Problems in the Balkans

Bulgaria and Romania, neighboring Balkan countries that joined the European Union together in 2007 and remain among its least developed and most corrupt members, are both in political difficulties again.

Bulgaria went to the polls in July for the second time this year. The anti-establishment ITN emerged with a narrow lead over the centre-right establishment GERB, but neither was anywhere near a majority. ITN gave up the attempt to form a government after alienating most of its potential allies, and GERB quickly did as well. President Rumen Radev then gave the commission to the Socialists, the third-largest party and the one he is most closely aligned to.

That didn’t last long either. Last week the Socialists also threw in the towel, leader Kornlia Ninova saying that “We did our best and appealed for sense and responsibility, but it did not work out.” A caretaker government will now have to be appointed and another election held.

But there’s a complication: Radev’s own term is expiring and he is running for re-election, with the first round to be held on 14 November and the second round (if required) a week later. It would make sense to hold the parliamentary election at the same time, to save on costs and avoid voter fatigue, but Radev isn’t keen on the idea.

While Radev is strongly favored for re-election, there’s no reason to think that a new parliament will be very different from the last two. Opinion polls show ITN losing ground and gains for both the Socialists and the reformist Democratic Bulgaria, which placed fourth last time. But in order for a government to be formed, some combination of parties are going to have to decide to work together.

Meanwhile in Romania the government is trying to stave off the threat of an early election. The last one, held last December, produced a three-party coalition government consisting of the centre-right PNL, the liberal USR and UDMR, the party of the ethnic Hungarian community. Florin Cîțu from the PNL became prime minister.

It came to grief last week when justice minister Stelian Ion, from USR, objected to a new local spending program, which according to Politico is “widely seen as an attempt by Cîțu to gain support from powerful provincial politicians in an upcoming PNL internal election.” He was promptly dismissed, and his party responded by drafting a motion of no confidence in the prime minister.

This week the other USR ministers resigned in solidarity, and the party called for the PNL to propose an alternative to Cîțu. This adds credibility to the idea that the crisis is part of a power struggle between Cîțu and the PNL president, former prime minister Ludovic Orban, whom he is challenging for the job. It seems unlikely that anything will be resolved until that is sorted out.

If the USR can’t be enticed back into the government, it’s possible that the PNL could come to some arrangement with the opposition Social Democrats, the largest party in parliament. But the latter are currently well ahead in the polls, so they probably have the least to fear from an early election.

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