Tag Archives: early election

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


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)

Croatia – Snap elections that made the moderate leader of the not-so-moderate HDZ the most likely candidate for Prime Minister


Dissolution of the Hrvatski sabor

In June 2016 a majority of deputies voted for the dissolution of the Croatian Parliament, which became effective July 15, 2016. This early dissolution came only a few months after the last parliamentary elections in November 2015. Unfortunately this election did not result in a clear majority for any of the two main parties (the nationalist, center-right HDZ and the center-left SDP). It was however expected that the then-ruling SDP and its Prime Minister Zoran Milanović would form the new government with the support of the newly established, and widely seen as independent, platform MOST. Yet, in a very surprising move, MOST formed a coalition government with the conservative HDZ. This coalition forced the SDP into opposition and was led by a widely unknown new Prime Minister Tihomir Orešković (Vlahovic 2016). The brief period of government until the dissolution of parliament in June was strongly influenced by the growing tensions between the main political representatives of MOST and HDZ, in particular between the MOST leadership and Tomislav Karamarko (then deputy prime minister and party leader of HDZ). MOST accused Karamarko of conflicts of interest by engaging into a public discussion of the national oil company (see for more detailed information Matijaca 2016).[1] Although it is widely reported that the calls of MOST for the resignation of Karamarko and thus the enduring conflict between MOST and HDZ were the trigger for the vote of no-confidence by HDZ deputies, the 5-months coalition government was also characterized by a growing gap between the policy interests of these two parties. What followed was an astounding act of self-destruction, the vote of no confidence initiated by the deputies of HDZ against their own prime minister. After the vote of no confidence was initiated and confirmed by a parliamentary majority President Grabar-Kitarović followed the provisions of Art. 104 of the constitution and dissolved the national assembly.[2]

Campaign between Andrej Plenković and Zoran Milanović

After the devastating experience of the 5 months government and the inability to form a new governmental majority the chair of the HDZ, Karamarko, resigned. Karamarko pursued a highly nationalist agenda and was partly responsible for increasing nationalist sentiments in the public discourse. He was succeeded by Andrej Plenković. Plenković pursues a very different agenda and started with the promise to push the HDZ closer to the middle. He was elected by the HDZ party members in July 2016 “in a sign it [HDZ] was distancing itself from ultra-conservative elements” (Byrne 2016). With the new party head of the HDZ, the duel between the two leading politicians – Plenković for the HDZ and Zoran Milanović for the SDP – started. And the campaign was right from the start personalized and at times left decency far behind. It became obvious that Milanović was prepared to fight against Karamarko but failed to find a proper way to campaign against Plenković. Personal insults were in particular made by Milanović against Plenković, one perceived offense against Plenković’s parents was widely reported. However, these personal attacks did not help Milanović, it rather helped HDZ in two ways: First, Plenković behaved differently in public and was thus inspiring more confidence and second, MOST aligned with HDZ in their pursuit to change the political culture in the country (Milekic 2016).

Election and election results

The election was held on September 11, and a total of 151 members of parliament were elected. According to the information provided by the Sabor (the Croatian Parliament) 140 members of parliament are elected in 10 territorial constituencies in Croatia. 3 are elected by Croatian citizens living abroad. 8 seats are reserved for ethnic minorities (Parliament of Croatia 2016). The deputies are elected in a proportional representation system and similar to other countries a 5 % electoral threshold is necessary.

The earlier mentioned rival parties, HDZ and SDP, each formed a party list. HDZ with Andrej Plenković run on the list called “Patriotic Coalition” and Zoran Milanović and the SDP on the list called “Croatia is Growing” (in cooperation with HNS, HSS and HSU).[3] In addition MOST and a number of other parties and coalitions stood for election.

Within this short campaign period between July and September, opinion polls frequently showed a tie between the two main competing parties. Yet, the official election results were different and presented a surprisingly clear winner, Andrej Plenkovic and the HDZ. Upon the report of the State Election Commission HDZ won 61 seats and the People’s Coalition only 54 seats (Milekic 2016a). The most likely option for a coalition will be once again HDZ with MOST – similar to the unsuccessful attempt earlier this year. Petrov, the leader of MOST, which won 13 seats in the National Assembly, obviously has this experience in mind when he announced after the election results were made public: “This time, we don’t expect only promises from them [potential coalition partners], but doing it as well. Parliament must be constituted, realise the conditions, and then only will the government be formed” (Milekic 2016a). The most likely coalition will however also need the support from the minority party representatives as they lack the absolute majority, necessary for example to investiture the government (Art. 111 constitution).

Byrne, Andrew (2016): Conservative HDZ wins Croatia vote. September 12, in: Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/content/278002c2-7874-11e6-97ae-647294649b28 (accessed September 12, 2016).
Croatian News Agency (2016): SDP to run in coalition with HNS, HSS and HSU. July 9, in: https://aboutcroatia.net/news/croatia/sdp-run-coalition-hns-hss-and-hsu-28485 (accessed September 10, 2016)
Matijaca, Danni (2016): It’s Official: Tomislav Karamarko Was in a Conflict of Interest. June 15, in: total croatia news, http://www.total-croatia-news.com/item/12461-it-s-official-tomislav-karamarko-was-in-a-conflict-of-interest (accessed September 10, 2016)
Milekic, Sven (2016): SDP Leader’s Tirades Leave Croats Bemused. August 30, in: Balkan Insights, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/leftist-leader-tries-antagonizing-croatia-s-elections-campaign-08-29-2016 (accessed September 12, 2016).
Milekic, Sven (2016a): HDZ Looks to Form Croatia Govt After Surprise Win. September 12, in: Balkan Insights, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/hdz-wins-on-croatia-elections-promises-government-09-12-2016 (accessed September 13, 2016).
Vlahovic, Natko (2016): Opinion. Business-minded PM could transform Croatia. January 25, in: EUobserver, https://euobserver.com/opinion/131967 (accessed September 10, 2016).

Parliament of Croatia (2016): http://www.sabor.hr/English

[1] Karamarko has over the years faced a broad range of accusations but has politically survived everything thus far.

[2] Grabar-Kitarović’s own term as president is characterized by partisanship towards the HDZ.

[3] Initially Plenković announced that HDZ will not run on the coalition platform. The abbreviations stand for Croatian People’s Party (HNS), the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS) and the Croatian Pensioners’ Party (HSU), see Croatian News Agency (2016).

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.

Slovenia – How a “weak” president played a key role in the timing of a general election

A general election was held in Slovenia on 13 July. This was the second early election in three years and came only 13 months after Alenka Bratušek formed a four-party coalition government in March 2013. The Slovenian head of state has very few powers and is among the weakest of all directly elected presidents in the world. Nevertheless, President Pahor played a key role in the timing of the general election, which is usually seen as one of the most important powers held by party leaders and heads of government.

All established political parties lost seats in the snap election, while the big winner was the six-week-old political party founded by Miro Cerar, a newcomer in national politics. The centre-left Positive Slovenia (PS) party, which topped the poll in the 2011 general election, failed to pass the 4% electoral threshold this time.

The State Election Commission has reported the following partial results:

  • Miro Cerar  Party (SMC) – 34.61%, 36 seats (New)
  • Democratic Party (SDS) – 20.69%, 21 seats (-5)
  • Pensioners’ Party (DeSUS) – 10.21%, 10 seats (+4)
  • United Left  – 5.97%, 6 seats (New)
  • Social Democrats (SD) – 5.95%, 6 seats (-4)
  • New Slovenia (NSi) – 5.54%, 5 seats (+1)
  • Alliance of Alenka Bratušek (ZaAB) – 4.34%, 4 seats (New)

Italian and Hungarian minorities also hold one seat each in the 90-seat Slovenian Assembly.

The early election was triggered by intra-party tensions. Alenka Bratušek stepped down as prime minister in early May, after she lost the leadership of the Positive Slovenia party to the party founder and Ljubljana Mayor Zoran Janković. A political crisis ensued because, similarly to 2011 when Positive Slovenia was not able to win the support of a majority in the parliament despite holding the largest number of legislative seats, none of the coalition partners was willing to accept Zoran Janković as head of government.

Most political actors agreed that the political deadlock could only be resolved by calling early elections. However, political parties did not want early elections to take place in the middle of the summer, when many voters are away on holidays. President Pahor for his part did not want to extend the period of limited powers that characterises caretaker governments. Given the legal conditions under which new elections can be called, the president found himself caught in a political conundrum: how to rush new elections while respecting constitutional deadlines? The key was in the role played by the head of state in the process of PM nomination and election by the parliament.

According to the Slovenian Constitution, should the government resign or lose a confidence vote, the parliament must elect a new prime minister within thirty days (art. 117). The head of state has the first right of nomination. If the PM-designate put forward by the president does not receive the support of the majority of all deputies, the head of state can nominate somebody else (or the same candidate again) within the next 14 days. However, this time parliamentary groups of at least ten deputies can also make alternative nominations. If no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast by all deputies (or by those deputies who are present if new election rounds are demanded by a majority of deputies who are present), then the president dissolves the assembly and calls a new parliamentary election (art. 111). A new parliament must also be elected no later than two months after the dissolution of the previous one (art. 81).

After PM Bratušek formally announced the parliament her decision to step down on 8 May, President Pahor shortened the 30-day period he had to nominate a new prime minister. On 14 May he notified the parliament that he would not put forward a PM-designate. Subsequently, all parliamentary groups also agreed to refrain from nominating a new prime minister. Acknowledging that no new PM-designate had been put forward after the resignation of Alenka Bratušek, the head of state dissolved the National Assembly on 1 June and chose 13 July as the date of the snap general election.

The president’s decision was nevertheless challenged at the Constitutional Court. A non-parliamentary party argued that the president should have dissolved the parliament as soon as he gave up his right to nominate a PM-designate instead of waiting another 14 days for parliamentary nominations to be made. Other groups claimed that holding elections during the summer undermined voting rights. The Court rejected all challenges and upheld the presidential decree setting 13 July as the election date.

Thus, President Pahor’s interpretation of his constitutional power to nominate and to refrain from nominating a PM-designate granted him unusual influence upon choosing the date of the most important political contest in Slovenia. Granted, the smoothness and rapidity with which early elections were organized would not have been possible without the co-operation of parliamentary parties. Nevertheless, this episode is indicative of the considerable influence that constitutionally weak heads of state may have over the political system under critical circumstances.

The president and Miro Cerar, who is seen as the most likely PM-designate, will meet on Wednesday afternoon. President Pahor first announced their meeting on Twitter, shortly after the election results were released on Sunday evening.