Third time lucky? That's what Bulgarians will ask themselves in the coming months, after it became clear they will probably have to vote in national elections for the third consecutive time this year.
The sad result came about after There is such a people (TISP) party's attempt to form a cabinet ended in ashes on Tuesday. Party leader Slavi Trifonov had announced in a Facebook video that he is withdrawing Plamen Nikolov, TISP's nominee for Prime Minister, as well as the cabinet his party proposed ten days earlier.
Mr Nikolov withdrew his nomination for Prime Minister from the National Assembly and his cabinet was not even put to vote in Parliament on Wednesday as previously expected.
Mr Trifonov's announcement came just hours after Democratic Bulgaria - one of the so-called "parties of the 2020 protests" - refused to back Mr Nikolov. A day earlier, Stand up BG - another protest formation, declined to back TISP's proposal for a minority government without safeguards that it would carry out its program. Meanwhile, BSP, the third party Mr Trifonov expected backing from, also gave signs its MPs would not vote for the proposed cabinet.
Mr Trifonov accused the three parties of "treachery" for not signing his party's blank check. He added that TISP would not back any other cabinet and that Bulgarians would have to go to the polls again in the autumn, thus effectively ending what was known optimistically as "the protest parties' alliance".
How did it come to this?
Last Friday, Mr Nikolov had deposited a list of cabinet ministers with President Rumen Radev. This followed a charade of "discussions" with potential partners TISP was counting on for support - Democratic Bulgaria, Stand up BG and BSP. Only BSP, which fared very poorly in the last elections and seems on a downward spiral, initially said that it had overlap with 90% of TISP's program and was remotely close to pledging its support.
A series of attacks against the supposed allies on Facebook (by Mr Trifonov, who de facto single-handedly controls TISP) and TV shows (by his acolyte Toshko Yordanov, head of TISP's Parliamentary group) over the weekend made supporting TISP's cabinet a hard pill to swallow. But it was not only a question of pride for the "protest parties".
Until the last moment it was unclear who would be the party's nominee for Justice Minister, after the initial nomination - Veliko Tarnovo lawyer Momchil Ivanov - just as unknown as Nikolov and most of the other ministers - withdrew in the wake of Facebook posts bashing "Soros' agents" and "traitors to the motherland" being leaked from his profile.
This was just the nail in the coffin of scandals plaguing some of the new nominees for office. The most notable one is that of lawyer Petar Iliev, who will appear before the ethical commission of Sofia University for plagiarizing at least 40 pages from the dissertation of one of the country's best known constitutionalists, Natalia Kiselova.
If the commission does its job properly, he might not only forfeit his academic title, but likely also his rights to practice law. Despite that looming threat, TISP refused to withdraw his nomination for Internal Minister. This must mean that he is either really close to Trifonov or pivotal to key business interests backing the party.
Trifonov strikes again
While all this could be branded "poor negotiation skills" and an oversized ego by TISP, Mr Trifonov made a step that looks set to destroy also the potential for future cabinet negotiations.
Democratic Bulgaria and Stand up BG's announcement led to him appearing over a Facebook broadcast on Tuesday afternoon. In it he said TISP would not even submit their proposed cabinet to a Parliamentary vote because everything hinged on the "protest parties' support," and they had "betrayed" TISP.
A few hours later, Dnevnik.bg spoke to the Speaker of Parliament Iva Miteva (TISP), who said she had been notified by Mr Nikolov that he is withdrawing his agreement to be proposed for Prime Minister "on personal grounds". Thus, Ms Miteva claimed, no vote would take place in Parliament on Wednesday to approve the TISP cabinet.
This is a problematic decision in several ways. It showed that Mr Nikolov, or anyone else within TISP for that matter, had little decision-making agency and only follow Trifonov's orders. It might also turn out to be an anti-constitutional move. GERB pledged to take the question to the Constitutional court if the proposed cabinet is not voted upon. This might plunge the country into a constitutional crisis, as if the situation wasn't already chaotic enough.
What comes next?If the first mandate of TISP is really withdrawn, the second one goes to GERB, which pledged not to even attempt to form a cabinet. If they also stick to their guns, the President has to decide which of the other four parties gets the third one.
The President can give it to BSP (still the third largest party) or Stand up BG (the smallest faction), which both said they would nominate the caretaker government to remain in power. If BSP gets the mandate, however, Democratic Bulgaria said they cannot vote for it because they have promised their electorate they won't back any BSP cabinet. Democratic Bulgaria, in turn, said it would ask all parties other than GERB and MRF to negotiate a new cabinet, which would include "the successful caretaker ministers" (most likely referring to Economy and Finance ministers Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev, and maybe some others).
Both of these scenarios are unlikely to pass, however, as Trifonov was clear that his party is not going to back the caretaker government if the third mandate is used to nominate it to stay in power. Absurdly, however, he added that TISP would back President Radev - who nominated the caretaker gov't - for a second mandate in November.
This means we are heading for a third round of elections later this year - most likely at the end of October or early in November, potentially alongside the Presidential elections. The prospect of national and Presidential elections means we are truly in uncharted waters and no resolution to this chaotic situation is in sight.