On Tuesday, almost a month after the last parliamentary election, Bulgaria got its first proposed government. Surprisingly, it was not put forward by GERB, the party that won the election and is therefore obliged to nominate a Prime Minister and their team with the first mandate. Instead, it came from the ranks of the reformist coalition WCC-DB, which nominated Prof. Nickolay Denkov for PM, alongside a colorful mix of experts and political leaders, all from its own party structures.
The move was supposed to anticipate GERB's nomination for a cabinet and force Boyko Borissov's hand into supporting WCC-DB's second mandate. For the reformists, it might have seemed a smart way to outmaneuver the three-times PM. But it might be them who end up outplayed - Mr Borissov quickly dismissed their cabinet as "too political" and is now pressing WCC-DB to include GERB faces if they want to rely on the leading party's support.
The result of this back-and-forth will become clear by the end of the week. But what is the purpose of both sides and how can one judge who would be the likely winner?
Who wants what
Let's start with the goals of both sides. Both GERB and WCC-DB want to present themselves as reasonable, constructive players striving to build some form of consensus, which will lead to a regular government - even if it is short-lived. But this is not their sole motivation.
In the case of WCC-DB, which expected to win the 2 April vote and dictate the terms of the negotiations, but finished as the runner-up, any association with GERB is undesirable. At least half of the electorate of the reformist factions sees Mr Borissov and his party as the epitome of corruption and the captured state, and it is hard to blame them - in the past two years, the leaders of both WCC and Democratica Bulgaria built up an image as fighters against the status-quo, largely represented by GERB. Getting into bed with Mr Borissov (which has already proven toxic for many parties in the past - just ask the nationalists from United Patriots) now would be seen as capitulation, and would undermine morale before the threshold local vote coming in just a few months.
For GERB and especially for Mr Borissov, however, the situation is the polar opposite - they want to shed their pariah image of the last two years and get recognized as an indispensable factor in Bulgaria's pro-European political spectrum once again. Hence, a coalition - or some other form of partnership with their formerly most vicious opponents from WCC-DB is the "maximum program," as Mr Borissov said last week.
The negotiations so far
Having these overall goals in mind, how are the negotiations between GERB and WCC-DB going? Last week, the leaders of the two parties met twice in Parliament - the first time as a show of goodwill and the second time - to discuss whether it is possible for GERB and WCC-DB to agree on anything at all.
The minimum that the two factions aimed at was a common short-term legislative program to expedite the processes of Schengen and Eurozone integration, plus legal changes to untap EU funding from the Recovery Plan and passing an acceptable state budget for 2023 without the 6.4% deficit envisaged by the caretaker government. The maximum was a form of temporary government.
As for the "maximum program" - some form of mutually agreed cabinet - both sides had very different ideas. First, Mr Borissov asked for a jointly approved expert cabinet with people from both parties nominated on key positions. This was unacceptable for WCC-DB, who have promised their voters not to back any government with GERB's mandate. Then the GERB leader softened the tone and asked the reformists to propose a draft cabinet, so that he and his party could decide whether backing it would be acceptable. Later the same day, Mr Borissov added that it would be inadmissible for WCC leaders Assen Vassilev and Kiril Petkov to be part of such a draft cabinet.
Borissov the negotiator is back
On Tuesday, WCC-DB responded to Mr Borissov's call and proposed a cabinet. While its head is Prof. Denkov, who has been deputy minister of Education in several GERB and caretaker cabinets, was seen as acceptable by GERB, the presence of signature WCC leaders as Mr Vassilev (as Finance Minister) and Daniel Lorer (Innovation Minister) was seen as "too political" by Mr Borissov, who said GERB can't back it unless it also gets some of its recognizable faces nominated for ministers.
This leads to a new conundrum - both parties can either continue negotiating to broker a joint cabinet, or seek support elsewhere. The first option is good for GERB - Mr Borissov appears happy to be dictating the terms once again, shedding the mantle of a political outcast for his favorite groove - of a negotiator and balancer. But it is bad for WCC-DB - if they continue pampering to GERB, they would compromise their main raison d'etre - as an antipode of the model of the leading party, or their behavior would be framed as unreasonable - seeking total power just after losing the last vote.
The other option - seeking support from MRF, BSP, TISP or even Vazrazhdane - is the less preferable option for both GERB and WCC-DB. But if it comes to this, GERB still has an advantage. WCC-DB can hardly rely on any of the four parties; they fell out with both TISP and BSP in the months following their coalition's disintegration. As for MRF and Vazrazhdane, they are unacceptable on ideological grounds, while Mr Borissov can once again show "statesmanship" and rule with whoever is available for the sake of stability.
In short, it appears that the GERB leader has been rehabilitated and is back leading the dance, while WCC-DB, which were supposed to take him down, are now following his lead. This does not augur well for the reformist coalition, especially as it is taking place four months before the crucial local elections - and potentially just a month before a new early vote, where their hand might be forced even more.