The Bulgaria 2012 Review: Domestic Politics

Domestic |Author: Ognian Kassabov | January 7, 2013, Monday // 06:33|  views

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. Photo by BGNES

For Bulgarian domestic politics, 2012 was a year of important institutional change-over and sometimes subtle, but seething and significant reshuffle of power relations among actors.

Combined with a continuing economic stagnation, impoverishment of the population, failing educational and health systems, as well as a heightened civic consciousness, this gives many prerequisites for a significant change of scenery in the months to come.

At the same time, a growing concentration of formal and informal power in the hands of the ruling GERB party and its leader, Bulgarian PM Boyko Borisov, can serve as a counter-force to such developments.

A New President

The very first month of 2012 saw an important symbolic change on Bulgaria's institutional stage – a transition of the position of head of state from Georgi Parvanov to Rosen Plevneliev. Parvanov, a former chair of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, had a long stint right in the center of Bulgarian politics as the first democratically elected president to serve two consecutive terms (2002-7 and 2007-12). Although the position of Bulgaria's president is constitutionally defined as largely symbolic, he has considerable resources to influence public opinion and other institutional and political actors.

Whatever the pros and cons of Parvanov's terms in office, it was indisputable that he succeeded in tapping the institution's resources, something that it was feared that Plevneliev might not be able to do. Many analysts worried that the election of Bulgaria PM Boyko Borisov's infrastructure minister for president (at polls marred by many irregularities end of 2011) might signal an unprecedented institutional concentration of power in the ruling center-right GERB party.

Fears that Plevneliev might come across as a characterless, "puppet-like" president in a situation smacking of the Putin-Medvedev relationship in Russia, were confirmed by Plevneliev's first two veto impositions. The returning of legislation for reconsideration in Parliament is seen as pivotal among the powers of the Bulgarian President and as a test-case for him or her as a political figure. In both instances – amendments to Bulgaria's Law on Judicial Power and Forestry Act – Plevneliev's veto came only after PM Borisov not only publicly disapproved of the passed legislation, but also instructed the president to return it.

By the end of the year, there was already a more or less subtle distancing on Plevneliev's part, with the President on some occasions taking up a critical stance towards the cabinet, especially regarding some positions by Vice-PM and Minister of Interior Tsvetan Tsvetanov, in which he was perceived as exercising undue influence on Bulgaria's judiciary. As things stand now however, Plevneliev has still not done enough to throw away the puppet image he was saddled with.

Party Dynamics: Reshuffle Is On

The ruling center-right GERB party has retained an enviable consolidation, not only around the charismatic figure of party leader and PM Boyko Borisov, but also around Tsvetanov, who also serves as the party's vice-chair.

Tsvetanov emerged as key for the implementation of a nationwide GERB structure of local organizations during presidential and municipal elections in the fall of 2011, and he has retained it, having embarked on a nationwide tour to consult local GERB units towards the end of 2012. On his part, Borisov has not relinquished a controversial anti-institutional paternalistic stance, exemplified well by his continued practice of issuing recommendations for the voting behavior of MPs and the like. At party meetings, the figure of the leader keeps to getting lavish praises elevating it to the rank of an apostle of justice and prosperity.

The main opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party has gone through a leadership election battle in May that pitted Georgi Parvanov (having just come out of his state position of Bulgaria's President) and incumbent chair Sergey Stanishev, who had not only served 10 years as the party's leader (4 of which as Bulgaria's PM) but was also recently chosen interim president of the Party of European Socialists. Many analysts were surprised that Parvanov was so eager to return to party politics.

At any rate he apparently did not have the time and resources to muster sufficient support from the party congress, and was forced to withdraw his bid after a nervous presentation, which led to Stanishev's re-election. End of September, in a development significant for Bulgaria's politics as a whole, Stanishev scored a second key win, being also elected full-time PES chair, the first time a Bulgarian politician has come to chair an EU-level party.

The third party currently certain to get MPs following summer 2013 elections is the liberal Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which has a stable voter base among Bulgaria's sizeable Turkish minority.

The Movement has largely stayed in the background during the year, choosing the position of a not too vocal, but consistent critic of the GERB cabinet, while continuing to distance from its former allies, the Socialists. However, controversial comments by ever more reclusive leader Ahmed Dogan regarding the First Balkan War, which pitted Bulgaria and allies against the Ottoman Empire, have hinted that the Movement might again regrettably opt for divisive rhetoric to mobilize voters for the polls. As is the rule, this only aids Bulgaria's ailing nationalist parties, including the ailing but recovering Ataka. Developments among the smaller nationalist formation make it possible that a wider nationalist coalition might emerge in time for the election.

2012 led to a further downfall of the already little influential heirs to Bulgaria's traditional right, which was strong throughout the 1990s. Rifts between the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) and Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB) failed to heal, making it up highly unlikely that the two will come together for future elections united under the "Blue Coalition" moniker. Internal elections in the UDF brought as its chair Karlovo mayor Emil Kabaivanov, a figure virtually unknown on the national scale.

It all came to a head in November when leading UDF MPs failed to abide by the party's obliging stance towards cabinet in the second attempt of a scandalous nomination procedure for a constitutional judge from the parliamentary quota, only to get expelled from the party. In this way, the UDF in effect remained with neither parliamentary representation nor nationally recognized political figures.

As things stand, one might expect a marginalized UDF gravitating towards GERB, with some of its recently expelled or estranged significant politicians seeking union with ex-PM Ivan Kostov's DSB. However, polls at present suggest that neither UDF nor DSB seem likely to get into Bulgaria's next Parliament on their own.

Developments around the Union of Democratic Forces, as well as a parallel revitalization of minor, but parliamentary represented Law, Order and Justice party, suggest that GERB might seek to muster a handful of smaller parties as possible partners ahead of upcoming general elections in the summer of 2013. This could give GERB suitable allies for a possible second cabinet formation – which is PM Borisov's stated ambition – in the face of dwindling support and an embittered opposition.

The important newcomer on Bulgaria's party stage in 2012 was Bulgaria for Citizens, founded as a political party in July by former EU Commissioner Meglena Kuneva. Kuneva made a convincing performance coming out third in the fall presidential elections as a European-styled opposition poised against the perceived backwardness and nepotism of Bulgarian politics. At that time, the ex EU Commissioner also attempted an attitude rejecting political parties as a medium for influence on politics, choosing the "civic movement" format instead.

As it transpired, Kuneva has returned to the party vehicle, but has retained the strong "citizens' awareness" ingredient to her attitude. Her political messages have however not yet gained a sufficiently sharp profile and need to gather more specific substance to win voters' sympathies. An interesting point of speculation is whether Kuneva will choose a rapprochement with Borisov and GERB, as many believe she will, her present position to the contrary notwithstanding.

Street Protests: Civil Society and the Public Good

A positive development in Bulgarian domestic politics, albeit on the outside of the political establishment was the string of vocal and well-conducted street protests that as it happened concentrated on largely environmental topics. The first issue was the looming prospects of shale gas exploration and production by US company Chevron, which had obtained permits to do so in 2011.

With Chevron eyeing large areas of Dobrudja in Bulgaria's north-east, a region with a very strong tradition in agriculture, many citizens expressed worries that the controversial and hazardous hydraulic fracturing involved in shale gas production will prove disastrous. Thousand-strong rallies were held in the early weeks of 2012 in capital Sofia, but also in other cities such as Varna and Dobrich. The pressure was successful, and in February Bulgaria became the second country after France to impose a ban on hydraulic fracturing.

The second issue – the above-mentioned amendments to Bulgaria's Forestry Act – did much to expose links between those in power and murky business practices. The amendments were known to have been rushed through cabinet and parliament without public discussion at the behest of the Vitosha Ski company, which wanted eased procedures to expand facilities on the mountain Vitosha nearby Sofia.

Citizens were outraged at the flawed legislative procedure serving corporate interests, and bent to defend nature resources as a public good again embarked on a string of rallies all through the first half of 2012. Their requests were this time not heard, and the new Forestry Act was passed, which resulted in a string of blockades of the main Orlov Most intersection in Sofia, with police clashing with protesters. This led to a presidential veto and later revision of the controversial amendments in parliament.

The two significant and successful protest campaigns are to be seen as the outcome of an emerging conscious stratum of Bulgarian civil society whose members are eager to fight for their values. Participants in the protests were not organized by parties or NGOs and came from differing professions and parts of the political spectrum. All this taken into account, the shale gas and Forestry Act rallies point to a rare optimistic direction that Bulgarian political life might take in the future.

What needs to be seen however in both cases, is that the situation was reversed only after Bulgarian PM Boyko Borisov decided to act. It was he who told Parliament to impose a moratorium on shale gas drilling and President Plevneliev to veto the Forestry Act.

And in both cases he did so not out of a considered view regarding state policies in the area, but rather out of a desire to tone down public tension and not allow his image to be tainted with criticism. In both cases he importantly overstepped his powers as head of the executive, only highlighting the fact that Bulgaria is more often than not ruled by informal networks of power, rather than by strict institutional – and constitutional – procedures.

(Para)Institutional Dynamics: Power, Money and Pressured Judiciary

This brings us to the pervasive phenomenon that has not slackened during the third and fourth years of the rule of the GERB cabinet – the concentration of power at the hands of the executive, in particular PM Boyko Borisov and Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov.

We have already discussed troubling relations between the PM, on the one hand, and President or Parliament, on the other. Borisov has not let go his bullying attitude to other cabinet members, either. As an instance one might take the ousting of Minister of Economy and Energy Traicho Traikov on a trifle, after insulting him multiple times regarding a check the latter had initiated into price formation practices of largest Bulgarian oil refinery Lukoil.

Just as the Forestry Act, the Lukoil case again brought to relief the shady ties of Bulgarian politicians, with PM Borisov coming to the rescue of the company, cementing speculations of his closeness to CEO Valentin Zlatev. On its part, the Vitosha Ski company that lobbied for amendments to the Forestry Act is known to be controlled by Tseko Minev, holder of another major ski operator, Yulen, and First Investment Bank, and chair of the Bulgarian Ski Federation, an organization enjoying generous state support of late.

The three paramount telling instances of continuing unwholesome attempts on the part of the executive to exercise pressure over the judiciary all involved Vice-PM and Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov. In July, Tsvetanov pressured the Supreme Judicial Council to fire Bulgarian Judges' Association and Sofia City Court judge Miroslava Todorova, a critic of perceived breaches on the rule of law on the part of Tsvetanov.

Towards the end of the year, the Minister of Interior embarrassingly backed the disastrous candidacy of judge Veneta Markovska for a seat in Bulgaria's Constitutional Court. Markovska had failed to produce a coherent rebuttal of trade in influence accusations in developments that tainted the yet untarnished supreme constitutional judicial body in Bulgaria.

Weeks after, Tsvetanov lobbied for the election of Plovdiv District Court head Sotir Tsatsarov as Bulgaria's new Chief Prosecutor. Critics cited Tsatsarov's exceedingly high record of convicting pronouncements as judge, his murky financial records, as well as a marred election procedure at the Supreme Judicial Council. As things stand now, ruling GERB party have secured that for the next 7 years, Bulgaria's prosecution will be led by a person on whom they can rely. On the other hand, Bulgaria has failed to bring any palpable reform to its flawed judiciary, for which it is put under the EU's Co-Operation and Verification Mechanism, and has only further muddled the situation.

Upcoming Referendum and Elections

The end of 2012 came with opinion polls showing significantly shrunken popular support for the ruling GERB party, with some agencies' data pointing that the main opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party might have finally made a significant, if exceedingly slow catch-up.

In the very last days of 2012, two comparatively insignificant events provoked considerable public uproar, suggesting that frustration with GERB's rule and the general economic and social situation in Bulgaria could have built up to significant degrees. The one was the revealing of a murky sale of state beaches in a protected area for an exceedingly low price, which further exacerbated environmental concerns, as well as fears of a symbiosis between government and oligarchy.

The other was President Plevneliev's blunder in his first New Year's address to the nation, in which he showed a photo of mountains near Aspen, Colorado, while talking about the "unique" nature of Bulgaria. The first case provoked comments about the rulers' good intentions, the second – about their competence.

Against that backdrop, two important general votes are to be cast in Bulgaria in 2013. The one is a national referendum on nuclear energy, provoked by the unclear fate of Bulgaria's Belene NPP project, scheduled for January 27. The other are general elections to take place in the summer.

The calling of the Belene NPP referendum is a key win for the Bulgarian Socialist Party, a staunch supporter of the project, which managed over the summer to gather well over the 0.5 M citizens' signatures needed to hold a referendum. It is yet to be seen whether the Socialists will be able to take advantage from this success. At this stage, the debate around the referendum can be said to significantly lack in substance.

The situation around the parliamentary elections in the summer is rough. Presidential and municipal elections conducted in the fall of 2011 took place under an unprecedented scale of irregularities and abuse of rules, and many opposition actors and NGO representatives warned that GERB might repeat this once more in the parliamentary vote.

In December, the opposition in Parliament cried foul against what they claimed were GERB's attempts to push last-minute amendments to Bulgaria's Electoral Code allegedly tailored to allow tampering the election outcome, such as curtailing the rights of observers. This has been the latest but strongest and most telling of cases in which all opposition parties, coming from different parts of the spectrum and leaving their age-old feuds behind, have voiced essentially the same arguments in opposition to GERB policies.

2013 greets a highly polarized and politically volatile Bulgaria.

We need your support so can keep delivering news and information about Bulgaria! Thank you!

Tags: Boyko Borisov, Prime Minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, Sergey Stanishev, Sotir Tsatsarov, Chief Prosecutor, BSP, Bulgarian Socialist Party, Miroslava Todorova, Lukoil, shale gas, street protests, GERB, UDF, DPS, Rosen Plevneliev, Bulgarian President


» Related Articles: