New Political Optimism in Bulgaria


Photo source: Council on Foreign Relations

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

After a year of successive interim governments, the Bulgarian parliament finally voted in favour of a regular government in June 2023. This move has the potential to move Bulgaria back towards the European mainstream and bring wider benefits to the region.

The two main political actors in the country, the We Continue the Change (PP) party with its coalition partner Democratic Bulgaria (DB) and GERB, have been unable to create governments on their own as each has just over a quarter of the MPs in parliament. Their opposing positions on the reform of the judiciary and the rule of law have prevented them from forming a coalition government. The disarray in parliament had left President Rumen Radev, a former general with a growing appetite for power, in charge of appointing interim governments. But Radev’s negative rhetoric towards political parties and reluctance to hand over the governing mandate made it clear that he would not easily concede executive power back to the parliament, thereby threatening to undermine the parliamentary democratic rule set out in the Bulgarian constitution.

These political moves were enough to break the impasse. To avoid a sixth election in two years and restore the constitutional equilibrium, PP-DB and GERB agreed on a government with a majority of PP ministers, without the party leaders like Kiril Petkov, Hristo Ivanov, and Boyko Borisov, but including one significant GERB figure, the former European commissioner Maria Gabriel. The agreement puts the cabinet remaining in office for at least eighteen months. Nikolay Denkov, a renowned chemist and former minister of education in the Petkov government, will serve as prime minister for the first nine months, then Gabriel will take over the post.

Bulgaria has become a worry for the European Union with its weak rule of law, a prominent pro-Russia party, Revival, in parliament, and a public discourse imbued with fake news and certain rhetoric.

But the new government could bring Bulgaria back into the European fold. Denkov declared that his main priorities are Bulgaria’s entry into Schengen and the eurozone and opening funding for the country from the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility. Reforming the judiciary – a long-cherished goal for the EU – is the first necessary step to achieve progress on all three issues, and GERB has so far stated that it is willing to support the process. Judicial reform would also help fight both corruption and Russian meddling in the country. A general change of tone of the political discourse would require further reforms to the media.

The reform of the Bulgarian judiciary has been stuck for years, but there have been a series of steps forward for mediation of the issue. In late May 2023, parliament approved a new mechanism for investigating the chief prosecutor and his deputies. A few weeks later, the Supreme Judicial Council voted nem con in favour of the removal of the current chief prosecutor, Ivan Geshev. It had refused to do so in the past, despite serious allegements made by a former minister of justice against Geshev. The current change of heart seems to be politically motivated and related to Borisov’s willingness to cooperate with the parties from the coalition. Geshev in turn asked parliament to lift Borisov’s and Petkov’s political immunity. This game of political and legal attacks clearly signifies a high degree of nervousness in the system and a disruption of the status quo.

The success of the government will have consequences for the wider region, where a belt of illiberalism and nationalism is threatening to engulf other eastern and south-eastern European countries in which the rule of law is weak, including Poland, Hungary, and Serbia.

Finally, a more pro-European government in Bulgaria may ease some anxieties stemming from beyond the EU’s borders. Migration is high on the agenda for most Western capitals. In particular, many observers are speculative about the future trajectory of Turkey’s refugee policy after the recent electoral victory of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They will rely on a credible Bulgarian government to take care of Europe’s outer border. At the same time, North Macedonia seems to be coming closer to amending its constitution to include the Bulgarian minority, among others, as an ethnic group, which would reactivate the country’s EU accession process. Here, a constructive and measured stance from Sofia will be necessary.

After many months of political crisis, the new government could see the country gradually move back towards the European mainstream. In his inaugural speech, Denkov expressed hope, saying 'we constantly discuss that Bulgaria is a country that has many problems to solve, but … I deeply believe that Bulgaria is a country with a bright future. For many Bulgarians, optimism is a rare trait. But if the government proves durable and able to deliver on its domestic and European promises, Denkov’s optimism may spread.'



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