Bulgaria’s circles of coffee, compromises and coalitions

A pattern of apparent collusion between Boiko Borissov’s GERB party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms in recent votes in Parliament is raising questions about who is running the country – and among those raising the question is coalition government minority partner the Reformist Bloc.

To complicate matters, the Reformist Bloc, a centre-right coalition that has its own internal tensions and a history of stated suspicion towards the MRF, was itself involved in a controversial deal involving that party, which the bloc’s parliamentary co-leader Radan Kanev labelled a “historic compromise” – a phrase that may come back to haunt him for some time.

The MRF, led and supported in the main by Bulgarians of Turkish ethnicity, has been a fixture in Bulgarian politics since the early years of the transition towards democracy after the end of the Zhivkov communist decades.

It has participated in several coalitions, most recently in the ruling axis arrangement of 2013/14, in which the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) was the nominal holder of the mandate to govern.

The endgame for that ruling axis came after a swingeing defeat for the BSP in Bulgaria’s May 2014 European Parliament elections, which in turn had followed widely-supported public protests against the government after the June 2013 abortive appointment of Delyan Peevski, an MRF MP commonly described as a “media mogul” as head of the State Agency for National Security.

The turning point that opened the way for the early elections that were to follow in October 2014 came after the MRF, which now as Lyutvi Mestan as its leader after Ahmed Dogan held that post from the time of the party’s founding, made it clear that the government could not continue in office.

A moment of note had come in early 2014 when GERB leader Boiko Borissov and the MRF’s Mestan were pictured drinking coffee together, in what seemed a pointed gesture, however much interpretations of what it meant varied.

In March 2014, GERB leader Boiko Borissov and MRF leader Lyutvi Mestan shared a rather public coffee-drinking session. Speculation mounted that the MRF was readying itself for a future beyond the deeply unpopular ruling axis of which it had become a key part in May 2013.
In March 2014, GERB leader Boiko Borissov and MRF leader Lyutvi Mestan shared a rather public coffee-drinking session. Speculation mounted that the MRF was readying itself for a future beyond the deeply unpopular ruling axis of which it had become a key part in May 2013.

A common view of the role of the MRF in Bulgarian public life is that it holds a sway grossly disproportionate to the nominal share of seats that it has in Parliament, customarily the third-largest.

Few observers of and participants in the political scene in Bulgaria forget what Dogan said in 2005, that every political party formed business circles around and his party had its own; and in 2009, when he said that he was the “factor” that decided how resources were apportioned by the government.

In 2013, when the BSP by default got the mandate to govern, Mestan made much of supporting what was to be a short-lived government by underlining that the point of this support was to keep Borissov out of power. In 2014, after the early elections, Mestan said that the MRF would remain in opposition as Borissov formed his second administration.

The complexities of the relationship between GERB and the MRF have long been something of a puzzlement. Allegations of collusion date back to the time of the first Borissov administration, however much they have been adamantly denied by Borissov. Even when media seen as close to the MRF (allegedly, through Peevski, a matter he has denied) turned about to be favourable towards Borissov, the GERB leader suggested that this was being done deliberately not to support him but to compromise him by association.

In the summer of 2015, Borissov is at the head of a power arrangement with four elements – the majority share of cabinet seats held by his own party, the minority share held by the Reformist Bloc, the single seat (albeit that of one of four deputy prime ministers) held by socialist breakaway ABC and the support in the National Assembly, without a share of cabinet seats, from the nationalist Patriotic Front.

Inevitably, given the eternal tradition of politics of seeking to exercise leverage, GERB’s partners in the current arrangement all have created melodramas – the Patriotic Front with its ultimatum and list of demands a few months ago, ABC with its theatre of leader Georgi Purvanov stepping down over the foreign debt issue before being re-elected as leader, for instance.

Now, with the pattern of apparent collusion between GERB and the MRF, there are public tensions between Borissov’s party and the Reformist Bloc – notwithstanding, as noted, the bloc’s recent own “historic compromise” in an arrangement with the MRF that took much of the substance out of proposed constitutional amendments towards judicial reform; a project that initially had been piloted by one of the bloc’s cabinet members, Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov.

The Reformist Bloc’s Kanev and Borissov have been communicating publicly through the media and social networks, in particular over the debacle that became of the plan for three questions on electoral reform to be put in the October referendum that is to be held along with municipal elections.

Radan Kanev and Boiko Borissov on July 21, at the time of the 'historic compromise' on the constitutional amendments towards judicial reform.
Radan Kanev and Boiko Borissov on July 21, at the time of the ‘historic compromise’ on the constitutional amendments towards judicial reform.

Now there will be just one question, on whether to allow electronic voting in national elections and referendums, and the other two issues – the possibility of a majoritarian element in electing parliaments, and whether to introduce compulsory voting – falling away. Given that these two latter issues have been the subject of public calls and campaigns within civil society for more than two years, their evaporation from the referendum ballot has caused indignation among those who backed these ideas.

The mutual finger-pointing boils down to which political formation, GERB or the Reformist Bloc, was to blame for the outcome of the referendum questions issue.

Borissov spoke publicly against the Reformist Bloc on July 30, saying that the bloc’s MPs should “sit on their chairs and work”, a statement that drew sharp responses from members of the bloc, who said that given that they were a minority party and had several commitments related to parliamentary work, they could not always be in the House in their full complement.

Reformist Bloc Grozdan Karadzhov added, “sitting on a chair is not an action to be praised. Many people sitting on a chair does not bring about a change in the National Assembly”.

Karadzhov said that the falling away of two of the referendum questions was the result of GERB MPs being in the House but not voting.

In a Facebook post, Kanev said that there was a necessity for a “very serious conversation” about government priorities and the programme for Parliament.

Kanev said that renegotiation of the coalition was “very likely” and was nothing to be scared of.

Referring to what some call the new tripartite coalition – GERB, the MRF and Purvanov’s ABC – Kanev said that if this majority remained in place and the attacks on the Reformist Bloc continued, “then we must be ready for new elections”.

Among other remarks, Kanev criticised the choice of the new leadership of central Bulgarian National Bank, saying that it had been a choice made by GERB and the MRF.

Similarly, the law on the National Protection Service – which enables the service to extend protection, paid for by taxpayers, to people beyond those in government and state office – had been approved with the votes of GERB and the MRF, Kanev said. (Reportedly, and the subject of questions over the years, has been the service providing bodyguards for Dogan).

Kanev added that while Parliament had not moved on legislation wanted by Health Minister and Reformist Bloc member Petar Moskov on hospital reform, amendments to the social security code “which is far less urgent” had been voted. This again had been done with the votes of GERB, the MRF and ABC.

Referring to the controversial election, by secret ballot among MPs, of the BSP’s Maya Manolova as national Ombudsman, Kanev underlined that the Reformist Bloc had fielded its own candidate, incumbent Konstantin Penchev in opposition to Manolova.

At the end of the political season, Kanev said, referring to the summer holiday recess beginning on July 31 and continuing into early September, the Reformist Bloc seemed to have “quite a lonely role” in trying to achieve change.

He said that there was a conservative majority that had been formed in defence of the status quo, the core of which was GERB and the MRF. This was a worrying outlook: “Stability requires fast and courageous reform, a majority between GERB, the MRF and ABC cannot provide them”.

Asked to respond to Kanev’s Facebook post, Borissov said that he did not have the habit of sitting up at night to read what people posted on Facebook. “There are formats that, if someone is dissatisfied, he should speak there,” Borissov said.

ABC leader Purvanov said that Kanev should “kiss the hand of Lyutvi Mestan and the MRF” because they had come up with an option on judicial reform that could win sufficient support in Parliament to be approved.

Responding to what Kanev said that if a GERB-MRF-ABC coalition stayed in place, new elections would follow, Purvanov said, “Mr Kanev is a joker”. According to Purvanov, the inclusion of MRF support at key moments strengthened, not weakened, the stability of the government.

Tsvetan Tsvetanov, leader of GERB’s parliamentary group, asked on July 31 whether the MRF would replace the Reformist Bloc in the governing coalition, said renegotiation of the coalition or a new arrangement was not something to talk about at the moment. As to Kanev’s comments on Facebook, Tsvetanov said that such comments could indeed be a major cause for shutting down the government coalition and going to elections.



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

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), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.