Six months after taking office, the coalition government of the conservative GERB party and the nationalist United Patriots has the approval of approximately 20% of Bulgarian voters. The two coalition partners retain support close to the percentages of votes scored in the in March, 2017 elections. Despite the low support to the government, at present there is no strong parliamentary or extraparliamentary alternative that could further erode the electoral base of the ruling coalition. This electoral alignment ensures a framework for a relatively stable government mandate. At the same time no major internal factors that could destabilize the government and the coalition can be expected to emerge, in the short term at least. There are no signs of a possible change in the current format of governing coalition in public attitudes and in the overall development of the economy.
However, potential long-term risks lurk. Without active government policies to neutralize the growing social divisions and income disparities, the boiling discontent could escalate.
A series of official macroeconomic data point to a recovery of the Bulgarian economy in the past year. Statistics on economic growth, employment/unemployment, investments, household incomes and savings outline an overall positive trend. Yet, several factors could prevent Bulgarians from feeling the benefits of economic recovery at the individual level.
At the end of November, the Institute for Market Economics published its study "Regional Profiles: Indicators for Development." The study showed that economic disparities between the country's regions are increasing. Even in the face of economic recovery, the situation in the country's wealthier regions has improved, while in the poorer ones (mostly in northwest and north-central Bulgaria) it has deteriorated.
In the face of growing regional inequality the government requires comprehensive targeted policy to remove the imbalances. This implies an integrated policy targeting education, investments, regional and municipal planning, infrastructure development, environment, and quality of life. If such policy is not developed in the short-term, voters' disenchantment will increase.
The malfunctioning public sectors remain a barrier to macroeconomic recovery. Inefficient administration absorbs ever increasingly funding while generating ever-increasing inefficiency and dissatisfaction among the general public and public employees. The most typical examples in this respect are the three most sclerotic areas of public governance: the judiciary, home affairs, and healthcare. These are the fields in which the government gets the lowest ratings for its performance: justice - 7%, healthcare - 9% and home affairs - 13%. The majority of the voters express the opinion that these fields require urgent reform rather than increased funding.
It is generally accepted axiom that periods of economic upswing offer an opportunity for systemic changes as the state is able to act more flexibly and compensate for possible imbalances in the initial stages of the reform. However, the adopted budget bill for 2018 only envisages a further increase of funding of these sectors with no plan to change the current inefficient spending of the taxpayer's money. This entails the risk of spending even more resources to sustain governmental departments and functions that fail to address their already well know deficiencies rather than develop more efficient systems that will eliminate those problems. For example, the increasing number of hospitalizations in Bulgaria is not sign of improved healthcare service delivery, but rather of the misguided budgeting of the system. Hospitals are incentivized to keep patients in-house without medical need in order to receive higher financing to cover for lack of overall funding.
Bulgaria's Euro-Atlantic orientation has been seen a leading priority by the Bulgarian citizens throughout the period of post-Communist democratic development. Ten years after the country's accession to the EU in 2007, the public attitudes are dominated by support for the European Union and a prevailing opinion that Bulgaria has benefited from joining the EU. Over 50% of the citizens older than 18 years see the upcoming Presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2018 as an important commitment and a possibility to continue the search for common European solutions and policies.
The finding of consensus on specific cases, such as the EU sanctions against Russia or the EU common energy policy may turn out to be the next challenges before the government. This will be particularly true if GERB and the United Patriots decide to defend their own party priorities on these issues declared during the election campaign. The diverging views of the two coalition partners can generate considerable tension between them.
Attitude toward Russia's policies and Bulgaria's energy policy both strongly polarize Bulgarians. Those who support the overall EU policies on migration, security and sanctions against Russia, as well as for more independent from Russia energy policies are mostly the economically active middle-age people living in the big cities. They are favor of the right-wing political parties (many of them backed GERB in the last elections). The most zealous bearers of the opposite attitude support the left-wing forces and the United Patriots.
Toward the end of 2017, the government repeatedly left the impression of being ready of major shift in its strategic priorities. If this happens with will have negative impact on the electoral support for GERB and the support of key European partners. Here are two examples:• The announced intention to raise the issue of lifting the sanctions against Russia during Bulgaria's Presidency of the Council of the EU. The economic effect of the sanctions remains unclear to most Bulgarians, which polarizes the public opinion as to whether the sanctions help or harm Bulgaria. At the same time, however, right-wing voters have the feeling that the lifting of sanctions can only encourage inadmissible actions such as the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
• The attempts to rekindle the Belene Nuclear Power Plant project. This project generates tension and risks at three levels at least: first, it generates suspicions of strong corruption-driven interests; second, it lacks conclusive proof of economic efficiency; and, third, it creates conditions for increased energy and, thence, economic and political dependence on Russia.
Irrespective of the ideological differences existing between the coalition partners, the first six months of their joint tenure leave the impression of stability. There have been isolated clashes between them on current issues but they were resolved relatively quickly, with the cost of maintaining peace in the coalition sometimes remaining unclear. In the meantime, after a slew of elections in the span of just few years voters are tired and most of them do not wish to go to the polls right now. They see no alternative to the government incumbents either.
However, a break-up of the government coalition cannot be ruled out in view of the deep ideological divide between GERB and the complex-in-itself alliance of the United Patriots made up of three nationalist parties: VMRO, NFSB and openly pro-Russian Ataka. It can occur both as a result of diverging strategies, calculated electoral benefits and losses, as well as defending personal positions on key issues such as the EU policy on migration policy, for example. However, a rift can also emerge as a result of conflicts on seemingly more mundane problems of daily life such as business interests or spheres of influence. Last, but not least, tensions cannot be ruled out to emerge as a result GERB's need to walk a tightrope between the United Patriots and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which is nominally in opposition but often saves GERB in crucial votes in parliament.
In short, there are no immediate threats to the stability of the coalition, but neither there is a strategy how to address the persistent problems and the long-terms risks before the country.
* Genoveva Petrova is CEO of the polling agency Alpha Research