A Stress Test for Bulgaria’s Governing Coalition
The campaigning for Bulgaria’s municipal elections, with the first round on October 29, is heading into the homestretch, putting the government coalition to the test with the two leading parties’ rivalry intensifying. The center-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and the centrist We Continue the Change–Democratic Bulgaria (PP–DB) are clashing all over the country and exchanging bitter accusations. The outcome might even restart the long-lasting political crisis, as whichever party emerges stronger after the elections might feel it does not need the government coalition anymore.
Despite their major differences, the two parties formed a coalition in June to end the country’s political crisis, but tensions have been constant and are increasing. GERB leader Boyko Borisov has attacked PP-DB’s candidate in Sofia on account of the latter’s familial ties to the communist-era Committee for State Security, and he has criticized the work of ministries run by PP-DB, as well as some of the party’s legislative initiatives regarding taxation.
GERB and PP-DB have differed especially when it comes to reforms concerning the corrupt judiciary and the ineffective security services, but also on appointments. They have so far failed to adopt the majority of the bills they envisioned, including the budget. PP-DB has warned that it might quit the coalition if constitutional amendments, especially concerning the judiciary, are not adequate. GERB has hinted that PP-DB might try to allocate vast sums of money to companies close to it. For a long time, the two parties could not agree on appointees for deputy ministers and regional governors as well as to regulatory bodies. Each accused the other of not running certain proposed choices by it beforehand. GERB also did not support PP-DB’s proposals for changing the procedure to appoint the heads of the different security services.
GERB has for years benefited electorally from portraying itself as a trusted party in the European mainstream.
GERB and PP-DB also clashed on the nomination of Bulgaria’s new European commissioner in Brussels, a position that has domestic significance, including in the ongoing elections campaign. Bulgaria’s former commissioner, Mariya Gabriel, is from GERB and was summoned back home to become prime minister in the coalition, in which the post should rotate every nine months between the two parties, according to their agreement. Her tenure in Brussels made her an important figure in politics and kept her apart from scandals implicating her party. GERB thus needs her untainted reputation. Each party submitted a candidate and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen selected GERB’s Iliana Ivanova. She has experience as a member of the European Parliament and at the European Court of Auditors, unlike the candidate put forward by PP-DB.
GERB has for years benefited electorally from portraying itself as a trusted party in the European mainstream, and Ivanova’s appointment signaled another win for it at the EU level. Support from Brussels in general, and from Germany in particular, matters a lot in Bulgarian politics. GERB has had close ties with key German politicians in Brussels and Berlin, such as Manfred Weber, the president of the European People’s Party, and former Chancellor Angela Merkel, and it has enjoyed support from the Christian Democratic party “family.” Von der Leyen’s choice suggests this remains the case, and GERB is trying to use Ivanova’s appointment to its advantage in the municipal elections.
Whether this will be enough to help GERB keep its total control on Bulgaria’s municipalities, and thus make it stronger within the government coalition, remains to be seen. Its dominance at the municipal level makes PP-DB’s task difficult, though the latter could benefit from its clean political track record against its corruption-tainted opponent. The party performing best will claim to have obtained the approval of the public and likely push its agenda increasingly within the coalition—for example, by trying to change ministers. This is especially true for GERB, which is used to being in charge and finds the current situation disadvantageous.
In that case, the sixth parliamentary elections in two years will be a certainty.
This article was first published by Transitions on October 18, 2023.