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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Another election, another government in Bulgaria

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

Bulgaria will be having a new government after President Georgi Purvanov formally asked Sofia mayor Boyko Borisov to form a cabinet on Thursday, July 16. Voters in the Southeastern European nation gave a clear victory to Borisov's right-of-center Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) in a parliamentary election held last July 5. While the election to choose members of the Bulgaria's unicameral Parliament, the National Assembly, was the country's second vote in less than a month - last June Bulgarians elected their representatives in the European Parliament - the parliamentary poll nonetheless had a 60.9% voter turnout rate, up from 55.8% in 2005.

Bulgaria's general election - the seventh since the country peacefully moved away from single-party Communist rule in 1989-90 - was held under a new electoral system which established 31 single-member seats, chosen by plurality voting. First-past-the-post seats were ostensibly introduced to make the National Assembly more accountable to voters, although the remaining 209 seats continued to be filled separately by closed party list proportional representation (using the Hare/Niemayer variation of the largest remainder method among parties and coalitions with at least four percent of the vote, initially on a nationwide basis and then at the multi-member constituency level, the latter stage under a complicated procedure that insures that seats are allocated without changing the nationwide distribution of mandates among competing lists or multi-member constituencies). Moreover, single-member seats were filled in a manner contrary to the principle of one person, one vote: each one of Bulgaria's existing 31 multi-member constituencies was assigned one seat, irrespective of population; the distribution of multi-member constituency seats is also skewed in favor of the smaller provinces, but the differences are considerably less pronounced.

At any rate, while the electoral reform may have amounted to little more than window dressing as far as parliamentary accountability is concerned, the introduction of single-member plurality seats has had a distinct impact on the distribution of legislative seats: GERB won a sweeping victory with 26 of 31 first-past-the-post seats, which along with 90 of 209 list seats gave the party a total of 116 National Assembly mandates - five short of an absolute majority; under the previous, fully proportional electoral system, GERB would have only had 105 seats (assuming of course that voters would have cast their ballots in the same manner).

Elections to the Bulgarian National Assembly has detailed 2009 election results and an overview of Bulgaria's electoral systems since 1991.

As in previous elections, corruption and the economy were salient campaign issues. Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, but it has the dubious distinction of being rated the poorest EU member - and the most corrupt as well. In fact, Bulgaria's inability to deal effectively with corruption and organized crime cost the country hundreds of millions of euros of EU aid in 2008. On top of that, Bulgaria has been hit exceptionally hard by the global economic crisis, and after twelve years of growth, the Bulgarian economy is in recession, contracting at a rate which the IMF forecast could reach seven percent this year.

Not surprisingly, the big loser in the election was the ruling coalition government, headed by the post-Communist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP): the BSP-led Coalition for Bulgaria lost 42 of its 82 its National Assembly seats, and its coalition partner, the National Movement for Stability and Progress (NDSV; originally the National Movement Simeon II) sank below the four percent threshold and lost its parliamentary representation; meanwhile, the third party in the outgoing coalition government, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) - which represents Bulgaria's sizable Turkish minority - slightly improved upon its 2005 result both in terms of votes and seats. Nonetheless, the outcome of Bulgaria's 2009 parliamentary election follows a pattern common to every general election since 1991, in that once more Bulgarian voters have voted out of office the parties running the country.

However, Bulgaria has yet to develop a stable party system: as in 2001, a newly-established party has upset the existing political order, and GERB's convincing victory on its first parliamentary contest strongly resembles that of the National Movement Simeon II eight years ago; interestingly, constituency-level results show a very strong correlation between GERB's share of the vote in 2009 and NDSV's in 2001 and 2005 (0.83 and 0.77, respectively). That said, the rise and fall of NDSV should serve as a cautionary tale for GERB: after the NDSV-led 2001-2005 government of Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (the former king of Bulgaria) proved unable to fulfill its campaign promises to deal with corruption and improve living standards, the party quickly went into a steep decline, which culminated in its wipeout last July 5.

It was originally expected that GERB would form a coalition government with the center-right Blue Coalition headed by the United Democratic Forces (UDF) and Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, which won fifteen seats in the election (down from thirty-seven obtained by its two major constituent parties two years ago), but Borisov has chosen to preside over a minority government, supported from the outside by smaller right-wing parties such as Order, Lawfulness and Justice, which won ten seats in the National Assembly, or even the far-right nationalist Attack Coalition (21 seats). Bulgaria hasn't had a minority cabinet since Filip Dimitrov's UDF government in 1991-92, which lasted just over a year in power - hardly an encouraging precedent. All the same, it appears unlikely the remaining five parties represented in the National Assembly will join forces against GERB, at least for the time being.