Political changes necessitate awkward relationships 2023

The previous 15 years have seen political turmoil. New “grand coalitions” of erstwhile foes are one sign of this.

The most recent grand coalition, between former rivals Gerb-SDS and Change Continues-Democratic Bulgaria (CC-DB) in Bulgaria, is becoming more common in Central and Southeast Europe.

In 2021, Latvia and Romania formed alliances that have since collapsed.

In all three nations, far-right parties have grown since the Great Recession, bringing together once-bitter enemies. Latvia, Romania, and Bulgaria experienced external challenges like the epidemic and Ukraine conflict.

Needing partners

After two years of political turmoil and five general elections, Bulgaria formed a grand alliance.

Most elections produced no government. The November 2021 election, which elected a regular administration led by Change Continues’ Kiril Petkov, was the most successful.

At a May 22 news conference, CC-DB’s Nikolai Denkov and Gerb’s Mariya Gabriel were named the new government’s rotating prime ministers. Gabriel will serve as foreign minister and deputy prime minister for nine months under Denkov. Gabriel will become prime minister and Denkov her deputy for the second nine months.

Denkov stated CC-DB will propose a constitutional and judiciary reform government. The government must also submit a 2023 budget with a 3%-of-GDP deficit and meet all eurozone and Schengen rules.

The future government’s six objectives include machine voting and a way to elect state regulators whose terms have ended. The government should also pass security service independence laws.

Uneasy alliance

CC-DB declined to form a coalition with Gerb, while Gerb declared it would not support a CC-DB administration.

The two alliances share many goals, including further EU integration with Schengen and eurozone membership, moving forward the 2023 budget, and reforms to unlock EU funds under the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF).

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the two parties were on different sides of Bulgaria’s primary political divide: established parties vs. anti-corruption reformers.

After the Ukraine war, pro-Russian and pro-Western parties became the primary split. President Rumen Radev and Change Continues, which covertly transferred armaments to Ukraine in the war’s early days, fell out. Gerb and CC-DB appeared on the Western side.

After a decade of corruption scandals, CC-DB is wary about allying with Gerb. In recent years, Gerb leader and former prime minister Boyko Borissov’s misdeeds have been revealed in graphic detail.

After the sixth general election in two years, the two parties were under pressure to reach a settlement to avoid more fruitless elections. Without a contract, CC-DB was likely to lose support.

Political vacuums have economic effects too. Fitch said that protracted political uncertainty is hurting Bulgaria’s economy by slowing EU money absorption and RRF reforms.

Pandemic stress

Before the Ukraine conflict, Romania created its great alliance during the fourth wave of the pandemic, which affected the country hard owing to its poor vaccination coverage.

After the National Liberal Party (PNL)-reformist Union Save Romania (USR) government fell, the country faced its first snap election in decades. The PNL, PSD, and UDMR created a new government.

That assured leadership at a key time for the country, when the authorities needed to fight the epidemic and secure EU subsidies for post-crisis recovery.

Like in Bulgaria, the PNL’s nominee would become prime minister, then the PSD’s candidate would take over halfway through the government’s tenure. The coalition collapses soon before the transfer.

PSD leader Marcel Ciolacu has stopped discussions on a new government, citing the teachers’ strike. There is speculation that Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca would quit.

From extremes

Grand coalitions are unusual in Central and Southeast Europe, although Austria has historically had them. Left and right mainstream parties often work together to keep far-left and far-right parties out of office.

Romania was one of the few countries in the region to form a grand coalition in 2008, when the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL), which would later merge into the PNL, and the PSD and Conservative Party ran together in the November 2008 general election. That partnership lasted 10 months, from December 2008 to October 2009.

Recently, Estonia’s first female prime minister, Reform Party leader Kaja Kallas, led a grand coalition of the liberal Reform Party and the populist Centre Party. After Centre’s original alliance with the radical right-wing Ekre party failed, a partnership was created during a pandemic wave, as in Romania.

The coalition, formed in January 2021, collapsed as Russia invaded Ukraine a year later. This increased Kallas’ popularity and allowed her to exclude Centre from the alliance in June 2022, hinting the ethnic Russian-backed party was untrustworthy due to its former association with Putin’s United Russia party.

The Reform-Centre alliance struggled with growing tensions throughout its 16 months in office. The free market Reform party considered Centre’s proposals to help Estonians cope with the cost of living problems, such as enhanced child support, as populist attempts to regain popularity. It collapsed when the Centre Party and EKRE voted against an Estonian-language preschool education measure authorized by the cabinet by consensus.

Winners and losses

Any party risks an alliance with a political opponent.

Kallas won the Reform-Kallas experiment in Estonia, but not always. Monthly surveys in late 2021 showed Centre Party leader Juri Ratas gaining support while Kallas losing it.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, Kallas’ strong anti-Russian stance improved Reform’s support, while Centre’s prior close ties to Putin’s United Russia Party hurt it.

The members of Romania’s grand coalition are jockeying for position to avoid being blamed for failing to support teachers (two-thirds of whom are on strike for higher pay) or pension reform. Neither party wants to address the issues before the 2024 presidential and legislative elections.

Bulgaria’s governing agenda might clean up Gerb’s dirty reputation.

“Working with the ethnic-Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) would likely hurt Gerb’s popularity ahead of local elections in autumn,” Teneo analysts said earlier this month. “Such a coalition would harm all participants, particularly Gerb and the BSP,” according to Teneo.

CC-DB reformers were apprehensive of allying with Gerb, believing the party’s previous corruption would stain them. Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev held a news conference to reveal Gerb leader Borissov’s damning phone and text chats while government discussions were underway.

Their coalition showed desperation; voters were supposed to avoid parties that didn’t try to establish a government. The partnership might boost Gerb and CC-DB’s election results. If not, both may lose the following poll.

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