Bulgaria’s nationalist Patriotic Front coalition is setting its price for participation in a GERB coalition government – freezing the price of electricity, Bulgarian media reports on October 23 said.
For many Bulgarians, the price of electricity is both a highly emotive issue and a very bread-and-butter one.
It was the issue of electricity prices that was used in early 2013 to mobilise public protests that led to the downfall of then-prime minister Boiko Borissov’s centre-right government.
The ruling axis that then came to power, with the mandate handed to the second-ranked Bulgarian Socialist Party after May 2013 early parliamentary elections and with the support of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms – ultimately the decisive player in that ruling axis, with ultra-nationalists Ataka in a convenient tacit supporting role – artificially pushed down electricity prices.
It was a populist move, politically cheap but devastatingly expensive for Bulgaria’s deeply troubled energy sector, weighed down by the inefficiencies in statute and system that govern its operation.
It is these inherited inefficiencies and downright lack of rationality in the operation of the energy sector, exacerbated by political antics such as those of the discredited and now-departed 2013/14 administration, that have done nothing to bring the energy supply sector any closer to rational governance.
Nominally, energy prices are in the hands of an “independent” regulator. But that regulator has been subject to the warp and woof of political fortunes in recent years, and consequently has seen a number of changes of leadership.
As it happened, after a caretaker government took office and the leadership of the regulator was changed, electricity prices went up again as of October 2014 – in a move some, of more sober view, saw as a correction of part of the mess left by the May 2013/August 2014 ruling axis.
Given what is widely seen as the independence of the regulator in recent years being largely seen as a myth, it is hardly suprising that a populist-nationalist entity such as the Patriotic Front would put a political demand that, in effect, entails overt state intervention in energy prices.
Populism and energy prices, in Bulgarian politics, go hand-in-hand. Minority political parties such as the populist Bulgaria Without Censorship have even argued that prices should go down, while the Patriotic Front’s elder if smaller rival, Ataka, sees salvation for Bulgaria in exorcising the country of the foreign owners of electricity distribution companies.
Against this background comes the demand of the Patriotic Front, as voiced to mass-circulation daily 24 Chassa by front co-leader Krassimir Karakachanov. According to the tabloid, he wants not only an energy audit but also a review of the price of electricity, which in the view of his experts could even decrease.
How this would make possible investment in further development of the energy grid, let alone essential needs such as maintenance and emergency responses to shortcomings in the energy distribution grid in the coming harsh months of winter, is not immediately clear. But this is, after all, a conversation about politics, not electrical engineering.
Presumably, Boiko Borissov, whose centre-right GERB won 84 out of 240 seats in the new National Assembly but who needs more than half of 240 to govern, would have to hear out such demands.
The alternative, which no political party of significance – whether nascent or waning – wants, would be early elections, again. Expensive, demoralising, and tiresome for a Bulgarian electorate being invited back to the polls time and again.
With a caretaker cabinet currently in office, pending a new coalition government deal, Bulgaria is in the stewardship of its fourth government since the beginning of 2013. A successful coalition deal would produce a fifth, presumably headed by Borissov, a mild respite for cartoonists probably weary of having to practice drawing Bulgaria’s latest prime minister.
With GERB now engaging in second-round negotiations towards a new coalition government, the possible picture that appeared to be emerging was of a centre-right-far-right deal involving Borissov’s party, the Reformist Bloc and the Patriotic Front.
The centre-right Reformist Bloc appeared to be easing up on earlier stated objections to being yolked with the Patriotic Front.
In all, a GERB-Reformist-Patriotic Front would have 126 seats in the National Assembly, sufficient for a coalition government to be voted into office.
But before that point, whenever or if it would come, sometime after the 43rd National Assembly’s first meeting on October 27, the Patriotic Front’s conditions do not end with frozen (or lowered) electricity prices.
The Patriotic Front, going by 24 Chassa’s report in the early hours of October 23, also wants a “massive police presence in areas where gypsy raids take place”. In Bulgarian, the Front prefers the equivalent of the Bulgarian word for “gypsy” to “Roma”.
According to Karakachanov, stronger measures were needed – “cameras in a whole municipality, not just one village, not sending gendarmerie to stand around for just one week, and then the raids to start again”.
Moreover, a pet topic for the Patriotic Front is the vote in Turkey, and Turkey itself. It wants a Bulgarian referendum on the issue of Turkish candidacy for EU membership (long a stated policy that Bulgaria supports such aspirations by Ankara) and wants Bulgarian law to prohibit participation in Bulgarian elections at polling stations anywhere else except embassies and consulates.
In other words, the Patriotic Front really cannot stand the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the highly influential party led and supported in the main by Bulgarians of Turkish ethnicity, but at the moment GERB also says that it does not.
For the moment, being beastly to the electoral chances in future of the MRF is probably a much easier option than short-circuiting whatever chance there is of much-needed reform to Bulgaria’s energy sector.
All of this is part of the horse-trading that is the second round of negotiations towards a possible coalition government.
Anyone familiar with such political horse-trading in advance of a governing coalition will be well aware that frequently a by-product is horsemeat.
Borissov’s GERB has said that it will meet four other parties and coalitions that will be in the National Assembly – the Reformist Bloc, where rapprochement appears to be warming, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, where the strategic purpose is less than clear unless it is to warn the bloc that there is an alternative way to form a coalition; the Patriotic Front, however much this may be politically uncomfortable; and finally and next on the list, a meeting on October 23 with Purvanov’s socialist breakaway ABC, holder of all of 11 seats. Horses are at risk of being harmed in this production.