Will Bulgaria’s presidential elections lead to early parliamentary elections?

Will Bulgaria’s presidential elections lead to early parliamentary elections?

Political parties participating in a coalition government experience give-and-take. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, amid the stoked-up temperature of the presidential election campaign, is claiming that his party GERB is doing all the giving and his government coalition partners all the taking.

The melodramas of recent days around Bulgaria’s November 2016 presidential election have raised the spectre of early parliamentary elections. Such is the drama that President Rossen Plevneliev, who is not standing for re-election after his single term, said on October 16 that he does not want to have to face appointing a caretaker government for a third time.

Much of the blame for the melodrama lies with Borissov himself and with his GERB party.

One reason is that GERB delayed until almost the last minute announcing its presidential candidate, while polls ahead of the announcement of the candidate said that whoever it was, GERB’s pick would win. Since the announcement, however, that seems less certain.

This brings into play Borissov’s repeated statements that should his party’s candidate not place top at the first round of the presidential elections on November 6, he and his government would resign – his most recent statement being slightly more drastic than one a few months ago should the GERB candidate not win the elections (whether at the first round or second, Borissov did not make clear at the time), Borissov would precipitate early parliamentary elections.

At the time, the threat seemed hollow. GERB, according to every poll – reliable or less so – has the most support, by far, among Bulgaria’s electorate. It has the largest financial resources, by far, among Bulgaria’s political parties. The next-largest party, the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, is known to have been undergoing financial woes. So, on paper, it seemed that it should indeed be the case that GERB’s nominee should win.

But that was then. GERB opted, out of a shortlist of four possible presidential candidates, for the one that has the least public popularity among the group, and arguably the least personal charisma and gift for oratory – the Speaker of the National Assembly, Tsetska Tsacheva.

There has not been a poll yet from one of Bulgaria’s few reliable opinion polling agencies, but a left-leaning one said, after the Tsacheva nomination, that the presidential election would go to a second round, with Tsacheva up against BSP candidate Roumen Radev, and that a Radev victory could not be ruled out.

There is one basis for arguing that this scenario is not entirely impossible. There are 21 candidates in Bulgaria’s presidential election. At a second round, and depending on turnout and the level of motivation of voters for rival candidates eliminated at the first round, a case of “all against Tsacheva” could mean serious trouble for her and mostly for GERB and Borissov.

A poor performance, and certainly defeat should that happen, would raise the question whether Borissov would keep to his statement about stepping down in the event of an unfavourable message from the electorate.

But there is more. In recent days, the presidential election campaign has been overshadowed by major controversies about procedures in the election itself, including over the limits on the number of polling stations in foreign countries, and over the inclusion of the option to vote “I don’t support anyone”.

Blame for both of these controversies is being laid at Borissov’s door, though he claims this is unfair and that his coalition partners should take the rap.

The limit on polling stations – no more than 35 in any foreign country – was imposed in the amendments to the Electoral Code approved in 2016 at the insistence of the nationalist Patriotic Front, a minority partner in the coalition government deal.

But it has blown up in the face of the government. Intended by the PF to dilute the power of the vote in Turkey, stronghold of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, it has curtailed the number of polling stations in – among other places – the United Kingdom and the United States, where there are very large communities of Bulgarian expatriates, who have been very vocal about their ire over what they see as an incursion on their right to exercise a vote.

The limitation on polling stations abroad now faces a Constitutional Court challenge by Ombudsman Maya Manolova, who has asked the court to deal with the issue as quickly as possible.

GERB also is tabling amendments in Parliament that will change the rules on the limitations – in turn triggering a threat from the PF to quit the government.

Borissov has already shed in 2016 the support of one minority partner, Georgi Purvanov’s socialist ABC party. Losing PF support would imperil his ability to govern.

There are troubles elsewhere in the coalition government. In the past few days, Borissov has publicly had a row with the centre-right coalition the Reformist Bloc, going so far as to summon a special Cabinet meeting on October 14 to demand oaths of fealty from ministers from the bloc quota.

He got those oaths of loyalty, even to a cringeworthy degree, for example with one minister, Nikolai Nenchev, admitting “our behaviour has been appalling” in a moment reminiscent of a Maoist self-criticism session.

At the same time, at the weekend it became clear that Nenchev’s BZNS party, one of the five member parties of the Reformist Bloc, wanted to initiate a debate in the bloc on the possibility of precipitating early parliamentary elections in spring 2017.

The Reformist Bloc is emitting mixed signals – not unusually for the fractious bloc – on the issue.

Speaking after an October 14 meeting with Borissov, a leader of another bloc constituent party, Naiden Zelenogorski, said: “We will not push Bulgaria into the early elections spiral and will not readily hand the power over to the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms”.

Borissov has given the bloc an ultimatum that if it wants to remain as part of his government, they should act like a government partner and not an opposition.

He referred to the special sitting of the National Assembly scheduled for October 18, which will among other things discuss Electoral Code re-amendments, and thundered at the bloc that on that day, it should behave as part of the government and not the opposition.

Borissov also has attacked the bloc over the “I don’t support anyone” ballot paper option controversy. He is annoyed that GERB is being accused of sole responsibility.

The problem with the “I don’t support anyone” issue is that under current rules, votes for that option would count towards turnout but would not be counted as a separate result. Lawyers have advised that this runs counter to the constitution.

There has been plenty of finger-pointing about whose idea this was. Borissov insists that the Reformist Bloc is implicated in the decision.

After the October 14 Cabinet meeting, the bloc’s Petar Moskov, holder of the health portfolio in Borissov’s government, said that GERB, the Reformist Bloc and the PF had agreed on support for the government programme and the stability of the majority.

On the other hand, Iliyana Yotova, an MEP who is the vice-presidential candidate of the BSP, believes that the opinion polls have thrown Borissov into panic. Hardly, of course, a disinterested observer, Yotova believes that there is no way for the coalition government to continue. She also has suggested that Borissov actually wants early parliamentary elections.

However, there is one, possibly decisive, factor in considering whether Borissov would move beyond bluff and brinkmanship to take Bulgaria into early elections – and that is what the result of such elections would be.

For months, the more reliable opinion polls have suggested that were parliamentary elections to be held immediately, the outcome would produce a Parliament not very difficult from the current one, though possibly with one or two minority parties – most likely Volen Siderov’s Ataka – not making it back.

GERB would certainly get the largest share of votes. Support for the BSP has recovered slightly in recent months, though it would again be a very distant second. The MRF has been weakened and could drop into fourth place, behind the Reformist Bloc. Support for the PF is stable; it might do better, if it makes a deal with Ataka in the way that it has done for the presidential elections. ABC is put by the polls below the threshold for election, but several recent elections have seen such parties pushed just over the threshold on the actual day of the vote.

All that Borissov might achieve through early parliamentary elections is likely to be a Parliament rather similar to the current one, and his options to form a government would likely involve the same partners he has now.

Which is not to entirely rule out the scenario, and perhaps Borissov might make some gains of seats from it. At the expense of annoying Bulgarians weary of political shenanigans, and at the expense of annoying President Plevneliev, as his closing months in office would again involve the tricky task of cabinet-making./IBNA