Of Bulgaria, and ‘conversations not negotiations’ on the forming of a new government

Four days after Bulgaria’s parliamentary elections, Tomislav Donchev, a senior member of Boiko Borissov’s GERB party, said that there were “conversations, not negotiations” on the formation of a new government.

Borissov’s GERB, as was officially confirmed by the Central Election Commission on March 30, won 95 out of 240 seats in the 44th National Assembly in the March 26 early parliamentary elections.

That is not enough to form a government without requiring coalition partners, but with the largest share of seats, enough to get the first chance to try to form a governing coalition.

This is the mathematics. A deal with the nationalist United Patriots delivers a total, with their MPs, of 122 MPs, one more than the essential minimum to get a Cabinet voted into office. Add in Vesselin Mareshki’s Volya party’s 12 MPs, and Borissov would be up to 134 votes.

But mathematics and politics are not quite equivalent skills. Mathematics is a science of absolutes. Realpolitik, even in the hardest-eyed view, is not. Success in forming a government that could be voted into office, and maintaining it in place, would require – in that notoriously-abused term – the art of the deal.

And the deal will not be easy. The United Patriots have much to lose, should they not be able to show their electorate a credible deal that goes largely to match what they promised on the campaign trail. Mareshki is even more vulnerable. If he becomes part of a deal, he needs to be seen to deliver on campaign promises – an easier fate for the Bulgarian consumer’s pocket – lest he be seen as having sold out for seats at the big table.

The United Patriots, a coalition of three nationalist and far-right political presences, have a track record in Bulgarian politics and a defined electorate. Mareshki, if compromised by association, will lose everything that he has claimed to stand for, and join other parties of the recent past in the fly-by-night footnotes of Bulgarian political history.

Hence Donchev’s talk of conversations, not negotiations. “And as usual, three years ago, when there were negotiations, you will be able to dynamically monitor the situation,” he told reporters on March 30.

Keen observers of Bulgarian politics remember those negotiations. Borissov’s GERB had what was then a formidable team: Tsetka Tsacheva, then the once and future Speaker of the National Assembly; Roumyana Buchvarova, later to be Interior Minister; and Menda Stoyanova, at one point punted as a potential finance minister.

These three – hearteningly, given their gender, rejecting being called the “three ladies” of GERB – delivered a four-party coalition deal that had stewardship of the country, until November 2016 and Tsacheva’s ignomious defeat in presidential elections.

In the context of the times of October and November 2014, the deal they delivered was appropriate to the realpolitik of the Bulgaria then. GERB, the majority partner; the centre-right Reformist Bloc; the socialist splinter ABC – the ideological odd-person out – and, on the floor of the National Assembly but not in the cloister of the Cabinet room – the nationalist Patriotic Front.

That was then. The Reformist Bloc is gone, eclipsed in fractiousness, these elections. ABC is gone, eclipsed in failure. Borissov, this time, has a choice that is Hobson’s plus possibly one. He may play for a deal with the so-called “patriots”. He may add Mareshki’s Dozen.

But the prices in the political market have changed. The United Patriots will not settle this time around for a deal that sees their issues on the agenda, without a seat at the table where the decisions are made. And Mareshki, allowing for the theatre of this all, made a bold opening bid – himself in the Prime Minister’s chair, his appointments in key portfolios, from energy to foreign affairs.

Will there be a deal? The landscape has changed. Few failed to note that, with preferential voting, GERB’s electorate did not even allow Tsacheva and Buchvarova to return to the National Assembly.

Late at night on March 30, hours after the CEC had announced the official share of seats, the United Patriots and Mareshki’s Volya had not yet received official invitations to negotiations.

But few would believe that those invitations would not be forthcoming. There is strength in numbers, most certainly when this principle is enshrined in the basic law of Bulgaria.

There are degrees of incompatibility in demands. The United Patriots, reportedly, have their shopping list of portfolios. They have poured scorn on the demands of Mareshki. The latter’s Volya sees a possibility for a minority government, of GERB-Volya, with the United Patriots in the role of no more than support in the National Assembly, as per the 2014 deal.

GERB and Mareshki’s Volya together would have 107 seats, 107 votes. Even the poorest at mathematics, if not at political studies, can see that that falls short of 121 plus one.

The response of the United Patriots? In the words of Krassimir Karakachanov, reacting to Mareshki: “He’s entitled to an opinion”.

It is Karakachanov – speculation appoints him variously as the next Speaker, or quite possibly Defence Minister, a portfolio his coalition is said to covet – who said that the United Patriots would, in talks with GERB, first discuss principles and later portfolios.

Like United Patriots co-leader Valeri Simeonov, Karakachanov has publicly not disliked the idea of a “grand coalition” that involves Kornelia Ninova’s Bulgarian Socialist Party – a concept that both Borissov and Ninova has ruled out.

But then, politics is the art of the possible. Politics too may be said to be the Art of the Deal, but as there is ample evidence, those most associated with that term may prove the most egregiously appalling at actually achieving it.




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.