Bulgaria – Cabinet member chosen from the president’s staff and a brief sneak peek at the 2016 presidential election

Bulgaria’s Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov resigned on 9 December 2015 after the parliament revised some of his proposals for constitutional amendments, which were aimed at reducing the influence of the country’s chief prosecutor on the judiciary. His plans to reform and make the prosecuting authority more accountable before parliament had already led to tensions between GERB’s junior coalition partners, the Reformist Bloc (RB), a loose coalition of five right-wing parties, and the centre-left Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV) party together with the nationalist Patriotic Front. Formally an independent minister, Ivanov entered PM Borisov’s government in November 2014 as part of the RB quota.

Initially, Ivanov’s resignation seemed to threaten the government’s own survival, as the leader of the Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB), one of the parties in the Reformist Bloc, threatened to withdraw support from government. The RB holds 23 seats in the 240-seat legislature, including 10 DSB members. Additionally, the minister’s resignation was followed by street protests calling for a full-scale judicial reform, which were reminiscent of the mass demonstrations that had brought down PM Borisov’s first government in 2013. Given the government’s minority status in parliament, both the president and the prime minister raised concerns over political stability and warned of early elections if the coalition broke down.

In a move that seemed typical for the contradictory positions assumed by the members in the RB coalition, DSB announced its decision to move into the opposition without withdrawing their Health Minister Petar Moskov from the cabinet. Nevertheless, the other four parties in the Reformist Bloc decided to continue their support for the government, conditional on the renegotiation of the coalition agreement and the next steps in the judicial reform.

PM Borisov’s GERB and the RB held talks over possible nominations for the justice ministry, both parties advancing claims over the position. In the end, PM Borisov proposed Ekaterina Zaharieva, the president’s chief of staff as a new Deputy PM and Justice Minister. Her nomination was approved by 126 out of the 240 MPs, although some coalition members were split over the appointment.

Like her predecessor, Hristo Ivanov, Ekaterina Zaharieva is a non-partisan minister. She took office as the president’s Chief Secretary in 2012, after serving as a deputy minister for public works at the time when Rosen Plevneliev also held office as minister before winning the 2011 presidential election. Hardly a newcomer to key cabinet positions, she had previously held office as Deputy PM in the two caretaker cabinets appointed by President Rosen Plevneliev in March 2013 and August 2014. At the end of her caretaker minister duties, she returned as the president’s Chief of Staff in November 2014.

What could follow next in 2016? Despite the coalition splits unveiled by the recent government crisis, PM Borisov’s grip on power seems secure in the face of an even more divided opposition. The government may nevertheless need to demonstrate its support in parliament soon enough, as the opposition Socialists are holding consultations for a no-confidence motion with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS).

Nevertheless, one of the most important events of the year is the presidential election that will be held in October. President Plevneliev has once again demonstrated his ability to provide solutions to political crises and skills in recruiting cabinet talent, which can be used as valuable assets if he decides to run for a second term in office.

The justice reform is likely to play an important role in the election campaign, not least because Bulgaria’s progress in this area continues to be monitored by the European Commission. In fact, PM Borisov accused DSB leader Radan Kanev of trying to exploit coalition tensions over the judicial reform to kick-start his election campaign. In his first messages addressed in early January, President Plevneliev has also taken the opportunity to stress the need for new constitutional changes to speed up the judicial reform.

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