Bulgaria – Snap election may bring another minority government and the end of “cohabitation”

Bulgaria held a snap general election on 5 October. This was the second early election in the last 18 months and the third consecutive election since 2009 in which the centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (CERB) came ahead in the polls. However, each contest has seen GERB slipping further away from obtaining a parliamentary majority. Compared to the 2009 and 2013 elections, when it won 116 and 97 seats respectively, this time around GERB will only get about 87 seats in the 240-seat assembly.

The single-party minority government formed in 2009 by PM Borisov, GERB’s leader, resigned in February 2013 following mass protests against austerity measures and high energy prices. Although GERB won the highest number of seats in the following election, a minority coalition government was formed by the Socialist Party (BSP) and the Turkish minority party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DSP), which together held 120 seats. As the two parties were one seat short of an absolute majority, their survival in office depended on the ultra-nationalist Ataka party, which held 23 seats.

To expose the executive’s reliance on the support of the far-right, GERB tabled five no-confidence motions, which the government survived only because the Ataka deputies abstained or did not take part in the vote. The government eventually resigned on 23 July 2014, following a poor showing of the Socialist party in the European Parliament elections, a coalition rift regarding the future of the South Stream pipeline, and a banking crisis.

No fewer than eight parties managed to pass the 4% national threshold in Sunday’s election:

  • Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (CERB) – 32.67% (+2.13%)
  • Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) – Leftist Bulgaria -15.41% (-11.2%)
  • Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) – 14.83% (+3.52%)
  • Reformist Bloc – 8.88% (New)
  • Patriotic Front – 7.29% (New)
  • Bulgaria without Censorship – 5.7% (New)
  • Ataka – 4.52% (-2.78%)
  • Alternative for Bulgarian Renaissance (ABV) – 4.15% (New)

Although the allocation of seats has not been officially announced yet, the party led by Boyko Borisov is likely to fall more than 30 seats short of the 121-seat majority. On the other hand, the ultra-nationalist Patriotic Front and the far-right Ataka are expected to hold together about 30 seats. Given the weakness of the Socialist party, the unprecedented fragmentation of the parliament, and the fact that a coalition government between GERB and the next three parties has been ruled out, another minority government seems likely to form.

Several factors increase the likelihood of a minority government outcome. While ruling out a coalition with the Socialist party and the DPS, GERB is open to negotiating external support for certain policies with the two parties. A similar scenario could work for the Reformist Bloc, which refuses to enter a coalition government with GERB if Borisov takes over as prime minister, but does not rule out support for GERB’s governing programme. The formation of a minority government in Bulgaria is also facilitated by the fact that the investiture of new governments only requires the support of a simple majority in parliament.

Bulgaria’s snap election is also likely to change the working relations between the head of state and the new executive. The government formed by PM Plamen Oresharski, an independent associated with the Socialist party, could be described as one of cohabitation, since Rosen Plevneliev’s candidacy in 2011 was supported by GERB.

Indeed, the level of conflict between the president and the Socialist government was typical of a period of cohabitation. On top of openly siding with the anti-government protests that started as soon as the new cabinet took office, President Plevneliev also used his constitutional powers to put more pressure on the ruling coalition. For example, when the scandal regarding the appointment of Delyan Peevski as head of the state security agency broke out, the president asked the Constitutional Court twice to rule on whether state institutions have the power to dismiss or to reverse their own appointments to other state institutions.

The president also used his right to send bills back to parliament more frequently after the BSP-DPS government came to power. In just over one year, the president returned nine laws to the parliament, including a budget bill in August 2013. Moreover, the parliament failed to overturn a presidential veto in July 2014, after far-right Ataka started boycotting plenary sessions in anticipation of the assembly’s dissolution.

Nevertheless, the formation of a GERB-led government and the end of “cohabitation” does not necessarily have to see a decrease in presidential activism. As a matter of fact, President Plevneliev did not refrain from vetoing government bills in 2012, when PM Borisov was in power. In addition, the president’s standing has improved considerably as a result of the active role he took in selecting and setting the priorities for the caretaker government he appointed on 6 August 2014. Some pundits are also wondering whether President Plevneliev’s political career might one day include a move to the cabinet building. The performance and stability of the new government might have a big role to play in this regard.

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