The plot twists in Bulgarian politics never cease to amaze. Last week, we came close to a format of governance unprecedented in our democratic history - a rotational (non)coalition between GERB and WCC-DB, despite some vociferous sniping against the coupling of the former sworn enemies by their most radical fringes.
Then, out of the blue, WCC's Radostin Vassilev MP - who abandoned his former colleagues from TISP in order to join Kiril Petkov's retinue last summer - again proved himself a loose cannon. Vassilev suddenly announced he was leaving the ranks of WCC over its decision to seek collaboration with GERB. Most damningly, he released an audio recording from the party's National Council to prove his point.
The release of the 4,5-hour-long audio recording of the Zoom call from 21 May triggered tremors across the political spectrum and ultimately caused GERB's lead cabinet negotiator Mariya Gabriel to announce the freezing of talks with WCC-DB on Sunday.
Ms Gabriel underlined that her party remains open to discussing an expert cabinet, so the coalition talks are not totally dead in the water. But it is clear that the formula agreed last week - rotational premiership of Ms Gabriel and WCC's Nikolay Denkov, with WCC-DB ministers only - is no longer acceptable to GERB. With President Radev having passed the second explorative cabinet mandate to Prof Denkov yesterday afternoon, the clock is ticking for Denkov to find a way to break the "freeze".
Why did it all unravel?
The leaking of an online conference call of about 50 WCC national council members, likely recorded on the 21 May, was released by Radostin Vassilev after he stated his opposition to the "coalition" with GERB. It exposed some problematic views shared by WCC's co-chairs Assen Vassilev and Kiril Petkov, as well as their general mistrust of GERB, but also of their own coalition partners from Democratic Bulgaria.
Overall, the leaked conversation demonstrated a sober reassessment by WCC's leadership and a lively debate about the pros and cons of a coalition with GERB, which ended up with a tight vote (25 votes supporting the rotational cabinet versus 24 - against). However, Mr Vassilev and Mr Petkov, in particular, made some controversial statements.
"Cleaning up" the administration and the secret services
First, the two spoke about the need to "clean up the administration" of GERB and Rumen Radev loyalists "by all means - legal or illegal," as soon as the new rotational cabinet entered power. Mr Vassilev is heard analyzing the participation of the party in the coming local elections in the autumn, saying that it would be best if they take place "under our [WCC's] Minister of the Interior" who would supposedly not allow irregularities.
Many liberal supporters of WCC saw this as a sign that, despite the party's verbal commitments to the principle of the rule of law, it is ready to employ the same methods used by their adversaries GERB to "capture" the state.
In the recording, Mr Vassilev talks of reappointing "the heads of the secret services" after "coordination with embassies," likely referring to the US and other Western ones. This line provoked the wrath of populists and Russophiles alike as they saw it as proof that WCC-DB was a "colonial administration" of NATO and the EU in Bulgaria, and following external orders.
Additionally, Mr Petkov is heard mentioning the name of EU Commission head Ursula von der Leyen, who (allegedly) informally promised him that the Commission would give Bulgaria concessions when it comes to fulfilling the 3% inflation criterion to join the Eurozone. But she had also underlined that he must not repeat her words, so his indiscretion will damage both his and the Commission's credibility.
A host of enemies beyond GERB
The WCC members discuss repeatedly what they perceive as the growing role of President Rumen Radev and his internal affairs advisor, Nikolay Koprinkov. They allege that the president is trying to use Koprinkov to bribe GERB mayors across the country in an attempt to lay the grounds for a new political formation of his own.
Mr Vassilev calls GERB a "marketing enemy" of WCC, meaning that Mr Borissov's party is just the visible part of the iceberg of "enemies" that his faction faces, with the rest including MRF, TISP, BSP, Vazrazhdane, the Russophiles as a whole, and especially - President Radev. The leadership emphasizes the importance of ridding the secret services of Russian influence. Mr Petkov and Mr Vassilev talk openly - albeit reluctantly - of the inevitable "laundering" of Boyko Borissov's reputation as a prerequisite for the creation of a cabinet.
WCC's leaders also lay bare their disdain for Mariya Gabriel (Petkov later apologized for his words in a Facebook post), their total distrust of Mr Borissov, and also the uncertain relationship with Democratic Bulgaria. DB co-chair Hristo Ivanov's drive for constitutional changes, which would strengthen the judiciary and weaken the State Prosecution, is brushed aside as "his dream goal so he can retire" and not to be taken seriously.
Is there still a chance for the rotational cabinet?
Despite the scandal, Mariya Gabriel did not completely shut the door on further talks. "Everything has its limit, mine is that I cannot accept democracy to be built on the basis of lies and disrespect for the basic principles of the republic. Leaving aside the lies about my personality, the problem is that it could be a way of governing that is contrary to democratic governance practices," Ms Gabriel said during her Sunday press conference.
She said that the views expressed by the WCC leaders about the changes in the secret services and the fact that they are coordinated with embassies, as well as their intention to politicize the administration, were unacceptable. Later, her leader Mr Borissov called for the creation of an expert cabinet without notable political faces. This shows he has decided to use the recording scandal to pressure WCC-DB for further concessions for his party.
In the meantime, one wing within GERB, consisting of ex-energy minister Delyan Dobrev and the parliamentary spearhead of the party Dessislava Atanassova, told media that they are probing yet again for alternative support for a Gabriel-nominated cabinet with the third mandate. They point out that potential support could come from TISP, MRF, BSP and even the MPs from the Democratic Bulgaria cohort of the WCC-DB parliamentary group.
Finally, President Radev's comments on passing the second mandate to Prof Denkov - saying he would have not given it to him, had it not been his constitutional duty to do so - raised hackles and enraged reformist politicians and supporters. It appears that the leaked recording had angered Mr Radev and completed his alienation from the party with which he was once associated.
All of this promises an action-packed political week.