The speech to the nation by Bulgarian President Roumen Radev on February 4 in which he said he was withdrawing his confidence in the government was just the latest in a long succession of tetchy episodes since he took office as head of state just more than three years ago.
A Bulgarian President withdrawing confidence in a government has no constitutional meaning nor procedural consequences. Radev is not the first to do so; his predecessor Rossen Plevneliev made a similar statement about the 2013/14 “Oresharski” administration.
In the case of Radev, elected in November 2016 on a ticket backed by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party in a run-off in which he defeated the candidate of Boiko Borissov’s GERB party, relations with Borissov and GERB have been troubled from the moment Radev took office.
Customarily, the honeymoon period for an elected politician in Bulgaria is 100 days. Radev’s lasted just 22 minutes.
His first speech to the National Assembly saw him heckled, causing him to snap back at the ruling party benches: “You have a week,” a reference to the then-forthcoming proroguing of the National Assembly for early parliamentary elections. Offended by the barb, a number of MPs from Borissov’s ruling coalition of the time walked out of the House.
After Borissov returned to power at the head of his third government, in May 2017, the sniping continued.
Radev, a former Air Force commander and notably skilled fighter jet pilot, has regularly criticised the government over military modernisation, and in particular the fighter jet acquisition process. He turned up the volume on his criticism even further after the government decided to buy eight US-made F-16s, with Radev insisting that the price tag would prove much more than announced because of long-term spending on maintenance of the aircraft.
Just as regularly, Radev has slammed the government over judicial reform and the fight against corruption. He launched his own parallel processes, on consultations on judicial reform and constitutional changes.
By late 2019, Radev had vetoed 19 bills approved by Parliament. In all but one case, the National Assembly exercised the power conferred on it by the constitution to muster a simple majority to overturn his vetoes.
Wrangling between Radev and the government over ambassadorial appointments left posts in key capitals unfilled for months. On individual foreign policy issues, such as Venezuela, he has clashed publicly with Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva.
Radev put a spoke in the wheel, for a short while at least, in the appointment of Ivan Geshev as Prosecutor-General, declining to decree his appointment at the first time of asking. Since taking office, Geshev has approached the Constitutional Court for a ruling concerning presidential immunity from prosecution.
At the time, Geshev’s office said that the request to the court had been promoted by possible obstruction of a separate probe by the asset forfeiture commission. The statement said that case prosecutors concluded that there was “a high degree of probability that the criminal activity under investigation was abetted by a person in high office, the President of Bulgaria, while the possible criminal activity was not linked directly to exercising the duties of his office.”
No year, and few months, have passed without a sharp verbal attack by Radev on Borissov’s government. When three of Borissov’s ministers resigned after the August 2018 fatal Svoge bus crash, Radev said that “resignations were no longer a solution but an escape from responsibility”.
In November 2018, when a group organised protests over fuel prices, Radev sided with them, calling Borissov’s government “arrogant and cynical”.
Nor did the government’s handling of Bulgaria’s Presidency of the Council of the EU in 2018 escape Radev’s criticism.
Radev has been criticised by his predecessor, Rossen Plevneliev – who served one term after being elected on a GERB ticket, but declined to seek a second term – as “Bulgaria’s first populist president”.
Polls show Radev as among the most popular, if not the most popular, politician in Bulgaria. To that has to be added the qualification is that throughout all recent decades since Bulgaria began its post-communist transition to democracy, the head of state has tended to enjoy relatively high rankings in opinion polls. On leaving office, if remaining in politics, the individual’s name has tended to plummet in the ratings. Radev’s ratings may be a mixture of genuine public approval of him as an individual, and the gloss that comes with incumbency.
The Bulgarian constitution confers on the head of state the possibility to serve two terms. Presidential elections are coming up in about October-November 2021, some months after scheduled parliamentary elections. Before then, the mutual antagonism between the heads of state and government is hardly likely to diminish; anything but. Radev’s February 2020 “withdrawal of confidence”, constitutionally meaningless, is but an episode in this saga.