What will 2023 usher in for Bulgarian politics? There are various possible scenarios, but neither augur well for the country's democracy and would, one way or another, lead to diminishing trust in the political process.
The first (slim) possibility is that one of the next two parties to receive the exploratory mandate from President Rumen Radev in the coming weeks could somehow muster a successful cabinet negotiation and pass a government through Parliament. However, in the unlikely case any party pulls that off, this would be at a high political cost and would only work in the short term because the structure would be unstable and vulnerable to opposition attacks.
The alternative does not sound appealing, either - if the next two attempts to form a cabinet fail, Bulgaria will go to fresh elections, likely in March. In the absence of a significant internal or external shake-up event, this would produce more or less the same representation, continuing the current impasse of the past two months. The parties will then try to gear up for a combo of an early vote and an even more crucial municipal vote in the autumn, which could further erode the foundations of the Bulgarian political system.
To top it all off, this whole process would be supervised by President Radev's caretaker cabinets, which have become the norm rather than the exception for Bulgarian governance.
No Professor for Prime Minister
After the failure of GERB to pass a cabinet under the mantle of neurosurgeon Prof Nikolay Gabrovski, the second largest party - WCC - will try to best them with their one professor nominee for PM, Nikolay Denkov. Although forming a cabinet within the 48th parliament looks almost impossible, WCC together with Democratic Bulgaria will still make efforts in this direction. The attempt will later today, when Prof Denkov receives the mandate from Mr Radev, would last about two weeks, and the ultimate goal is not exactly the creation of a minority government, but rather the adoption of certain bills linked to anti-corruption, election rule changes and the state budget for 2023.
It is unlikely that WCC's demands would be met and the leaders of the formation, Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev, know this all too well. The party, however, says that they and their partners from Democratic Bulgaria, have two alternatives: one is to announce, before Mr Radev hands them a mandate, that they will not fulfill it, and the other - to "show" an alternative government to GERB, but not to submit it to the plenary.
Regardless of the actions of the second party, it is almost certain that their attempt will also fail. Then the final exploratory mandate would go to another party, this time - of President Radev's choosing. So far, the only faction that has expressed interest to exploit this mandate is former caretaker PM Stefan Yanev's Bulgarian Rise. It is unlikely, however, that any of the big parties would leave the decision of who will have the "controlling stake" in the next cabinet to the unpredictable (and, honestly, rather strange) Mr Yanev.
The only other realistic third mandate-holder would be BSP, which still has some hot links to Mr Radev, despite the growing animosity between him and Socialist leader Kornelia Ninova. There are many reasons to consider why BSP would support a government with a third mandate. First, Ms Ninova is not banned from supporting a government with her own mandate or with the mandate of Bulgarian Rise by her party's congress (they have instead banned her from joining hands with GERB and Vazrazhdane). Secondly, Ms Ninova has a congress coming up in February and it is much better for her to enter it as a leader who got her party in power, rather than not. And lastly, given BSP's ever dwindling results, holding on to power now might seem like a good moment to hedge her bets.
Yet, the likelihood of BSP forming a government with this mandate seems close to impossible principally because GERB has also passed a party decision against entering into any coalition with the Socialists. Which means only one thing
Early vote in March
After all this, it is likely that Mr Radev will play his mandate cards in such a way so that the next early elections would not be in January and February, but instead in March - either on March 12 or 19, depending on how long the president will delay the procedure of handing the second and third mandate. He hopes that this will improve the voter turnout - but data shows this a false hope.
According to the most recent Alpha Research poll, conducted between December 1 and 13, 2022 among 1,023 adult citizens, there is an even bigger collapse in trust in institutions, parties, leaders and pessimism for the next year: more moderate on a personal level, but big on a national level. All the main actors of governance are perceived as collectively responsible for the country's inability to meet the challenges of the crises. Data shows that, if the elections were held now, they would basically repeat the results of the previous ones, but with an even lower turnout - around 35%.
An inevitable shake-up of the status quo - under the President's supervision
If results and distribution of mandates are similar after the next early vote, this would mean a general repetition of the whole cycle that we observed in the last three months. An additional problem is that a further early vote would likely coincide with a municipal vote, which is due in early autumn. This will, in turn, make party strategies and voting outcomes even harder to predict, but will surely shake up whatever is left of Bulgaria's political status-quo.
All that will take place under the watchful eye of President Rumen Radev who will continue to rule without any formal scrutiny through his caretaker cabinets. While so far different forms of party and civic engagement have provided some form of oversight over some of the caretaker cabinets' more controversial decisions, it is questionable how long this could last - and how entrenched Mr Radev's men will be by the time all this is over.
So it seems that whatever happens in the next few weeks, snap elections are almost inevitable, and then another one - likely. The situation is becoming more of a blame game. Who will voters hold accountable for the continuing stalemate and political uncertainties? It seems likely that, once again, any "victorious" party would rule itself out of power by setting impossible conditions for its support, thus triggering more of the endless and pointless mandates we have witnessed over the past couple of years.
This will deepen the political crisis in the country, draw even thicker lines between factions, and leave the whole power in the hands of an unaccountable President. In a few words: strap in for a rough ride in 2023.