Journalists in Bulgaria who may have expected the sharply chilly late autumn evening of November 16 to present nothing other than a graceful slide into the relaxation of a Friday evening were in for a shaking surprise: Valeri Simeonov’s resignation as Deputy Prime Minister.
Simeonov, a co-leader of the United Patriots, the grouping of far-right and ultra-nationalist parties that is the minority partner in Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s coalition partner, grabbed the breaking news alerts by announcing his resignation from government. Less than an hour after the news broke of Simeonov’s resignation having been submitted, it was confirmed that Prime Minister Boiko Borissov had accepted it.
A figure of condemnation by the protesting mothers of children with disabilities who had campaigned for his resignation, over deeply offensive comments he had made about them – Simeonov had called them “shrill women” with “supposedly ill children” – he cited the reason for his resignation as a “sustained media campaign” against him and his party, the National Movement for the Salvation of Bulgaria.
Amid the protests against him, Simeonov at first was defiant, refusing to apologise for his comments. Eventually, under pressure from his coalition partner, not least from Borissov effectively apologising on his comment though without his co-operation, Simeonov offered a grudging apology of his own.
That did not mollify the offended mothers of children with disabilities, who have sought deep-seated reforms in Bulgaria for all in their position. The messages from Borissov and others in the Bulgarian government that legislative changes, about which they have been consulted, addresses these concerns, appear to have rung hollow.
With only the most cursory of media attention, they continued their protests demanding that Simeonov step down. They seemed little disturbed when, allegedly, one of Simeonov’s NFSB MPs was reported to have said on November 15 that he questioned whether all of those protesting were mothers of children with disabilities, or even mothers at all.
Speaking to television reporters in the cold and dark of the Friday night on the Sofia street outside the Cabinet office, after news of Simeonov’s resignation broke, they said only that their campaign for reform would continue. In the background, reacting to the Simeonov stepdown, there were cries of “Pobeda” (victory). In the longer term, and the wider context, that may be only a footnote.
Whatever whoever had said, it emerged that on the afternoon of November 16, Simeonov held talks on his position with the rest of the “United Patriots” – his own MPs, and those from Volen Siderov’s Ataka party, and Deputy Prime Minister Krassimir Karakachanov’s nationalist VMRO. What passed within the walls of the United Patriots’ parliamentary caucus room may be the subject of later anecdote; it may have been interesting, given the very open tensions between Siderov and Simeonov, who have a fraught shared political history, of mutual alliance and mutual defiance.
That is a matter of anecdote; the question now is, will Borissov’s government survive? Currently, with the votes of Borissov’s GERB party and those of the less-than-united “Patriots”, the ruling majority may theoretically command 121 votes in the National Assembly. Ninety-five of GERB and 27 of the United Patriots.
The Simeonov resignation, as of the later hours of November 16, leaves matters unclear. Simeonov has presented his resignation as Deputy Prime Minister as a personal decision – one of which Borissov, embarrassed by Simeonov’s comments about the mothers – was quick to confirm acceptance.
But there is no clarity about whether all or part of the United Patriots continues to hold to the government coalition deal. This leaves open the largest question of all – whether Borissov’s third government is teetering on parliamentary extinction, or whether Borissov will hold together a functioning coalition to affirm the pledge he reiterated as recently as 24 hours before the Simeonov drama, that his current government would live out its full four-year term, due to end in the year 2021.
At the same time, Borissov’s government is heading into a turbulence both new and familiar. On the streets, roads, and motorways of Bulgaria, there are protests mobilised around “high fuel prices”. These protests take no account of the fact that a Bulgarian government does not set petrol prices; these are determined by retailers, taking into consideration trends on world oil markets.
Borissov is sensitive about cost of living protests. They cost him his first government, in February 2013. This time around, there have been media reports, hostile to the protests, alleging connections between figures prominent in the “high fuel price” protests and known organised crime figures; at least one of the prominent figures has a fraud conviction; another is remembered from the same February 2013 protests that downed the first Borissov government.
The Simeonov drama is sure to be fodder for the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, which three times in the current Borissov government has sought and failed to secure a motion of no confidence in the Cabinet. It will also play to the tune of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which has made clear its view that the current government and Parliament have exhausted their credibility and must go. It will bring to the fore the fact that the infighting in the United Patriots, for months now the focus only of those who observe Bulgarian politics to the closest degree, may have immediate implications for the future of the country.
It will raise the question whether Borissov will seek to press on in power, in a deal with a rump of the United Patriots, or will seek a wider deal-making so as not to imperil his third administration. It raises the question of whether another of the United Patriots, or of Simeonov’s NFSB, will succeed to the post of deputy head of government, and all of the Friday night melodrama will be smoothed over. Or not.
And all of this will present, again, the question: What happens now, after the Simeonov November 16 episode? The truthful answer: No one, or at best a very few, knows.