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Boyko bounces back?

The results of Sunday’s parliamentary election – Bulgaria’s fourth in just 18 months – were, predictably, complicated. But a government dominated by veteran ex-prime minister Boyko Borissov seems the most likely outcome. His preference will probably be for alliance with reformists rather than reliance on pro-Kremlin nationalists or the rather sleazy Movement for Rights and Freedoms. He may not get his wish, however. And the economic and geopolitical situation will mean that whatever coalition or arrangement emerges will be inherently unstable – and will almost certainly disintegrate altogether next year.

So Boyko Borissov’s back on top. Well, maybe. According to the final results as announced by the Central electoral commission (CEC) , the party of the long-serving former prime minister (PM) emerged as clear leader in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. In electoral tandem with its not-over-important partner, the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS), Mr Borissov’s Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (or GERB, in its Bulgarian acronym) won 25.33 % of the vote. That was well ahead of the 20.20 % of its nearest rival, the reformist, anti-corruption and pro-Western “We Continue the Change” (PP) party.

According to the rules governing elections, this means that GERB-SDS will be the first grouping to be awarded the “mandate” by Bulgaria’s (mostly) non-executive president Rumen Radev. That is, it will get first crack at forming a government, with 67 seats in the National Assembly, the country’s 240-member, single-chamber parliament.

Which, of course, is well short of an outright majority. A deal of some sort with other parties will be needed to secure the support of the 121 members of parliament (MPs) required for a government. But the prospect of Mr Borissov forming his fourth cabinet – or, at any rate, the fourth GERB-led and Borissov-dominated government in 13 years – is far from negligible and will grow as time passes.

How he will go about this is not entirely clear.

Option One: go-it-alone or dubious partners

In terms of parliamentary numbers, GERB-SDS could probably get by on the basis of the votes of its own MPs, plus support from three other parties.

Of these, the biggest is the mainly ethnic “Turkish” Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) – which won 13.75 % of the vote and 36 seats in parliament. Another, whose support, like that of the DPS, would very likely be overt, is the recently founded “conservative nationalist” Bulgarian Rise (BV) party, led by the rather pro-Russian former caretaker PM and defence minister Stefan Yanev (4.62% and 12 MPs).

However, GERB-SDS and these two parties would still be six MPs short of the 121 needed to form a government. Which is where the support of Revival would come in handy.

Revival is the party of the somewhat alarming Kostadin Kostadininov: a Bulgarian ultra-nationalist, anti-gay, anti-migrant, anti-Roma and anti-EU, Mr Kostadinov is also an anti-NATO Putinist (his nickname, “Kopeikin”, is a reference to the smallest unit of Russian currency and implies that the Kremlin didn’t even have to pay a rouble to buy him).

Since Revival got 10.18% of the vote and has 27 MPs, its support would make up the numbers needed for the formation of a Borissov-led government and, thereafter, allow that government to function in a halting sort of way.

A government – probably GERB-SDS alone, or possibly with token DPS and BV participation – is therefore an option and could probably be formed quite quickly. But it is unlikely that GERB will be in a rush, for the simple reason that it would be reluctant to shoulder the burden of government alone or effectively alone.

The DPS is dominated by the Magnitsky-sanctioned businessman Delyan Peevski and, shall we say, has certain image problems. As to the BV and Revival parties, their pro-Kremlin proclivities would look a little unfortunate in present circumstances. None of these would be very creditable either as indispensable parliamentary supporters or as junior coalition partners.

An arrangement of this sort isn’t to be ruled out altogether, admittedly: in the last day or so, pro-Borissov media have been interestingly (if none too plausibly) playing down “Kopeikin’s” anti-Western and pro-Kremlin tendencies. So the cunning ex-PM may be hedging his bets. But it seems more likely that he will jump the other way.

Option Two: Looking to the reformists

For this reason, Mr Borissov will at least try to form a coalition with one or more of his reformist rivals – that is, PP or the right-of-centre Democratic Bulgaria party (DB). There have been rumours that DB leaders have been approached with promises of GERB-SDS support for judicial reform, rightly one of the DB’s key concerns. Whether Mr Borissov’s overtures will convert or convince anyone is a separate question. Most likely not, as a move towards Mr Borissov would be downright suicidal for any leader of the PP or of DB.

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Politically, it looks as if the PP counts on being in opposition against a background of overlapping and escalating crises that GERB-SDS will be unable to tackle. Which looks logical, but could be a flawed strategy. The PP’s joint leaders – recently ousted PM Kiril Petkov and his deputy PM and finance minister Assen Vassilev – should remember two things:

  • First, Bulgaria’s rather politicised and oligarch-dominated media are, to say the least, not on their side.
  • And second, GERB will certainly cling to power by every means available and will, most likely, try to repeat the tactics it used so successfully against the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) by marginalising them. To counter this threat, the PP will need, at minimum, more lively and inspiring speakers and some pretty solid argumentation and reasoning reaching grass-root levels. Mr Vassilev and Mr Petkov certainly have potential in this department. But more voices – convincing voices and a greater diversity of them – are needed to put the party’s case.

Borissov 4.0: what policies?

Be that as it may, it’s more likely than not that GERB-SDS will form a government on the basis of the mandate soon to be received from the president. What precise label will be attached to it remains to be seen. Maybe a “government of national responsibility”, maybe an “expert government”, maybe something in between. But definitely something that will emphasise that this isn’t just Boyko up to his old tricks. Heavens, no!

To some extent, of course, he will be. In terms of policies, Borissov 4.0 will certainly involve another helping of GERB’s populism. But with at least two very important caveats:

First, it’s certain that there will be no end to corruption, backdoor deals and the like – old habits are, after all, hard to break and, broadly defined, corruption of various sorts has been the essence of the Borissov formula for ruling Bulgaria. But it’s likely to be a more discreet and controlled in its form. Mr Borissov will make serious efforts to keep the sleaze and the horse-trading out of the public view – and away from the eyes of Bulgaria’s international partners. This discretion may also dictate a more orderly and disciplined model of distribution, and conspicuous punishments for those unwilling to act in a disciplined way. Which, politically, may not please everyone. After all, Borissov’s key task, for the moment, is not to add to his accumulated personal wealth, but to keep it and avoid retribution. Something his entourage might disagree with.

Second, Mr Borissov’s ostentatious Euro-Atlanticism will be given even more emphasis than before. There will be proficient lip-service to supporting Ukraine (and possibly even just a little actual support). The prospects of Eurozone membership, and the virtuous steps needed to achieve it, will be played up. In fact, just about anything will be done that might speed up the release of EU funds for Bulgaria.

One thing, however, is certain – under GERB, Bulgaria stands little chance of joining the Schengen zone.

Furthermore, Mr Borissov has fulfilled his promises to Russian president Vladimir Putin and built the Turk Stream pipeline. He also did his bit to slow down remedies for Bulgaria’s ludicrous degree of dependence on Russian gas (at 95%, one of the highest in the EU and double the EU average). And, thus, incidentally, he contributed to in no small measure to Mr Putin’s attack on Ukraine, and to the Southern part of the “Ukraine bypass” strategy that facilitated it. Now; therefore – especially as Mr Putin’s goodwill is rather less of an asset than it used to be – Mr Borissov can, with a good (if somewhat underdeveloped) conscience, tell himself that he has done right by his friend Vova and get back to playing a “radical” Atlanticist tune and swapping personal indulgence for public money, e.g. more F-16s.

Indeed, a new GERB-led government is almost certain to receive support from the ever-credulous (or ever-flexible) European People’s Party (EPP) – the main right-of-centre grouping in the European Parliament – of which GERB is a member. Admittedly, such support is less likely from the US, where they’ve generally got more sense. But you never know. It’s worth noting that Mr Borissov has already dispatched envoys to Washington and that H.E. Herro Mustafa, the US ambassador to Sofia, is on good terms with him.

One thing a “Borissov 4.0” probably won’t have, however, is Mr Borissov at its head. We’ve been treating “GERB” and “Boyko Borissov” as synonymous and, to a large extent, that’s true. He’s certainly still calling the shots in the party he created and has led ever since. Nevertheless, Mr Borissov himself is unlikely to be Bulgaria’s next prime minister. Indeed, the PM may not even be from GERB. The choice of the new cabinet’s head – or figurehead – might prove to be one of a set of trade-offs with DPS, the BR and other formations. But, at the end of the day, the PM will be Borissov’s choice.

The DPS, meanwhile, is most definitely pleased with the election’s outcome. After a few years out of power, the mainly ethnic Turkish party – led by Mustafa Karadayi but dominated by its founder Ahmed Dogan and, nowadays, by the infinitely sleazy ethnic Bulgarian oligarch Delyan Peevski – now has a chance to take over crucial ministries with access to lucrative resources. Which is nice, though not really essential. Historically, the DPS hasn’t needed ministers, but has done just fine with deputy ministers, whose efforts have been one of the means to ensure the DPS elite’s main objective of controlling access to funds. Which, of course, has been the essence of the prevailing formula of governance – the infamous “Borissov-Peevski” formula.

The other players

Of the other main players on the Bulgarian stage, president Rumen Radev will continue to exert a powerful influence on the political process through various potential channels:

  • One such channel could be the caretaker governments he may be called upon to form if it proves tricky or impossible to put together a cabinet on the basis of the parliament that has emerged from this (or subsequent) elections.
  • Another could be BR, which is effectively “his” party and is led by Stefan Yanev, a man he himself appointed as caretaker PM last year.
  • Yet another will be such new arrangements as he can – and undoubtedly will – reach with GERB and the DPS.

All in all, Mr Radev stands to benefit from a complicated political situation and may even have some interest in keeping things complicated. However, he will probably not try to do so indefinitely and, most likely, will opt to back a “nationally responsible” government formed on GERB’s mandate.

Of the parties and coalitions other than GERB-SDS and the DPS, the most straightforward verdict can be delivered on “There Is Such a People” (ITN), the formation led by former TV showman Slavi Trifonov – one of the world’s less distinguished comedians-turned-politicians.

Put bluntly, ITN is history, and deservedly so. After it won 16% of the vote in elections held in April last year, ITN peaked at 24% in the following ones, but then fell to 9,5%. On Sunday, it won just 3.8%, thus falling under the 4% threshold required for entry into parliament. That was no surprise: ITN was punished for toppling the Petkov government this June and, before that, for wasting Bulgaria’s time in three consecutive elections. It had the power to do some good, but instead it did nothing constructive. Besides this, though billed as an “anti-corruption” party, it was actually a somewhat shambolic screen for various corporate interests – as well as those of the Kremlin. So now the last laugh is on Slavi. Few will lament his political passing. I certainly won’t.

Less definitive is the situation of the BSP, which might try to negotiate a role in government, and might even succeed. However, it is too personal between Borissov and Ninova and getting over it might need considerable luck on GERB’s side.

Successor to the ruling Communist Party of pre-1990 days, the BSP has fallen on hard times. Its record in government in the last three decades has been intermittent – and usually catastrophic – and Mr Borissov has, as noted above, succeeded in marginalising the Socialists since their most recent catastrophe, that of 2013-2014. In the most recent election, the BSP won just 9% of the vote: aside from long-term decline, this underperformance can be explained by loss of electoral support to the two pro-Kremlin parties and to the fact that president Radev, though elected on a BSP ticket, was less than even-handed, attacking the BSP and showing ill-disguised favour to GERB and “his party”, the BR, and “his man” Stefan Yanev.

However, the BSP is not in a completely hopeless position. Its contingent of 24 MPs could be an important factor in the parliamentary arithmetic of coalition-building. The Socialists participated in the last government, in the company of some very strange bedfellows, and their leader Kornelia Ninova has already started to distance herself from DB and the PP, in order to retain her role at the head of a party whose more traditional elements are sceptical of her. So she might well seek a truce with Mr Borissov – and possibly even with Mr Radev.

Things to come

So what are our conclusions?

Well, first, expect a new Borissov-dominated government – even if it’s unlikely to be Mr Borissov himself at the helm.

Second, on the foreign policy front, don’t expect any change from how things were when Mr Borissov was actually in office. As before, there will be much ado about pro-Atlantic allegiances. But, also as before, Russia’s interests will in practice always be taken very seriously into account – even in war. Sad to say, with a radical escalation of the war in Ukraine a real possibility and with confrontation between the West and Russia unlikely to disappear any time soon, under Borissov government, Bulgaria’s net value as an EU and NATO ally will decline, in line with the pusillanimous attitude to the Kremlin of both the president and any future GERB government.

Third, in domestic politics, expect more populism as crises both broaden in scope and deepen in seriousness, going beyond the government’s capacity to contain them. A GERB-led government will spend heavily on alleviating the impact of crisis on the poor and will funnel money into helping industry survive high energy prices, relying primarily on EU money and going into more debt to secure financial buffers, buying time – and securing support from the media and from oligarchs.

Fourth, expect instability and a relatively short-lived government. The situation means a rough ride is inevitable, and new waves of protest are likely, especially as “stretched” coalitions start to crumble under the pressure of multiple crises. No-one should underestimate the wily and determined Mr Borissov’s instinct for holding onto power no matter what. However, his grip will hardly last beyond the municipal elections due in October next year.

And it may even fail earlier – as early as next spring.

Ilian Vassilev

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