Political instability and economic uncertainty threaten Bulgaria again

Bulgaria will organize a new parliamentary election on October 2, the fourth in two years. With a looming economic crisis and deep divisions over Bulgaria’s approach to Russia’s war on Ukraine, little is likely to change.

When a fragile coalition that had ruled Bulgaria for less than eight months officially collapsed in June, it was clear that a new general election should take place later this year, so turbulent is the country’s political climate.

The four-party coalition, led by then-Prime Minister Kiril Petkov’s We Continue Change (PP) party, came to an end when the populist There Is Such a People (ITN) party pulled out on June 8.

ITN’s public face, popular TV personality Slavi Trifinov, had been in open conflict with the PP over the country’s budget, but had also opposed what became known as the French Compromise, which ultimately saw Bulgaria lift its veto on North Macedonia’s EU accession talks. .

On June 22, the government led by Petkov became the first in Bulgarian history to suffer a defeat in a vote of no confidence. The result was greeted by massive pro-government protests in Sofia and other major cities across the country.

The controversial decision that followed two days later to accept the French compromise and lift the Bulgarian veto on North Macedonia’s path to EU membership was one of the government’s last major political decisions. Petkov, who officially resigned on August 2.

With no other party willing or able to form a coalition, President Rumen Radev had no choice but to call an election on October 2, installing an interim administration to lead the country until then.

The impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine

According to Ivaylo Dinev of the Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS), the reasons for the coalition’s collapse are obvious, if not entirely predictable, given the contrasting ideology of the four parties involved.

He says the coalition’s main source of unity was its opposition to the way the former ruling GERB party, led by former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, ran the country.

“Other than that, the [four] parties had very different ideas,” he says. Emerging Europe.

The Petkov-led PP had taken a tough anti-Russian stance even before Moscow launched its latest invasion of Ukraine, and the party’s approach only hardened after the fighting began.

Meanwhile, several senior members of the coalition’s second-largest party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which enjoys huge support among older people, had suggested it was in the best interests of Bulgaria to take a more neutral stance toward war, similar to that of Hungary.

Bulgarian political commentator Emil Sokolov describes President Radev, who is backed by the BSP, as “pro-Russian”, arguing that the caretaker government he has installed may be willing to negotiate with Russian energy giant Gazprom to to restart Russian gas shipments to the country.

“The PP and democratic Bulgaria [the fourth member of the erstwhile coalition] represent almost exclusively pro-Western urban youth. This made it impossible to pursue a coalition with the socialists,” he said. Emerging Europe.

Corruption remains a key problem

Then there is the GERB, which strongly opposes Russia and believes that Bulgaria’s place is with the West, but which, according to Sokolov, “has a notoriously serious problem of systematic corruption”.

According to Ivaylo Dinev, however, the decisive narrative in the upcoming elections will once again be the parties that present themselves as anti-corruption opposing the GERB, with their relative positions on the war in Ukraine likely to take a back seat.

The economy could also be a factor, he suggests.

“The end of [Petkov] cabinet is more related to a purely economic clash between different groups and their interests – I am talking about the mutual accusations between PP and ITN about the funds allocated for the construction of roads and who wins these contracts, as well as the problem with Captain Andreevo passing from the border,” he said.

Captain Andreevo, a region straddling Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, has proven to be a major security threat to the EU and a haven for organized crime groups.

The PP accused corrupt GERB members of collaborating with illegal organizations active in the region, pointing out that this is the main reason for Bulgaria’s slow progress towards joining the borderless Schengen area.

“We are ready for another election this fall, but neither party can even talk to each other, even though they have similar views on important policies. We have been in this trap for years,” adds Sokolov.

An economic crisis, but no government to manage it

The collapse of the short-lived anti-corruption coalition could open the door for GERB’s return, although news reports exposing GERB’s staggering levels of corruption, most recently the Captain Andreevo scandal, remain a major convert in the sphere. Bulgarian public.

However, social concerns are absent from the political debate, at a time when, as Dinev puts it, “the country needs serious and radical social measures to help those with the lowest incomes and reduce economic inequalities”.

Alongside much of central and eastern Europe, Bulgaria has faced some of the highest levels of inflation in the EU since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, local unions warning that it will soon reach 20%.

“In this economic crisis, in order to prevent hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians from falling into social poverty, an increase in the minimum wage and a serious overhaul of tax policy will be necessary, so that low-income people do not pay the weight. of the crisis,” he said.

However, it is doubtful that the current caretaker government will be able to take such bold steps.

The country will therefore struggle until the October elections, but even then the chances of forming a new coalition are slim. The PP is likely to be the biggest party again, but as Dinev warns, “forming a government will be much more difficult than it was last year.”

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