When the four-party coalition composed of last election winner WCC and three quite diverse factions - showman Slavi Trifonov's TISP, Socialist and Russophile BSP, and pro-Western centrist Democratic Bulgaria - was sealed last December, it was clear that it was, at best, a marriage of convenience.
The four parties had little to glue them together beyond their animosity towards GERB and the weariness of ordinary Bulgarians after three parliamentary elections within a year. Unfortunately, today's world - just four months later - is now very different to what existed when the coalition agreement was signed. Covid, isolating GERB and general promises of anti-corruption measures no longer seem to be the most pertinent issues on the table, superseded as they have been by the war in Ukraine, rising prices and inflation.
In addition, other priorities such as key appointments in regulators and enacting judicial reform turned out to be unexpectedly tough nuts to crack. All these issues quickly exposed the fissures within the coalition, and raised questions about its survivability. Here is our take:
Is the coalition in danger of imminent collapse? Likely not.
Despite tensions within the coalition and statements about "red lines", it seems that none of its four subscribing parties intend to leave, at least in the short term. The key reason is polling findings from Market Links, showing all the ruling parties (with the possible exception of BSP) losing support in an early vote. The only (marginal) winner would be the former ruling party of ex-Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, GERB, and the radical pro-Russian Vazrazhdane (which would potentially double its score!).
At the same time, as all four parties have significantly divergent - and even contradictory - views on key topics, the only apparently viable approach to keep the coalition together would be to bury such topics, and focus instead on "easier", less divisive issues.
This is easier said than done, of course. First of all, disunity within the coalition opens the door to having to court Parliamentary backing from those in pursuit of partisan goals or appointments. These would certainly involve enlisting support from opposition parties GERB and MRF, compromising the core raison d'etre of the coalition. Receiving support from either of these two parties would further erode any goodwill that the public still has towards the coalition. Besides, "burying" difficult issues would only work for a while, as the coalition would need to present results to its voters - especially in the event of early elections.
Four main topics to make or break the coalition
Four main, and two seemingly secondary, but actually crucial topics are currently on the coalition's menu, and could go either way.
1. Governor of BNBSlavi Trifonov's TISP party declared that it would not withdraw the nomination of Lyubomir Karimanski after WCC withdrew its nominee, Andrei Gyurov, on Saturday last week, calling for a restart of the nomination procedure.
Last week, Mr Trifonov announced on Facebook that Prime Minister Kiril Petkov has been maneuvering to drop Sofia's veto over N. Macedonia's early EU accession. Members of his party have since then commented that this could fracture the coalition. For the BSP, the veto was also described as a "red line" and President Rumen Radev also showed his displeasure with WCC's approach.
This means that N. Macedonia's EU veto will remain a ticking bomb as long as the coalition survives - and may, in fact, be the topic that leads to its final demise.
3. Military aid to Ukraine
BSP leader Kornelia Ninova responded to Democratic Bulgaria's call for Parliament to approve the provision of military aid to Kyiv by effectively issuing a threat to jump ship. "If Parliament takes such an unwise decision and throws Bulgaria in that meat grinder, between these two brotherly nations, we will not participate and will leave the coalition," Ms Ninova's lieutenant Rumen Gechev exclaimed last week.
So far, this has indefinitely postponed the introduction of the bill calling for the approval of aid in the National Assembly. The current scaling down - or regrouping - of Russia's campaign in Ukraine favors the coalition, rendering a decision on this less pressing. But what if the Kremlin starts a new offensive soon?
4. Dissolution of the Specialized magistrature and anti-corruption reform
These two topics seem to be the only ones on which there appears to be general consensus within the coalition. But progress on both is much slower than was anticipated at the time of the coalition agreement. The first topic will be put to a final vote in Parliament on Thursday, 14 April, which will be the first test for the cohesion of the coalition, while the second one - well, it looks set to remain "a work in progress" for some time.
And two less obvious onesBesides these major topics intrinsic to the coalition's survival, two other immediate ones could even decide its fate.
The first one is the unilateral legislative initiative taken up by BSP this week - the reintroduction of paper ballots and the removal of the recently introduced (ironically with the support of the Socialists) machine voting as the sole available means of voting. The party, which relies primarily on its elderly electorate, was among the factions worst hit by the introduction of machine-only voting last year, which was aimed at limiting voting fraud. Ironically, now BSP can mostly rely on the other two parties that suffered from making machine voting compulsory, namely GERB and MRF, to pass its demands.
Last, but probably most important, is the state's reluctance to pay road construction companies for work they have already done, but has never been contractually agreed on with the Regional Ministry. This issue is pressing as it may result in large-scale protests of construction workers that can topple the cabinet - last Thursday, they already organized one, recruiting a surprising supporter - Regional Minister Grozdan Karadjov (TISP) himself!
There does not seem to be an immediate exit out of this situation, which is planned as a topic of the Thursday (14 April) session of Parliament. TISP Parliamentary head Toshko Yordanov blamed WCC for turning construction firms into scapegoats for the battle for BNB, but this is very unlikely.
The problem with finding a solution is that members of the caretaker cabinet (2021) of Stefan Yanev, including Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev, openly accused the previous GERB administration of indirectly "robbing" Bulgarian taxpayers by signing open-ended contracts for repairs and constructing roads with these same firms. Agreeing to pay them now would be seen as capitulating to the road construction cartel and legitimizing (what they branded) corrupt practices.
Add to all these issues the upcoming high-level personnel changes in key regulators, including the new head of the Anti-corruption Commission, CEO of the National TV and presidents of the anti-monopoly and media regulators, and the long term future of the coalition seems full of bad portents.