Tag Archives: Bulgaria

Bulgaria – An EU Presidency and a Prime Minister’s Ambition

EPA/Julien Warnand

Prime Minister of Bulgaria Boyko Borisov welcomed by EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (R). Juncker is know to call the PM ‘his golden boy’.  EPA/JULIEN WARNAND

1 January marked the start of Bulgaria’s first presidency of the Council of the EU. This position amplifies international attention towards the country’s process of democratization and demands further investigation of the political practice in institutional power sharing. The following text is an overview of some of the key issues that Bugaria’s EU presidency will highlight in the next six months: (1) inter-institutional conflict over anti-corruption laws; (2) the dynamics between the parties in the governing coalition; (3) PM Boyko Borisov’s political strength.

  • Fighting corruption: a Bulgarian method

Bulgaria is a premier-presidential semi-presidential republic. This means that control over the government is assigned to the parliament, while the directly elected president shares some executive powers with the PM. The president can also veto legislation. President Rumen Radev used this veto right on 2 January 2018 against new anti-corruption law supported by the parliamentary majority. This is a controversial piece of legislation. According to it, the chair and all the members of a special anti-graft committee meant to investigate high public officials would be appointed by the parliament with a simple majority. The president claims this provides the framework for the parliamentary majority to manipulate the institution’s authorized use of special intelligence means – such as wiretapping – to target political adversaries. PM Borisov’s main coalition party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and partner United Patriots support the law, claiming that it answers to the demands of the European Commission for decisive action against corruption.

The Bulgarian constitutional semi-presidential framework favours the implementation of decisions made by the parliamentary majority and limits the powers of the president once the government is formed without his own party. Consequently, we can expect that the president’s veto will be ruled out through a new vote in parliament and that the government backed legislation could soon enter into force.

The controversy surrounding this piece of legislation shows the potential for institutional disagreement when PM and president come from a different political support base. Such policy related conflict is not uncommon in situations of cohabitation and we could easily anticipate its outcome. The constitutional semi-presidential framework favours the implementation of decisions made by the parliamentary majority and renders the president weak once the government is formed without his own party. Consequently, we can expect that the president’s veto will be ruled out through a new vote in parliament and that the government backed legislation could soon enter into force. But this particular conflict is more than ”business as usual’ cohabitation skirmishes.

The debate on the framing of anti-corruption legislation law is telling about the state of elite commitment to consolidate the rule of law in Bulgaria and warns about the democratic progress of the country. Radev was elected president with the support of the main opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). BSP had also proposed their version of an anti-corruption investigative agency whose head would be named precisely by the president. The competing propositions show a lingering understanding that in a young democracy such as Bulgaria, institutions could be created or shaped having in mind the immediate political benefits brought by a temporary distribution of power. While more advanced in its anti-corruption fight, a similar inter-institutional clash takes place in neighbouring Romania. In the Romanian case, the parliamentary majority is currently working on legislative reforms that would eliminate the president from the procedure to appoint the general prosecutor, the chief prosecutor of the National Anti-corruption Agency (and their deputies) and the chief prosecutor of the Organised Crime and Terrorism Investigation Agency.

  • The far-right, from Sofia to Brussels

GERB formed the government with the political alliance United Patriots (UP).  UP consist of three parties – Ataka, led by Volen Siderov, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, led by deputy PM for Economic and Demographic Policy Valeri Simeonov, and the Bulgarian National Movement, led by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, Krassimir Karakachanov. The extremist and racist public positions of the UP leaders regarding immigrants and the Roma communities have constantly raised international concerns. The UP ministers that assumed ministerial portfolios and their views are now expected to ‘shock Brussels’.[i] Nevertheless, while their rhetoric stems out, their views on limiting immigration are embraced by all parliamentary parties. Also, PM Borisov has so far proved to be in control of his coalition partners, satisfactorily addressing their demands without losing his status as Brussels’ ‘golden boy‘. As a result, the UP parties have moderated their tone in 2017 and in view of the EU presidency. Opinions may not change on the way from Sofia to Brussels, but their international public discourse could prove to be more restrained than it has previously been on the home front.

Moreover, the prospect of Bulgarian racism and xenophobia at the highest level of European decision making is but a teaser of what could follow once Austria takes over the presidency on 1 July. While the main political presence in both Sofia and Brussels is now secured by GERB ministers, the incoming Austrian government numbers five ministers from the far right Freedom Party (FPO), including the Minister of Interior and an FPO supported Foreign Minister.

  • Boyko Borisov: a balancing act

PM Borisov is highly concerned with internal stability during this period, satisfying requests from different segments of society to avoid any protests. He asked for restraint and ‘more patriotism’ from the socialist led opposition not to initiate a planned vote of no confidence for 17 January, pointing at them as inopportune trouble makers. He secured a truce with the opposition party Movement of Rights and Freedoms (DPS) and its leader Ahmed Dogan.[ii] Internationally, Borisov has set up the Bulgarian presidency as a ‘Balkan presidency’, proposing an ambitious agenda for a clearer European perspective for the Western Balkans. This choice of priority is a manifesto of a pro-European stance which Western Europe expects and favours. This comes in contrast with the pro-Russian image that president Radev and the BSP have been painted by Western media despite no practical proof of defiance against NATO or EU policies.

A seasoned politician, Borisov knows how to use the momentum of the presidency to boost his political capital internally and externally. He wants the following months to be all about his and his government’s successes. In contrast, a less politically experienced Radev avoided reference to the EU Presidency in his end of the year speech on 31 December 2017. Should Borisov successfully continue this balancing act between his coalition partners, citizens’ interest groups and Western European expectations, the resulting political stability would come in handy in delivering justice reforms without significant civic protest or objections from Brussels.  In the longer run, it could also help in winning the debate concerning the changes to the electoral system to his party long term benefit.[iii]

Conclusions

In its 12th year of EU membership, the Bulgarian state continues to grapple with a multitude of ‘sins’ familiar to observers of the democratization process of post-communist states, from unaddressed high-level corruption to power personalization and legislative instability. The EU presidency in itself may not structurally affect political activities, but it serves to highlight elite priorities and the political strategies on the ground. So far, this translates into a focus on the PM and his long term self-empowering ambitions of institutional reform.

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[i] Out of similar concerns, another interesting point on the EU calendar is the meeting of the EU Environmental Council to be led by UP supported Environment Minister Neno Dimov, known for a 2015 statement that global warming is a manipulation.

[ii] The power of DPS is far greater than its legislative size as it is also the party of Bulgarian oligarch and media mogul Delyan Peevski.

[iii] GERB favours an electoral reform towards a majority run-off system from which it (and BSP) could also benefit in the medium and long run. President Radev and smaller parties support a mixed electoral system.

 

Petia Kostadinova and Maria Popova – The 2017 legislative elections in Bulgaria

This is a guest post by Petia Kostadinova (University of Illinois at Chicago) and Maria Popova (McGill University)

Background

Bulgaria held its third legislative elections in the last four years, the tenth such elections since 1990. These elections came on the heels of the November 2016 presidential race, which pitted an ostensibly pro-European candidate from the governing GERB against an ostensibly pro-Russian candidate backed by the opposition Socialists. At the outset of the presidential campaign, Prime Minister Borisov, had promised to resign if GERB’s candidate lost the election.  When that happened, Borisov kept his promise and triggered early parliamentary elections.

Eighteen parties and nine coalitions put forward candidates. A few new political formations are worth noting – Volya, United Patriots, DOST, and no less than three heirs to the defunct Reformist Bloc.  Five parties are to enter parliament – GERB, BSP, United Patriots, DPS, and Volya.

Topics that came through in the campaign

Many of the parties competing at the elections published election platforms. GERB’s was among the lengthiest, at 48 pages, and detailed the party’s actions in office. For the first time (to the authors’ knowledge), a party also explicitly mentioned the sources for its election program, a process that has remained a mystery in Bulgarian politics. Emphasis was placed on a collaboration between intra-party experts with current ministerial employees, thus pointing towards a continuity in GERB’s policies, while keeping the party in line with the priorities of the European People’s Party to which it belongs. The platform starts with GERB’s pro-EU and pro-NATO priorities, highlighting Bulgaria’s upcoming presidency of the Council of the European Union. Much of the platform is externally-oriented, detailing Bulgaria’s relations with individual (neighboring) countries, while keeping in line with the EU’s priorities towards the Russian Federation, Turkey, Western Balkans, etc. Even domestic policies, such as regional priorities were framed in terms of EU funding and structures. Thus, GERB staked out its claim to being Bulgaria’s main pro-European party, even though GERB’s leader Borisov frequently talked about improving relations with Russia on the campaign trail.

In contrast, the European Union was mentioned on only two of the 15-page long platform of the Bulgarian Socialist Party. The program was framed in terms of equality and poverty reduction, through increased government spending and protectionist measures. Very little space was dedicated in the Socialists program to the foreign policy priorities of the party, although the call for removal of EU sanctions against the Russian Federation was prominent.  Hence, the Socialists’ branding as the pro-Russian actor in Bulgarian politics. However, during their governing stints in 2004-2008 and 2013-2014, the Socialists had maintained Bulgaria’s unambiguously pro-European orientation, much to Russia’s chagrin, and had balked at pursuing many of the promised social welfare policies.

Similar to BSP’s, the platform of the Movement of Rights and Freedoms had a pessimistic view of the economic and political situation, calling for a plan to ‘save Bulgaria’. Emphasis was placed on spending and development of resources in education, healthcare, and agriculture. The EU and NATO were barely mentioned in the program, while Bulgaria’s relations with Russia, Turkey, or any neighboring countries were not at all discussed. Among all legislative parties, DPS’ was perhaps the most domestically-oriented election program.

Volya’s platform came close to that of the Socialists, advocating for increased social, education, and health spending, including support for families bearing more children, and for young families in general. The platform had a distinct pro-EU and pro-NATO tone, and in many areas the party emphasized adopting best practices ‘from abroad’. Volya called for a leadership role of Bulgaria in both the EU and the country’s immediate neighborhood. At the same time, the party also emphasized friendly relations with the Russian Federation. Volya’s ambiguous position on the EU-Russia foreign policy choice emphasizes that Bulgaria’s politics cannot be easily reduced to a pro-European/pro-Russian fault line.

United Patriots platform was typical of the coalition’s constituent parties combination of increased spending, protectionism, and curtailing of minority rights. Among the latter was a proposal that only those who are fluent in Bulgarian language, and have completed mandatory primary schooling would have the right to vote. Another idea put forward by the coalition was restricting the pro-Turkish parties from governing. Both ideas would most likely be struck down as unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court, but probably played well with the xenophobic and nationalist part of the electorate.

The previous parliament featured a prominent reformist, pro-European, centre-right coalition—the Reformist Bloc. The coalition fell apart over the decision by some members to withdraw support from the Borisov government over slow judicial reforms and corruption scheme allegations. In the parliamentary election, those who wished to continue cooperating with Borisov and GERB contested the election as Reformist Bloc-Voice of the People; those who opposed cooperation with GERB split into two—Yes Bulgaria (in coalition with the Greens and DEOS) and New Republic. That split may have been either leader-driven or ideological, with Yes Bulgaria wanting to straddle the left-right spectrum and present itself as a liberal party focused on anti-corruption, good governance and the environment, and New Republic staking out Christian conservative, free market, and anti-Communist positions. Whatever the drivers of the split, neither of the three heirs to the Reformist Bloc passed the 4% threshold. As a result, the roughly 10% of the electorate, which backed them in both 2014 and 2017, lost their representation in the incoming parliament.

Election Results

Five parties surpassed the 4% threshold. GERB clinched first place with a third of the votes (32.65%), just as it did in 2014 and in 2013. The Socialist Party came in second with 27.20%. The traditional kingmaker in Bulgarian parliaments, the Turkish-minority-backed Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) was replaced (albeit very narrowly) as the third biggest party in parliament by the new United Patriots, a coalition of three far-right/far-left nationalist parties.  United Patriots received 9.07%, which is roughly the same result as one of its members, Ataka, had received on its own in previous elections.  While the far right has become the third biggest parliamentary faction and will most likely have a strong voice in the formation of the new cabinet, it did not manage to capitalize on the populist zeitgeist and expand its electoral base.  DPS received 8.99%. DPS’s result was probably lowered by the entry in this election of a competitor for the minority vote—DOST, led by ousted an DPS leader. DOST received 2.86%, which leaves it out of parliament, but it likely siphoned off votes from DPS. The fifth and final party to get parliamentary representation, Volya, is another newcomer—the vehicle for a businessman-turned-politician from the city of Varna, who had already made a splash in the presidential election, by getting over 11%.  It remains to be seen whether Volya will be an active populist player in parliament or will simply trade votes for policies that benefit its leader’s various business interests.

References

http://results.cik.bg/pi2017/rezultati/index.html

http://gerb.bg/bg/pages/otcheti-za-predizborni-kampanii-88.html

http://bsp.bg/news/view/11667-predizborna_platforma_na_blgarskata_sotsialisticheska_partiya.html

http://vestnikataka.bg/2017/03/програмата-на-обединени-патриоти-изб

http://www.dps.bg/bg/izbori-2017/predizborna-programa.html

http://volia.bg/programa.html

http://sofiaglobe.com/2017/01/20/ahead-of-parliamentary-election-bulgarian-socialist-leader-pledges-to-forge-closer-relations-with-russia/

http://sofiaglobe.com/2017/03/12/parliamentary-elections-yes-bulgaria-a-movement-for-change/

Petia Kostadinova – Bulgaria elects an opposition candidate as its next President and incumbent PM resigns

This is a guest post by Petia Kostadinova, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, at the University of Illinois at Chicago

Background and participants

With its new democratic constitution passed in 1991, Bulgaria established for the first time in its history the institution of the President of the Republic. Direct elections, with the winner requiring to gather the majority of votes cast, started taking place in 1992. The sixth such elections were held in November 2016 over two rounds, Nov. 6 and Nov. 13. A national referendum on three questions was also took place on Nov. 6. The referendum asked voters to weigh in on (1) introduction of a run-off single member district electoral system for legislative elections, requiring winning candidates to gather the majority of votes cast on the second round; (2) introduction of mandatory voting; (3) state financing of political parties equal to 1 BG Lev (= 0.51 Euro) for each vote received at legislative elections. The presidential elections were also the first under rules stipulating that non-participation in two consecutive elections would lead to voters losing their automatic voter registration. This stipulation was one of the questions addressed in the referendum.

Voter turnout was relatively high, approaching 58% of the electorate at the first round, and over 40% at the run off.[1]  The elections were preceded by an active controversy surrounding the diaspora vote. Initially the Electoral Code, guiding the procedures of these elections stipulated that there would be no more than 35 polling locations in countries that are not members of the European Union (EU). Most Bulgarians living outside the EU reside in Turkey and the United States. The upper limit of polling locations was eventually removed from the Electoral Code, in time for the first round of elections.

Twenty-two sets of candidates were put forward, and for the first time voters had the option to cast a ballot for no candidate, expressing their dissatisfaction with the choices. Five and a half percent of voters marked “I do not support any candidate” at the first round, and 4.71% made such a choice at the second round. The governing party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), was among the last to nominate a presidential candidate, after the current President Plevneliev supported by GERB, chose not to run for re-elections. Eventually, GERB nominated the Chairperson of the National Assembly, Tsetska Tsacheva, as their candidate. GERB’s main coalition partner, Reform Bloc (RB), put forward a separate nomination, that of Traicho Traikov, who had been a member of the first GERB government, 2009-2012.

The two main opposition parties, Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), did not directly nominate presidential candidates, instead pledging their respective party’s vote for presidential hopefuls supported through personal ‘initiative committees’. As an effort to increase direct citizen participation in democratic governance, initiative committees allow for at least twenty-one citizens to sign a petition nominating (presumably politically) independent candidates for President and Vice President (VP). Ten of the 22 sets of candidates were put forward through such initiative committees. The Socialists supported Roumen Radev and Illiana Iotova’s candidacies. Radev is a general without political experience and the former head of the Bulgarian Air Force. Iotova is a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from the Group of Socialists and Democrats. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms supported the nomination of former Finance Minister, and later Prime Minister, Plamen Oresharski, with Danail Papazov as VP candidate.

Issues in the campaign

While some parties nominated candidates as early as May 2016, the election campaign did not intensify until October, after GERB finally settled on a nominee. Debates among presidential hopefuls have become a norm in Bulgaria, and at least a dozen such events, sponsored by different media outlets, took place among different sets of candidates. The two leading candidates, Radev and Tsacheva, hesitated to participate in debates with multiple participants, and instead debated among themselves. The President of the Republic does not have extensive executive and legislative functions, although s/he can initiate changes in the Constitution, and can use veto power over certain legislation. In addition to ceremonial functions related to foreign affairs, the office of Head of State in Bulgaria has prerogatives focusing on national security. Fittingly, among the main issues that emerged in presidential debates were the country’s communist legacy, foreign policy especially with respect to Russia, and Turkey, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the EU’s handling of the refugee crisis, and domestically – the stalled reform of the legal system. Radev is widely considered a pro-Russian politician, and has called for the lifting of the EU sanctions on Russia. Tsacheva also called for warming up relations with the Russian Federation, and indicated that if elected, she’d invite President Putin to visit Bulgaria. Due to the limited constitutional powers of the President in Bulgaria though, s/he does not participate in European Union decision-making processes. It is unlikely that the election of a pro-Russia President alone would lead to a change in the country’s foreign policy direction.

Outcome and implications

At the first round of elections, Radev, supported by the Socialist Party, won the plurality of votes (25.44%), followed by GERB’s Tsacheva with 21.96%. The candidate of three nationalist parties under the label of United Patriots Karakatchanov gathered 14.97% of the vote. A regional businessman, owner of a pharmacy chain, Mareshki, nominated by one of the nearly dozen initiative committees received 11.17% of the vote. The candidate supported by the Movement of Rights and Freedoms came in fourth with 6.63% of the vote.

Sunday’s run-off between the first and second ranked at the first round was decisively won by Radev with 59.37% of the votes cast. Tsacheva gathered 36.16% of the vote. Exit polls suggest that at the second round of elections, Radev attracted votes from DPS, as well as the majority of those who voted for the candidate of the nationalist parties. Tsacheva was supported by half of those who voted for the candidate of the Reform Bloc.

At the start of the election campaign, Prime Minister Borisov made it explicit that if the GERB candidate did not win the presidency, he would resign, turning the presidential elections into a proxy vote of no confidence for his government. When Tsacheva came in second after the first round, Borisov hesitated to step down but reiterated that GERB would not participate in government if she lost the final vote. Radev’s win in the second round led to Borisov’s resignation. The composition of any future government as well as the timing of new elections remain unclear at the time when this report was written. The outgoing President can approach the second largest party in the National Assembly – BSP – to form a (coalition) government in the current legislature. But the Socialists have already announced that they are not interested, and that they would seek to win the forthcoming legislative vote. The timing of the latter is yet to be determined. The outgoing President does not have the right to dissolve the legislature within three months of his term ending in January 2017. Thus, it would have to be the incoming President Radev who would call for new elections that can take place in April 2017 at the earliest. In the meantime, with GERB out of office, current President Plevneliev and president-elect Radev have agreed to work together on appointing a caretaker government until the next elections take place. Leading politicians have also indicated that despite the referendum failing to gather the minimum number of votes to be binding, there is interest in introducing a majoritarian single member district electoral system before the next elections, thus significantly changing the country’s political landscape.

Notes

[1] As of the writing of this piece, the Central Election Committee had not reported the final numbers on voter turnout.

References

http://www.parliament.bg/bg/const
https://bg.wikipedia.org/wiki/Президентски_избори_в_България_(1992)
https://bg.wikipedia.org/wiki/Президентски_избори_в_България_(1996)
https://bg.wikipedia.org/wiki/Президентски_избори_в_България_(2001)
https://bg.wikipedia.org/wiki/Президентски_избори_в_България_(2006)
http://pvr2006.cik.bg/results_2/index.html
https://results.cik.bg/tur2/prezidentski/index.html
https://results.cik.bg/pvrnr2016/tur1/aktivnost/index.html
http://www.dnevnik.bg/bulgaria/2016/10/27/2851855_prezidentut_podpisa_promenite_v_izborniia_kodeks/
http://www.lex.bg/laws/ldoc/2135636485
https://www.president.bg/cat72/54770482851643602/
http://www.mediapool.bg/radev-stana-prezident-pravitelstvoto-si-otiva-news256418.html
http://www.mediapool.bg/plevneliev-i-radev-shte-opredelyat-zaedno-sastava-na-sluzhebniya-kabinet-news256514.html