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Coalition confusion after Bulgaria's election

- October 21, 2014

Boyko Borisov, leader of the conservative Citizens for European Bulgaria, during a news conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, on Oct. 10. (Vassil Donev/EPA) 
Joshua Tucker: As part of our continuing series of Monkey Cage Election Reports, the following is a guest post by political scientists Petia Kostadinova of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Maria Popova of McGill on the recent Bulgarian parliamentary elections.
In the last 18 month, voters in Bulgaria have been to the polls three times, including two national elections and one election for the European Parliament (EP). With highly fragmented results, the recent national legislative elections have the potential to destabilize the political system of the country.
Bulgaria’s legislative election was conducted using an “open list proportional representation” system, introduced in May 2014 for the EP elections, which gives voters the opportunity to bypass the party-generated lists of candidates. Accordingly, eight parties/coalitions were elected to the National Assembly (four of them newcomers), making it the most divided legislature in the country’s democratic history. The elections were also characterized by (once again) low turnout of just over 51 percent, similar to the share of voters who turned up at the 2013 legislative elections. As coalition negotiations proceed, the most likely government is a minority cabinet by the largest party (which only has 35 percent of the seats), the third minority government in the country since 2009.  Table 1 summarizes the results, as reported by the Central Election Commission.

Election Results for the National Assembly, October 5, 2014 Data: Central Election Commission Table: Petia Kostadinova

Election Results for the National Assembly, October 5, 2014
Data: Central Election Commission Table: Petia Kostadinova

Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) is the largest party, with 32.7 percent of the vote, and 84 seats (out of 240). Despite its declining popularity among voters, GERB is the first and only party in Bulgaria’s history to win – as the largest party – three consecutive elections (2009, 2013 and 2014). Between 2009 and 2013, it governed through a single-party minority cabinet, but failed to form a government after the 2013 elections, despite being the largest party in the National Assembly. Once again, GERB will be given a “mandate” to form the country’s next government, and indications are that it will once again govern alone, but with much slimmer and more fragile support in the legislature.
The coalition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) – Left Bulgaria is a distant second in the National Assembly, with 15.4 percent of the vote and 39 seats. This is by far the lowest share of votes received by the Socialists in the last 25 years, and such dismal results put into question the party’s future as a dominant political force in the country.
It may not be long before the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) surpasses the Socialists as the second-largest party in the National Assembly. With 14.8 percent of the vote, DPS received 38 seats and is completing its transformation from a niche party – representing the Turkish ethnic minority – to a national party that is stronger in rural areas. Although it swept its demographic strongholds (Kurzhali, Razgrad, Silistra and Turgovishte), it also did well in many other regions, winning more than 10 percent of the vote in 60 percent of the districts.
In fourth place, with 8.9 percent  of the vote and 23 seats, is the Reform Bloc (RB), a five party pre-election coalition. While three of the RB’s member parties have been in parliament in the past, the Reform Bloc itself is a newcomer.  The fragility of this coalition became evident within hours of the close of voting. Three of the leaders openly disagreed about whether RB would stand by its campaign promise to support a GERB cabinet only if former prime minister Boyko Borisov does not again serve as PM.
The second nationalist formation to win seats, the Patriotic Front (PF), is a coalition between the National Front for Saving Bulgaria (NFSB) and the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO). NSFB is a splinter from the nationalist party Ataka, formed after a very public, personal falling-out between their respective leaders.
Bulgaria Without Censorship (BBT) made headlines in May 2014 after a strong showing at the elections for European Parliament, winning one seat. Its leader, Nikolay Barekov, was a well-known journalist who often showered the incumbent with praise during Borisov’s mandate as PM (2009-2013) before sharply turning against Borisov and becoming a candidate himself.
The nationalists from Ataka cleared the 4 percent  threshold for the fourth consecutive time, indicating the party’s now stable presence in the country’s politics, albeit with diminishing support. The smallest party in the legislature is yet another new party, Alternative for Bulgarian Renaissance (ABV), led by the former Socialist president Georgi Purvanov, who was expelled from the Bulgarian Socialist Party, after a public disagreement with its leadership.
As Table 2 shows, of the parties that were previously in the legislature, only the DPS gained seats (2), although GERB, despite losing 13 seats, gained a share of the vote. The BSP was the biggest loser of these elections, having lost nearly half a million votes since the 2013 elections, and 45 seats. Ataka also continued to decline in support.
Change in support for parties between 2013 and 2014 Data: Central Election Commission; Table: Petia Kostadinova

Change in support for parties between 2013 and 2014
Data: Central Election Commission; Table: Petia Kostadinova

The presence of eight political groups in the National Assembly, many holding only a small fraction of the seats, indicates the high level of political uncertainty currently in Bulgaria. In addition, five of them – BSP-Left Bulgaria, RB, PF, BBT, and ABV – are coalitions with pre-election agreements that may not last through the coalition negotiations. The RB coalition is on particularly thin ice, due to strong differences among the parties on whether or not to support Borisov as a GERB Prime Minister.
With eight parties/coalitions in the legislature, there are a number of possible governments, but in practice, only a few are plausible.

  • GERB-only minority cabinet. Bulgaria has an investiture procedure, thus the new government will have to be voted into office by (ideally) 121 MPs (or a simple majority of the quorum in the legislative chamber). Borisov initially floated the term “minority government with shared accountability” to describe his formula for an informal, case-by-case coalition with any willing partner. As he envisioned the setup, instead of signing formal coalition agreements with any other party, GERB would collaborate with individuals from other parties who may have both the expertise and the ideological proximity to be given certain portfolios in GERB’s minority cabinet. A minority government led by a party that controls only 35 percent of the seats, even if the party is as disciplined as GERB, is a precarious one. Borisov has experience leading the country at the helm of a minority cabinet between 2009-2013, but GERB then controlled a much larger share of the seats.
  • GERB-led formal grand coalition. Soon after the elections, Borisov authorized three GERB representatives to hold individual coalition negotiations with each of the other seven parties, in the order of vote share, rather than ideological proximity. Nonetheless, there are strong strategic reasons why a German-style “grand coalition” between the top vote getters is not likely. First, a GERB-BSP or a GERB-DPS coalition yields a very slim majority. Second, BSP and DPS governed together over the past year and a half amid massive daily protests, related to the perception that governance was based on back-room deals, political control of the media, and corruption. GERB voters were heavily represented during the protests, so Borisov must realize that entering a coalition with either the Socialists or DPS carries a significant probability of discontent within his party ranks.
  • GERB formal coalition with small parties. The fourth- and fifth-largest factions (RB and PF) are ideologically close and natural partners of GERB’s. However, there are personality conflicts that stand in the way of a center-right coalition.  RB leaders have demanded a GERB-led government without Borisov at the helm, and Borisov has saved his harshest rhetoric for RB since coalition negotiations started. RB also wants commitments from GERB that its government would pursue judicial reform and stand-up to Russia, but Borisov appears unwilling to commit to either policy. Instead, he has lobbed RB’s accusations of non-transparency back at them by suggesting that they are run behind the scenes by former PM, Ivan Kostov. ABV and BBT have offered general and so far unconditional support to GERB, but their groups are too small to give GERB a parliamentary majority.

It is possible that GERB will be unable to cobble together a formal coalition, which would lead to repeat elections as early as December of this year.  This scenario will lead to further instability, but may be acceptable to GERB. As the biggest party by a very wide margin, GERB would not be worried that the vagaries of a new campaign could produce a different winner.