Sofia (AFP/APP): Just six months after taking office, Bulgaria’s coalition government faces collapse Wednesday as a no-confidence motion comes before MPs — potentially triggering fresh political instability in the EU’s poorest member state.
If the motion succeeds, it will be the first no-confidence vote to do so in Bulgaria’s democratic history and will almost certainly lead to a fresh election in the country of 6.5 million people. Last year saw no fewer than three general elections.
In the last of those polls the party of liberal Kiril Petkov, a Harvard University graduate, came out ahead and formed an unwieldy coalition government with three other parties in December. The energetic, pro-European Petkov became prime minister and promised to wipe out Bulgaria’s endemic corruption after a decade of rule by the controversial conservative Boyko Borisov. But cracks in the government soon began to widen in the wake of Russia’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.
Those tensions eventually led to the anti-establishment ITN party of showman Slavi Trifonov withdrawing its support earlier this month.
Borisov’s conservative GERB party swiftly filed a no-confidence motion citing “the failure of the government’s economic and financial policy” amid soaring consumer inflation. The vote is expected just after 7:00 pm local time (1600 GMT). The motion needs 121 votes to pass.
The ruling coalition can rely on the support of just 109 of 240 lawmakers.
Six MPs from the ITN grouping are also expected to back the government, but its only hope of clinging to power hinges on the possibility of more ITN lawmakers giving their last-minute backing. In a country that has strong historical ties with Moscow, the Ukraine conflict has “accentuated divisions and weakened the government”, explained Ruslan Stefanov from the Center for the Study of Democracy think-tank.
Despite its strong dependence on Russian gas and oil, Petkov opposed Moscow’s demand to open a ruble account to pay for Russian gas and faced a cut in supplies in response.
This unprecedented move has played “a key role in the current crisis”, according to Ognyan Minchev, head of the Sofia-based Institute for Regional and International Studies.
“Bulgarian oligarchs who pocketed commissions” on energy deliveries found themselves deprived of income, “which aggravated tensions within the coalition as well as between business circles and the government”, he explained.
“Russian interference in Bulgaria is strong, many circles are susceptible to it,” political scientist Yavor Siderov added, also highlighting the “incessant attempts for destabilisation through spreading false information”.
Another source of tension was Ukraine’s appeal for arms to fight the Russian invasion.
While most of the parties in the government were ready to authorise such deliveries, the Socialists stayed stubbornly opposed.
The final straw however came from the EU’s drive to settle longstanding historical and cultural disputes between Bulgaria and neighbouring North Macedonia.
The war in Ukraine has given fresh urgency to the question of speeding up EU enlargement in the strategically vital western Balkans, and other member states have piled pressure on Sofia to lift its veto on accession negotiations for North Macedonia.
But the strategy of rapprochement towards Skopje espoused by Petkov was the reason given by ITN for walking out of the coalition.
Even if the government scrapes through Wednesday’s vote, experts say new elections now seem inevitable. Defeating the no-confidence motion “would only give the government a reprieve of a month or two”, Dimitar Ganev of the Trend polling institute said, citing weakened support for the government.
However, he added that another general election is unlikely to provide a durable solution as the political landscape remains highly fragmented.
Away from parliament, thousands of Bulgarians are expected to take to the streets on Wednesday in a demonstration of support for Petkov’s drive for reforms — which now looks doomed.