Let's just remember all Prime Minister Boyko Borissov endured last year. First came the news that the Catalan Prosecution was investigating him for allegedly buying a house in Barcelona for an ex-model, supposedly the mother of his child. Then audio files were leaked purportedly revealing how he runs the country like a king, targeting opposition politicians and businessmen. Then came the infamous pictures of him sleeping aside a gun and a cupboard full of gold and 500-euro notes.
All this is not to mention the big political scandals: the city of Pernik lost its entire water supply because of mismanagement, roads started crumbling, and of course - the street protests of 2020 explicitly targeted Borissov's decade-long corrupt model of governance.
Just some of that would have led to political decapitation in any other country. Yet he is a (serial) survivor. There had been rumours that he would step down and let someone else take the hits, while reigning in the background. Or that he would not be heading his GERB party electoral lists. None of this has yet happened.
So now, facing the April elections, are we truly seeing the last of Borissov or does he have yet another trick up his sleeve?
Bluff after bluff
Over the past two years, Mr Borissov has made at least two public statements about his intended retirement from active politics. "I will come back to the party and make way for youth," he said in May 2019. In July last year he promised again that after the end of his third mandate he would retreat to party management "because now everyone is biting GERB from the side, as we are now 100 percent engaged with the government and mistakes are happening in the party itself."
Yet when you look at the timing of these statements, both were made amidst a crisis for the party. The first one came a month after a series of investigations implicated Mr Borissov's chief lieutenant - Tsvetan Tsvetanov, alongside other leading GERB figures, in a huge apartment-buying scheme from a real-estate developer below market prices.
The second statement was made in the middle of "the summer of rage", when anti-corruption protests were gripping the country.
Turns out that every time the Prime Minister alludes to his plans to leave office, he is, in fact, trying to defuse public anger. And offering sacrifices: the first crisis cost the head of Tsvetanov, the second - those of three ministers.
Not done yetIn fact, nothing suggests Mr. Borissov has plans to return to political oblivion just yet. Two months before the 4 April elections, sociological surveys from different agencies show that GERB actually is regaining support and keeping a narrow, but growing lead over its main opponent, BSP (24,3 to 21,9 percent according to a January Alpha Research poll).
As a matter of fact, the ruling party was in the same position in the run-up to the 2017 Parliamentary elections, and still won comfortably the most mandates (32 to 28 percent, again according to a January 2017 Alpha Research poll). So all is not lost for GERB - much to the consternation of their opponents.
The big question, of course, is whether Borissov is damaged goods. By managing to unite almost all political factions against him, the true challenge will be to form a government. None of the current coalition partners - the nationalist coalition VMRO-NFSB and businessman Vesselin Mareshki's Volya ("Will") party - are projected to make it to the next parliament. BSP, the right-wing parties and the newcomers like TV host Slavi Trifonov all rejected the option of working with Borissov. An open coalition with the Turkish MRF party (synonymous with high-level corruption) would be suicidal for GERB.
So the option would be to work for a minority government. It is almost certain that GERB will enter a formal pre-election coalition with the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) in order to draw some of the older anti-communist vote base of the first democratic party in post-1989 Bulgaria. Talks with smaller conservative parties are also on the cards, according to people close to the ruling party.
If the sums add up, GERB could perhaps form a minority government and get behind-the-scenes support from the ethnic MRF party or renegade MPs from the potentially unstable (and still completely unknown) party list of Slavi Trifonov's party.
Will Borissov abandon the jeep?
Mr. Borissov himself has been in full-blown campaign mode since last summer. With a few rare exceptions, he can hardly be found in Sofia. Instead he roams around Bulgaria, riding his Toyota Sequoia jeep on a seemingly endless personal campaign and morale boost for his regional party branches.
He consistently dodges journalists and their questions, relying solely on his Facebook Live appearances (that are later republished by both oppositional and government-friendly media) to reach voters. This proved effective at the last election and he is hoping that history will repeat itself. His rating seems to have stabilized back to pre-protest levels.
This does not mean he will certainly opt for a fourth mandate. Media close to the government have already probed the possibility of UN diplomat Nickolay Mladenov potentially taking over, although this seems unlikely. It is, however, possible that Mr. Borissov will decide to challenge incumbent President Rumen Radev to become Head of State seat in the autumn.
And, even if he decides to really withdraw from active politics, it is almost certain that he would seek to become a GERB version of MRF "honorary chairman" Ahmed Dogan, a "back seat driver" overseeing party (and state) affairs. The only way for Borissov to disappear from politics is an embarrassing loss or a sudden U-turn by the prosecution service. The latter didn't seem to notice anything wrong with audio leaks, photographs or evidence from Barcelona. It might decide otherwise if Borissov is suddenly no longer in charge.