As the story goes, it was some months before Bulgaria’s 2011 presidential elections that Boiko Borissov invited Rossen Plevneliev to join him in his official car after a ribbon-cutting ceremony because there was something Borissov wanted to discuss with him.
At the time, Borissov was prime minister and Plevneliev his regional development and public works minister and going by the opinion polls of the time, Plevneliev – recruited by Borissov to government from a successful private sector career – the most popular member of the cabinet.
Borissov told Plevneliev that he wanted him to be the candidate of Borissov’s centre-right GERB party in the presidential elections. Reluctant at first, Plevneliev eventually agreed, and went on to a score a second-round victory over his rival, Ivailo Kalfin, the MEP and former foreign minister who had been nominated by the socialist party.
With Plevneliev in office as head of state from January 2012, the socialists portrayed him as part of GERB’s all-encompassing control of every institution in Bulgaria that matters – the Presidency, Parliament and even all major cities.
Plevneliev was careful to underline his non-partisan status, taking steps including instituting regular “months of political consultations” with all parties represented in Parliament. He made clear that he would actively monitor the performance of government and repeatedly underlined a number of reforms that he expected to see implemented – among them, in no particular order, education reform, e-government and others.
While like-minded with the overall approach of the then-governing party, Plevneliev was seeking to emphasise the independence and separateness of the institution of which he had stewardship. It took the most careful scrutiny to establish nuances of difference in approach by the Presidency and the government.
But the nationwide cost-of-living protests in early 2013 brought a new dynamic. For Plevneliev, Borissov’s resignation as prime minister and the ensuing necessity to engage rapidly and deeply with political parties meant that it was not business as usual for the head of state.
Subtly, Plevneliev sent messages about evasion of political responsibility, while caught up in the constitutional rituals that paved the way towards dissolving Parliament and appointing a caretaker cabinet. At the same time, for non-GERB forces, to one extent or another, critics still insisted that Plevneliev merely was Borissov’s man at the desk in 2 Dondoukov Boulevard, the presidential office.
Plevneliev cleared his diary because he was needed to keep the country on an even keel.
Ahead of the election campaign, Plevneliev stepped up his messages calling for calm debate on the key issues. It was a hope that was to be frustrated as Bulgaria was left with the spectacle of a campaign of extraordinary viciousness, dominated by allegations of unlawful conduct and daily episodes of melodrama.
With the elections over and no party in a position to govern alone – and not only that, a lack of certainty about whether any governing arrangement sustainable in the long term would be possible, Plevneliev underlined that what the country needed was the swiftest possible formation of a government and stability.
On May 15, the President announced that he would meet on May 17 with the leaderships of the four parties that had made it into the 42nd National Assembly, mainly to discuss when Parliament should first sit.
Plevneliev said that he believed that the first sitting would be held before the end of May. (The socialists, keen to press on rapidly with their plan to outmanoeuvre Borissov’s GERB and form a “programme government” of “experts”, want the National Assembly to hold its first sitting before the May 24 long weekend.)
“Currently our main task is to show that we can make the institutions function by starting from the basic institution – the National Assembly,” Plevneliev said in his May 15 announcement.
He called for a “nationally responsible” attitude and the prompt formation of a government.
“Parliament is the institution that should forge the necessary reforms and address the people’s hopes and meet their expectations by taking decisions in that direction. The National Assembly must form a government, which should be legitimate, have clear priorities, but not be based on vague compromises. It must do that in a transparent manner, before the very eyes of the nation,” Plevneliev said.
While expressing concern about what had happened on the “day of contemplation” with the drama around the finding of alleged illegal ballots, and calling for investigators to come up with conclusions as soon as possible, Plevneliev signalled his acceptance of the integrity of the election.
Plevneliev was adamant that Bulgaria does not need a second general election. “This will demotivate the investors and will create conditions for further destablilisation of the state,” the President warned.
But the following day, Borissov said that on the basis of the “day of contemplation” drama, which he alleged to constitute violation of laws against campaigning on that day, GERB would approach the Constitutional Court and throw out the May 12 elections.
Borissov made it clear that he wanted the country to have elections again – he mentioned a time frame of one to one-and-a-half months – but if the Court did not agree with GERB, he would in any case present a proposed cabinet to Parliament.
That same day, Plevneliev reiterated his wish for the swift formation of a government and against a fresh round of elections. Meanwhile, Borissov’s planned challenge to the elections not only met predictable opposition from the other three parties, but effectively was treated with short shrift by the Central Election Commission, which soon after the GERB news conference said that what had happened on the “day of contemplation” did not add up to a violation of election laws.
On May 17, Borissov and GERB were planned to be the first of the four parties to attend consultations with the President. The plan was for Plevneliev to meet each party every hour on the hour, and hold a news conference afterwards to announce the conclusions of the talks.
Ahead of these talks beginning, one thing was at least clear. For Borissov and Plevneliev, it had been a long road since that post-ribbon-cutting car ride.
(Photo of Borissov, left, and Plevneliev: president.bg)