About one month after the general election held on March 26, a new government formally took office in Bulgaria on May 4. The post-election negotiations were led by Boyko Borisov’s centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), which has emerged once again as the largest party in the fourth consecutive election since 2009. In fact, since the party first competed in a national poll in 2009, GERB and PM Borisov have spent only one year in opposition between May 2013 and October 2014.
As anticipated, a majority coalition was forged between GERB and the United Patriots (UP) alliance, which brings together Bulgaria’s three main players of the far right: the Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO), the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), and Ataka. Separately, the three parties have proved instrumental to maintaining both GERB- (in 2009 and 2014) and BSP-led governments (in 2013) in power without directly participating in government. This time around, due to their ability to unite ahead of the 2016 presidential election and support a common candidate, the nationalists are formally represented in cabinet.
Technically, the government has a mere one-seat majority, as the two coalition partners have 122 deputies between themselves in the 240-member National Assembly. Nevertheless, the ruling parties may be able to count on the more or less explicit parliamentary support of Volya, a new anti-establishment party founded by businessman Veselin Mareshki, which won 12 seats in the March election. A first indication in this regard was the investiture vote held on May 4, which the government won by 134 votes to 101, as Volya MPs voted alongside GERB and the United Patriots.
Figure 1 compares the share of legislative seats the two partners contribute to the governing coalition with their portfolio payoffs. Out of 21 posts, GERB retained 17, including the PM, while UP obtained four posts. As kingmakers in the government formation process, the United Patriots were expected to demand a high price for their participation in cabinet. As far as the numerical payoffs are concerned, though, they received one portfolio less than their proportional share of the cabinet prize (if a purely proportional divisor method like Sainte-Laguë or Hare-Niemeyer were used to translate their seat contribution into cabinet posts). That said, removing the temporary portfolio in charge of Bulgaria’s 2018 EU Presidency from GERB’s share of ministerial posts results in perfect seat proportionality in portfolio allocation. Thus, the distribution of ministries may have taken into account the long-term prospects of the governing coalition and the need to underline the government’s pro-EU and pro-NATO stance ahead of the 2018 EU Presidency despite the presence of the Eurosceptic and pro-Russian (as far as Ataka is concerned) United Patriots in government. Moreover, an entire portfolio devoted to the EU Presidency is also consistent with the centrality of EU-related domestic and external policies highlighted in GERB’s 2017electoral manifesto.
The slight underpayment of the United Patriots may also reflect GERB’s dominant position within the party system and the decline in the nationalist vote compared to the 2014 general election. In fact, with the exception of Volya’s entry in parliament, the only parties that gained votes and seats in the 2017 election were the mainstream GERB and BPS, which dominate the right and left side of the political spectrum. Moreover, given the consensus on UP key demands such as increasing public spending and curbing immigration during the campaign, reaching a compromise with the nationalists may have been less of a complex bargain to strike.
In terms of policy areas, the United Patriots received two out of four deputy prime ministerships, along with the defence, economy, and environment portfolios. Krasimir Karakachanov (VMRO), the UP candidate in the 2016 presidential poll, cumulates the deputy prime ministership with the defence portfolio. One of his main priorities is to bring back compulsory military service, despite GERB’s reluctance to commit to anything more than “encouraging” voluntary military service in the governing programme. Valeri Simeonov (NFSB leader), who is deputy PM in charge of economic and demographic policy, has already faced calls for resignation after he downplayed a Nazi salute scandal that led to the resignation of an UP deputy minister. The economy portfolio is occupied by Emil Karanikolov, who was nominated by Ataka, while Neno Dimov, a former deputy environment minister during 1997-2001 who recently described global warming as a fraud, is the new environment minister.
GERB has kept the remaining 17 posts, including two deputy PMs. Most of these positions are occupied by ministers from previous GERB governments. Some of them have returned to the same posts they occupied in November 2016, when the government stepped down. This is the case for Tomislav Donchev (deputy PM), Vladislav Goranov (Minister of Finance), Ivaylo Moskovski (Minister of Transports), Temenuzhka Petkova (Minister of Enery), Nikolina Angelkova (Minister of Tourism) and Krasen Kralev (Minister of Youth and Sports). Others were promoted from the team of previous ministers or from the leadership of state agencies. Overall, the similarity with Boyko Borisov’s previous team has strengthened the expectations that “the status quo won” and that the country will receive “more of the same” while the GERB-UP coalition is in power.
Gender equality is not the strongest feature of PM Borisov’s third cabinet. Women hold only five out of 21 posts. The United Patriots did not nominate any women for their ministries. Most of the prestigious posts controlled by GERB went to men, including the ministries of the Interior, Finance, Labour, Health, Agriculture, Education, and Regional Development. That said, a few exceptions exist. Former justice minister Ekaterina Zakharieva was promoted as deputy PM and assigned the foreign affairs portfolio. She was succeeded at the Ministry of Justice by Tsetska Tsacheva, GERB’s candidate in the 2016 presidential election. Both women had previously held important political roles: the former was President Plevneliev’s Chief of Staff and served as Deputy PM in the two caretaker cabinets appointed during 2013-2014; while the latter served twice as Speaker of the National Assembly while GERB was in power (2009-2013 and 2014-2017). Former women ministers in Borisov’s previous cabinet picked up the other three portfolios in Energy, Tourism, and the temporary ministry in charge of the 2018 EU Presidency. On the whole, while this is a far cry from a parity government, at least women were not exclusively allocated stereotypically “feminine” or low-profile portfolios.
Figure 2 shows that the current cabinet does not stand out from his predecessors. Since 1991, the percentage of women in Bulgarian cabinets has not exceeded 35%. In fact, it was during PM Borisov’s first term in government that the number of women in government increased from well below 20% to more than one third of cabinet members. This time around, though, women make up less than one quarter of cabinet members. As we can see from Figure 2, a significant number of Bulgarian ministers continue to be recruited from outside the parliament and political parties, partly as a result of enduring distrust in politicians and state institutions.
New president-cabinet relations
The return of GERB and PM Borisov to power is also likely to change the working relations between the head of state and the new executive. As it is known, Bulgaria’s third consecutive snap poll was triggered by the 2016 presidential election, as PM Borisov stepped down after GERB candidate Tsetska Tsacheva was defeated by Rumen Radev, the non-party candidate supported by BSP. Although the presidency is not a particularly important asset for running the government, the prime minister speculated the moment to prevent the Socialist Party from capitalising on their electoral victory in the long run.
Since President Radev, a former air force commander, ran in the election as a non-partisan candidate supported by BPS, the relations with the GERB-led government should not be labelled as cohabitation. That said, the level of conflict between the president and the government can escalate even outside periods of cohabitation. For example, President Plevneliev, who also run for office as a non-partisan candidate supported by GERB, constantly used his constitutional powers to put pressure on the Socialist-backed Oresharski government during 2013-2014.
Like his predecessor, President Radev seems to take a keen interest in electoral reform. In early April, while government formation negotiations were in full swing and the Gerdzhikov caretaker government was still in office, the president was involved in a controversy about the drafting of legislation limiting the voting right of Bulgarians living abroad. The caretaker government had no attributions in setting policy but the scandal intensified when officials from the Ministry of Justice claimed that the proposed amendments to the electoral legislation had been drafted in meetings with the president and his advisers. President Radev did not deny his involvement and argued that despite lacking formal powers of legislative initiative, he sees it as his duty to get involved when issues “particularly important to society and national security” are at stake.
To a certain extent, the voting bill rights episode may reflect the president’s lack of political experience. At the same time, it could also indicate his readiness to clash with political actors if necessary. PM Borisov’s plan to introduce a majority run-off system to elect all members of the National Assembly could provide such a motivation. GERB’s electoral reform proposals are in line with the three-question referendum held in November 2016. While the referendum results were not validated, the turnout was high enough to force the parliament to discuss and vote on the referendum matter. As the party that would have the most to gain from a majoritarian system, GERB is alone in supporting the adoption of the majority runoff rule for all 240 constituencies. All other parties, including the United Patriots coalition partners, are in favour of a mixed electoral system. President Radev argued against a 100% majoritarian vote as well. Thus, cohabitation or not, the GERB-UP coalition and the president/cabinet relations may soon reach the end of their honeymoon.