By Krassen Nikolov
In Bulgaria, the European elections are seen as a test for Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, at a time when his conservative GERB party are polling neck-and-neck with the socialists.
The ruling coalition in Bulgaria, officially consisting of Borissov’s GERB and the United Patriots, a coalition of three nationalist parties, practically no longer exists.
The constant scandals with the nationalists pushed the prime minister’s conservative party into an ever closer alliance with the DPS, a formation representing the Turkish minority.
Until last week, GERB denied being into an informal coalition with DPS, the party of Ahmed Dogan and Delyan Peevski. But recent amendments to the Election Code took the masks down.
The changes to the electoral law triggered a serious identity crisis inside Bulgaria’s ruling party just before the May European elections. The largest opposition party, the socialist BSP, declared it was leaving parliament, forcing Prime Minister Borissov to reclaim control of his parliamentary group. And this only deepened the political chaos.
But how did we get there? At the end of last week, GERB pushed through changes to the Еlection Code that were widely criticised as undemocratic. The changes deprived voters of the possibility to re-arrange the electoral lists presented by the parties and vote for individual candidates. This change was pushed by DPS, which for years has been fighting against preferential voting because it confuses its voters.
On Saturday (16 February), the leader of GERB’s parliamentary group, Tzvetan Tzvetanov, admitted that fulfilling the DPS’s wish was essential for the survival of the government. Tzvetanov is number 2 in GERB’s hierarchy, after Borrisov.
One decision, four mistakes
However, GERB’s decision later appeared to be a political mistake for four reasons.
- The first is that preferential voting is supported by most of the Bulgarian electorate, including GERB’s.
- The second is because the move is an admission that GERB depends on DPS to stay in power. Borissov has indeed repeatedly insisted that he never governed with Ahmed Dogan’s party. He may continue claiming this after the changes to the election law, but few people will believe him.
- The third is that the move betrays Borrisov’s nationalist allies, who are in a formal coalition agreement with his GERB party. The fact that GERB is now openly backing the DPS’s biggest political wish allows the United Patriots to abandon the ruling coalition whenever it suits them, without suffering any political damage.
- But GERB’s decision is also a mistake because it gives ammunition to the main opposition party, the socialist BSP. The socialists have repeatedly questioned the fairness of the electoral system and the abolition of preferential voting only confirms their thesis. They actually used the problems with the election law to announce they were leaving parliament.
In a damage control effort, Borissov decided on Monday to overrule his number 2 and take control of GERB’s parliamentary group.
In a dramatic political U-turn, the Prime Minister announced a return to the preferential voting system, although the draft law to abolish it had just been introduced in parliament.
But this made GERB lawmakers look weak and fuelled allegations that they were only puppets in their prime minister’s hands.
Danail Kirilov, a GERB lawmaker who is chairman of the parliament’s legal affairs committee made a clumsy attempt to paper over the political chaos within his party.
“We are a people’s party. We are following the trend, the public moods, no matter what part of society they come from,” Kirilov said.
Only three years ago, GERB made voting compulsory and limited the voting rights for Bulgarians living abroad. The Bulgarian diaspora protested against the move, forcing Borrisov to make a U-turn and cancel those changes. Five months later, Borissov’s second government fell after losing the presidential election.
Now, GERB has lost its advantage and is neck-and-neck with the socialist BSP. According to a recent opinion poll published by the European Parliament the difference between GERB and BSP is only 1%.
Tzvetanov’s acknowledgment that GERB had engaged in an informal alliance with the DPS could prevent Borissov from finishing his third term in office, without calling early elections. In this context, the outcome of the May European elections looks more and more like a key test for the ruling coalition.
Borrisov is well aware that his political future could be a stake. On Tuesday (19 February), GERB and the United Patriots held a crisis meeting to demonstrate their unity. The two parties agreed to tighten discipline in order to secure a parliamentary majority and ensure GERB doesn’t need to rely on the DPS to pass legislation.
However, some political commentators argue the problems in the coalition cannot be solved.
DPS links to business
Borrisov may have burnt his fingers by partnering with the Turkish ethnic minority party. The DPS have indeed become the symbol of clientelism in politics since its founder Ahmed Dogan said in 2005 that he controls “clusters of companies”.
“If you think my options are smaller than a banker’s, then you do not have a real idea of the potential of a politician. Over the past 15 years half the businessmen who are above the average level are successful either thanks to my help or because of my smile,” the DPS leader famously said.
Even for unbiased voters, this was an admission that the DPS had close ties with big business interests.
Dogan’s words have haunted his party’s image ever since, although this didn’t dent the popularity of the DPS among its core electorate – the Bulgarians of Turkish origin.
It also didn’t prevent the rise of Delyan Peevsky, a DPS lawmaker and multi-millionaire media mogul who has close ties with the government.