Bulgaria – President Radev is shaping a political alternative

Russian President Vladimir Putin receives pro-Russian counterpart Rumen Radev. On this occassion, President Radev declared that the purpose of the visit is “to reinstate the dialogue at the highest level after a multi-year interruption”. Source: novinite.com

Bulgarian president Rumen Radev is increasingly feeling the constitutional constraints over his ability to influence the politics of his country. In the last year of cohabitation, the ambitious politician has accentuated his anti-governmental rhetoric and showed his willingness to fight the limited role he is offered by the institutional set-up of Bulgaria. He is efficiently chipping away at the popularity of prime-minister Boyko Borissov and the ruling party GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria). However, the independent Radev’s measured potential for electoral success is restricted by the absence of a supporting party. The following text is an overview of the alternatives offered by president Radev to his Bulgarian supporters and the ensuing institutional conflicts he is likely to run into.    

Internal Politics: An All – Male Fight Club

The Bulgarian president is directly elected, cautiously placing Bulgaria among semi-presidential regimes (Elgie,1999). However, the Constitution of Bulgaria clearly states that the country is a republic with a parliamentary form of government (Constitution, Art. 1).This puts the Bulgarian president in a weaker institutional position than heads of other semi-presidential republics in the region (Romania, Russia, Slovenia and Ukraine). Faced with such limitations to his own understanding of how much authority the presidential office should provide him, president Rumen Radev is increasingly making the case that he should have increased powers within the state. Most recently, he suggested changing the regime to a presidential republic, concurrently claiming that Bulgarian ‘democracy is jeopardized’.   

President Radev also made use of his institutional powers. In his second year of mandate, he resorted to vetoing Parliament bills seven times (e.g. higher taxes for oldercars, State Property Act).Parliament overturned six such decisions and agreed to strike down the vetoed provisions in just one case. In a different case, he refused to sign a decree that would open the way for the appointment of a new interior minister, which he finally had to accept. This limited effect achieved through the use of constitutional powers has not been sufficient for the ex-Army General Radev, who resorted to intensifying his anti-governmental rhetoric on economic, defense, energy efficiency, anti-corruption, the Macedonian issue and many other subjects. In turn, GERB accused him of waging a ‘political war’.  Prime-minister Borissov retaliated in this game of institutional power politics by announcing that it will be him, not the president, who will address the UN General Assembly in September 2018.  This signified an important change from previous years and a symbolic win for PM Borissov.

President Radev is joined in his opposition to the government by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which also supported his independent run for president. However, Radev distanced himself from the BSP, who continues to fall in the preferences of the Bulgarian electorate and has not proven credible or inspired enough to become an alternative disillusioned citizens might vote for. In the poorest EU country, with a low living standard and the world’s fastest shrinking population (see Figure below), general dissatisfaction with the government’s activity is increasing, providing space for political alternatives.

According to UN Projections, the population of Bulgaria will decrease by 23% by 2050. Source: World Population Prospects – un.org 

As the coalition around prime-minister Borissov shows signs of disunity and references to a possible early election in 2019 become more often, the question remains who is going to benefit from Radev’s high approval ratings.

Bulgarians have a long history of supporting parties built around a charismatic figure. The former king Simeon Saxe- Coburg-Gotha created the National Movement Simeon the Second (NDSV) and became prime minister of the Republic of Bulgaria (2001 -2005).The incumbent prime-minister Boyko Borissov was a popular Chief Secretary of the Ministry of Interior and mayor of Sofia, who used his popularity to established GERB. President Radev may well follow in their footsteps. Nevertheless, as the president of Bulgaria, he is constitutionally prohibited to engage in party politics.Consequently, he will either have to be highly stealthy about his actions and set up a non-partisan support group he could later use, wait until the end of his mandate to engage in new political projects or use the existing major opposition force, BSP, to build an internal alternative to prime-minister Borissov’s GERB.  An increasingly combative stance from Radev while in the presidential office would eventually plunge the country in institutional havoc.

Foreign Affairs: An East – West Balancing Act

Bulgaria is engaged in a traditional dance between the politics of the East, personalised by Russian President Vladimir Putin and those of the West, brought about through membership in the European Union. GERB is seen as a pro-EU force. The EU Commission recently commended some of the progress made in tackling organised crime and corruption (see CVM Progress Report for Bulgaria 2018). Prime Minister Borissov is also generally regarded as a pro-European, who accepted the symbolic benefits of withdrawing from joint Bulgarian – Russian projects, including the Belene Nuclear Power Plant and South Stream Pipeline, at the appeal of the EU.

Earlier in 2018, president Radev was welcomed in Russia, where he met President Vladimir Putin. This marked a rare visit from a post-communist European head of state to Russia. According to official accounts, the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the deepening of economic cooperation between the two states. In a different statement,President Radev also declared that Europe should not interfere with Russian gas supplies to Bulgaria. Since in office, President Radev confirmed his sympathies for a rapprochement with the Russian state, prompting some to consider that Bulgaria could become a Trojan horse state for Russian politics in the EU.  All this adds to his past statements in support of the Russian annexation of Crimea

Conclusion

Mapping the policies and political plans of the Bulgarian president heightened in relevance in 2018. His personal ambitions, combined with his high popularity, increase the possibility of president Rumen Radev to redefine Bulgaria’s internal politics and foreign policy.  

This blog post was written by permanent contributor Veronica Anghel, PhD in collaboration with Teodora Aleksandrova (PhD Candidate, University of Sofia)

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