President's refusal to appoint a caretaker government hurls nation into prolonged political crisis
Like so many other things in Bulgaria since 2009, it all started with the inimitable mixture of populism and demagoguery of this country's outgoing prime minister, Boyko Borisov. The current political crisis has its roots in Borisov's threat to resign in case his handpicked nominee for president, Tsetska Tsacheva, failed to win. Which she did in the November ballot, by an unprecedented margin in Bulgaria's presidential elections since the fall of Communism.
Perhaps Borisov was led on by his associates and media stooges to believe that he still was the undisputed strongman leader of Bulgaria. Possibly, his increasing detachment from reality, after so many years at the helm of a poor Balkan nation, had obfuscated his sense of judgement. This way or the other, Borisov thought that he could have an easy, hands-down replay of the previous presidential election, in 2011, won by his man, Rosen Plevneliev. "Whoever I had put forward would have won," a jubilant Borisov said at that time. That, indeed, was the case.
But not any longer. Borisov continues to be popular among many Bulgarians who find endearing his uncouth nativism and projected image of a middle-aged football player who always scores penalty kicks. However, Bulgaria in 2016 is a very different place from what it was when Borisov ascended to the Council of Ministers back in 2009. At that time, the huge (in Bulgarians standards) growth of the 2000s was still something to fall back on when the world financial crisis struck. Unlike other countries in Europe, however, Borisov did little if anything to ensure resumed growth or even to cushion the plummet. Instead, he focused on being seen on TV inaugurating anything from kindergartens and village sports halls (constructed with EU funds, often in places where the number of seats by far outnumber the village residents) to being seen kissing the hands of Orthodox priests in front of stretches of substandard asphalted roads.
Borisov is not known in Bulgaria for keeping his word particularly meticulously, but sensing the huge amount of discontent at the ballot boxes when voters elected the new Bulgarian president, Rumen Radev, in November, he did – and resigned. The official version, propounded by him and his cronies, was that it would be "immoral" to continue to be prime minister unless he had a clear majority. The real reason, however, was that Borisov's ego was hurt. Badly hurt. The man who used to be a fireman and a bodyguard could not swallow the fact that his power would no longer be undisputed.
Enter Rosen Plevneliev, Borisov's "appointment" for president. The Bulgarian president, curiously, is chosen in a direct, first-past-the-post ballot, but unlike other European countries with a similar system, he has very limited powers. One of them is to appoint caretaker governments at times the elected government is gone or refuses to perform. Under the Constitution, the president has to ask the largest political power, in this case Borisov's GERB, to form a government. Plevneliev did, and GERB refused instantly. Then the president has to turn to the second largest political power, in this case the BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, the former Communists. Plevneliev did, and the BSP promptly refused. Then, under the Constitution, the president has to pick up a third political force of his choice. Normally, it would have been the third largest political power in Bulgaria, the alliance between the extremist Patriotic Front and the VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation. Plevneliev did not do that, however, saying he could not give a mandate to a political grouping with pronounced xenophobic, anti-EU and anti-NATO views. Instead, he chose the Reformist Bloc, a motley crew of small parties identifying themselves in various degrees as pro-Western "rightwing" democrats.
Surprisingly, the Reformist Bloc took up the mandate and said it would conduct talks with GERB and the Patriotic Front to form a new government. It took them a week to do that, with the foregone result being that the talks fell through, and an early general election would have to be called.
Though Rosen Plevneliev, a former civil engineer and a former minister in Borisov's first government, was obliged by the Constitution to appoint a new caretaker government under the circumstances, he refused. Instead, he said he would give the opportunity to his successor, the US-educated Ret Gen Rumen Radev, to do that when he steps in office, on 22 January 2017, thus letting Bulgaria into the hands of Boyko Borisov and his people for a few more weeks.
It remains to be seen what kind of a caretaker government the new president will put forward in late January, with analysts asking themselves whether he will be able to emancipate sufficiently enough from the BSP, the party that nominated him.
Reactions to Plevneliev's manoeuvre were diametrically opposed. Borisov's GERB applauded. They billed Plevneliev's act "extremely responsible," for otherwise Bulgaria would have become a laughing stock internationally by appointing a caretaker government for just a few weeks, over the Christmas and New Year's holidays and the subsequent series of name days celebrated widely in this Orthodox country.
The BSP disagreed. They accused Plevneliev of dawdling and procrastinating instead of acting under the Constitution and appointing a caretaker government a month ago, when it became clear the main political players would not agree on any "regular" government.
Few things in Bulgaria are the way they seem, however, as there is always some hidden agenda, even when it comes to pretty obvious Constitutional obligations. Tactically, Plevneliev is again playing into the hands of his former boss. By not appointing a caretaker government he eschews the responsibility and gives his successor a bad start. Borisov will thus have at his disposal one of his favourite political tools, the opportunity to blame someone else for all failures while taking the credit for all accomplishments for himself. Come next spring, when the early general election will probably be held, GERB will again try to appear as "saviours," in the hope that the Bulgarian nation will have forgotten that it was GERB and no one else who is to be held responsible for the current political crisis in the first place.