ, to one degree or another, is how many of the smaller parties will make it into the 43rd National Assembly, which will make a decisive difference.)

Borissov appears convinced of a majority share of votes. Just one indicator of this is that GERB has hardly campaigned, ranking well below the big spenders in advertising and events.

Boiled down, Borissov has had two main messages, one an official campaign slogan and the other somewhat more of the nature of the theatre of the political mind.

He has offered to voters the association of his GERB party with “stability”.

This message may tap into voters fatigued with political melodramas, perhaps even with protests, arguably certainly with the passing parade of prime ministers, prime ministers in name only, caretaker prime ministers and would-be prime ministers. The pratings of the latest prime minister (should a government be formed after October 5, it would be the fifth in two years, counting caretaker cabinets) say nothing about just how one is supposed to pay the bills or get a job.

Borissov’s other message has been more in the nature of his prima donna act.

From the beginning of the official campaign period to its end, concluding in subdued form against the background of the tragic deaths in the Gorni Lom explosion which puts the country in national mourning ahead of its “day of contemplation”, Borissov has been insisting on the minimum number of MPs that he should have to form a government.

Not forming a government in terms of the constitution and its mathematics, but forming one in terms of the stability that Borissov says he wants to see.

Constitutionally, the President – as head of state – is obliged to offer a mandate to attempt to form a government to the Prime Minister-designate named by the party that has won the most seats in the new National Assembly.

Unless we are in a massive surprise on the evening of October 5, that would be Borissov.

But it is not that simple. Borissov has said, as recently as in a television interview on October 1, that if GERB gets less than 100 (out of 240 seats in the National Assembly) MPs, he would not even try to form a government.

Borissov, apparently, was prompted in part by a poll the same day by the Alpha Research agency – arguably, about the most believable of the country’s opinion survey agencies – suggesting that GERB would not make it into three figures of MPs after the votes were counted.

There is something of a conundrum here. Surely, to get those more than 100 (ideally, 121 or more to be able to form a government without requiring a coalition), GERB should have been campaigning much more vigorously. Or Borissov’s statements are simply a scarecrow to get the vote out, to avert a repeat of the debacle that was the May 2013-August 2014 government.

Building up the bogeyman, Borissov said that failure to form a government – any government – was a “very likely scenario”, opening the way for new elections.

It may seem to the casual observer that holding elections is something of a national sport lately for Bulgarians. But it is not. The talking heads that appear on television suggest, not without foundation, that Bulgarians are sick of politics and that this could indeed influence voter turnout on October 5.

It may be understandable if it were true that Bulgarians were sick of politics, and for that matter, politicians.

The 42nd National Assembly lurched into history after a sorry series of arcane games of seeking and failing to secure quorums to actually sit. That legislature had a single-figure approval rating and, for anyone who watched its proceedings, one can sympathise.

In turn, up against the obstinacy of the ruling axis, the GERB boycott politics of the time can almost be understood. GERB, a party that was designed to govern, floundered in opposition and it is questionable whether the handling of the political situation by Borissov’s party gained it much kudos.

In part, the pre-eminence of GERB is helped in part by the parlous state of other parties.

The BSP is, to say the least, in disarray, and for now no more need to be added to that.

In turn, the centre-right Reformist Bloc, apparent natural allies of GERB, have been caught up in in-fighting and in the month of official campaigning, have run a campaign that has been at best lacklustre.

On paper, the Reformist Bloc should have much to tap into – its voting fodder should be the urban intelligentsia, the private sector (honest division), those who resent the continuing influence of the former State Security in public life, those who want no truck with Putin’s Russia and its energy projects that multiply existing dependence, those who do not want the BSP anywhere near the levers of economic power.

But that same infighting has diminished that potential and, worse – from the point of view of the Reformists – the party, going by polls, has not managed to expand beyond its urban base. The only pushing outward that the Reformist Bloc has done has been reminiscent of Samson, bringing down the pillars and the temple.

In third place, so the polls suggest, will be the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, this time around apparently not set for seeking its traditional partnership with the BSP. Conspiracy theorists suggest a discreet deal with GERB, a less formal partnership that would see the MRF support a GERB government on the issues.

All of this would put a theoretical Borissov government in a difficult position, as Borissov himself appears to understand.

On the record on television on October 1, he complained about the Reformist Bloc, saying that they had failed, in the election campaign, to hit out at the BSP or the former “Oresharski” cabinet but devoted a lot of energy to challenging GERB.

Well he might say that, given that the Reformists took a stance of indicating willingness to serve in a centre-right coalition, provided Borissov was not Prime Minister.

Early on, in fact, the Reformist Bloc indicated such a policy stance, signalling that in future, no one who had been prime minister, interior or finance minister should reprise those roles in a government beyond October 2014.

One may well understand that this was to signal a distancing from Borissov, and from his controversial lieutenant Tsvetan Tsvetanov, and from his estranged former finance minister Simeon Dyankov, but one had to appreciate the rich irony that it also would exclude from government office one of the grey eminences of the Reformist Bloc itself, former prime minister and former finance minister Ivan Kostov. Wheels within wheels, perhaps.

Depending on which polls has most recently made the headlines, and many in the Bulgarian media treat all with apparent equal credibility (or at least an easy headline of the day), the 43rd National Assembly will have either five, or six, or eight parties.

Only one, the Exacta poll released on October 2, suggested that at their best performance, GERB and the Reformist Bloc would have 121 MPs to form a governing majority without needing any other party (and that is peak performance, with a lower range leaving both parties without the requisite sum of their parts).

That would suggest a third coalition partner. The options are not propitious.

Apart from GERB and the Reformist Bloc, apart from the MRF, the other parties that seem to have reasonable chances of being there for the first sitting of the 43rd National Assembly are former talk show host Nikolai Barekov’s Bulgaria Without Censorship (BWC) and the far-right ultra-nationalist Patriotic Front.

Barekov has made his BWC somewhat iconoclastic of the political establishment and the Patriotic Front is even more so. Leaving aside their theatrical performances, there are important policy differences, even if in the case of BWC a coherent policy is difficult to discern.

Worse, from the point of view of GERB, a trilateral coalition – formal or not – is just what the 42nd National Assembly saw. That was the BSP, MRF and Volen Siderov’s Ataka.

Given that the Patriotic Front is in large measure driven by an Ataka breakaway, the political perils are the same. The discomfit attendant on a governing coalition in a European Union country being dependent on a party that is, at the least, xenophobic and Euroskeptic, is alreay well-known. It is also, for the larger partners, embarrassing. Further, notably on issues such as energy and foreign policy, it is an incompatible relationship from the start.

Moving on from the dynamics of the individual political parties, there are big issues that hardly have been addressed, at least in terms of thought-through policies, by the major parties standing in this election.

There is Corporate Commercial Bank. It is frustrating to attempt to establish what each party proposes to do about it, apart from most wanting to get rid of central Bulgarian National Bank governor Ivan Iskrov.

Further, there is the energy sector, with the recent increases in electricity prices announced by the regulator being a hot-button issue. It is quite possible that the claims on the left-wing and among populist forces that electricity prices could in fact be brought down (with foreign involvements in Bulgaria’s energy sector cast as the villains of the piece) will account for some votes on October 5; it is questionable what the more sober moments after that date will bring.

On October 5, Bulgarians will cast their votes, and of those who do, it seems most will be for Borissov’s party. In the hours, days and weeks after that, the political fate of the country will be in his hands – including the prospect of stability that he has made his electoral platform.

Unless the vote that Sunday is decisive, and so too whatever coalition negotiations follow it, the open question will be whether Borissov can deliver precisely the stability that he has made his watchword.

Two polls:

Alpha Research (results released on October 1, on the basis of a poll done between September 28 and 30, funded by the agency itself):

GERB: 34.1 per cent
BSP: 19 to 20 per cent
MRF: 12 per cent
Reformist Bloc: 5.5 to 5.6 per cent
BWC: similar to the above
Patriotic Front: 4.2 per cent.

Exacta (results released on October 2, on the basis of face-to-face interviews, funded by the agency itself):

GERB: 36.5 to 37.5 per cent
BSP: 19 to 20 per cent
MRF: 14.5 per cent
Reformist Bloc: 6.5 to 7.5 per cent
BWC: 6.5 to seven per cent
Patriotic Front: Four to five per cent
Georgi Purvanov’s ABC: 3.5 to four per cent

For the full results of Bulgaria’s October 5 2014 elections, please follow us on Twitter at TheSofiaGlobe and via our homepage and Facebook page.

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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).