What lessons can be learned from the failure of government formation in Bulgaria and the Netherlands?

Both Bulgaria and the Netherlands experienced failed coalition negotiations after the parliamentary elections this year. Antoaneta Dimitrova and Bernhard Steunenberg judge what we can learn from comparing the two cases.

The Bulgarians will go to the third parliamentary election within a year on November 14th. The country was plunged into a political crisis because it repeatedly failed to form a government coalition after the previous two parliamentary elections in April and July.

The problem is not just that Bulgaria’s fragmented 46NS Parliament failed to form a government, but that the chaotic and personalized policies that accompany the establishment attempts are likely to further undermine citizens’ motivation to vote. Between the parliamentary elections in April and July, voter turnout fell from 50.6% to 42.2%.

This time it was decided to hold the parliamentary elections on the same day as a planned presidential election. Holding the two elections on the same day can temporarily alleviate the turnout problem, but it will do little to address the broader trend of voter participation. Nor will it do anything to undo the “hollowing” of Bulgarian democracy, to use the words of Béla Greskovits.

The failure to form a government is particularly problematic in Bulgaria given its miserable Covid-19 vaccination card, the need to develop and come up with the country’s plan for using the EU recovery funds, and because we are at a crucial stage in Bulgaria’s green transition . All of these issues require urgent attention and long-term strategy. Furthermore, negotiations with the aim of a broad coalition government are rather unusual in the context of Bulgarian politics. Inexperience and the lack of established practices for what is acceptable in such negotiations have hampered progress.

A story of two countries: Bulgaria and the Netherlands

Some useful insights can be gained by comparing the situation in Bulgaria and the Netherlands – a country that has extensive experience with broad coalition governments, but is also currently breaking new ground. The political dynamism in the Netherlands since the last election on March 17th has been shaped, like in Bulgaria, by unsuccessful efforts to form a government.

In the Netherlands there are no constitutional restrictions on the length of time it takes to form a government, but the dividing lines between the parties have hardened, which prevents the formation of a government coalition led by the winner, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). The high turnout of 78.7% in the March parliamentary elections suggests that Dutch democracy is healthier than Bulgarian. However, there are some interesting similarities and differences.

First of all, it should be noted that the end of stability could be good news for both countries. Bulgaria has been ruled by Boyko Borisov’s Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) since 2009, apart from a brief interlude between 2013 and 2014. The most recent coalition – the third Borisov government – included GERB and the United Patriots. This government has been called into question again and again by political protests against the increasing corruption.

During the GERB reign, the party successfully practiced “politics as management” with the “subjection of public policy to privileged private interests,” as Anna Krasteva and Antony Todorov document. Recently, however, GERB’s governance has turned into more overt repression, spearheaded by the country’s Attorney General Ivan Geshev, whose 2019 nomination sparked a wave of protests.

Against this background, the results of the April and July elections, both of which produced a fragmented parliament, could paradoxically be good news for democracy. In the July elections, GERB suffered a narrow defeat against a new political movement founded by talk show host, Slavi Trifonov. The success of Trifonov’s “There Are Such People” (ITN) has created an opening to crush GERB’s increasingly authoritarian model of government. Unfortunately, this opening was not fully used. In addition, the inability to form a government has undermined public support for the ITN. The biggest stumbling block has been the reluctance of Trifonov’s movement to sign a formal coalition agreement that includes some of the political issues raised by the smaller parties.

In the Netherlands, meanwhile, the last election resulted in the country’s most fragmented parliament since World War II. The previous VVD-led coalition government led by Mark Rutte had been overshadowed by political scandals, particularly over allegations that the national tax service was involved in racial profiling and wrongly accused thousands of families of fraud. In the March elections, Ruttes VVD won by a relatively small margin, similar to GERB in Bulgaria in April. But the task of finding a four-party coalition that can find a majority in the Dutch parliament is proving difficult for both ideological and personal reasons.

While the left Labor Party (PvdA) and GroenLinks, together with the more left-wing D66, are trying to correct the increasingly right-wing course that the VVD-led governments have taken for the Netherlands, the VVD is ideologically the long-term coalition partner CDA and another small party , the Christian Union (CU), strove to draw red lines in politics. In order to avoid diluting the VVD agenda, Rutte stuck to the CDA and signaled that he would not govern with more than one party from the left (the PvdA or GroenLinks) alongside the D66.

The most important – and for the Netherlands unusual – similarity between the Bulgarian and Dutch situations is the important role that personalities played in this impasse. Early coalition talks in the Netherlands were derailed after notes were photographed suggesting popular CDA MP Pieter Omtzigt, who was a key figure in exposing the tax service scandal, might find a position in the cabinet. Rutte’s initial rejection led to a vote of no confidence in the Dutch parliament, which he survived. Bulgaria faced a similar cabinet appointment affair in which a proposed ITN minister, Petar Iliev, was forced to resign on allegations of plagiarism.

The attitude of the VVD and the CDA to the ideological dimension have thwarted the coalition talks as well as the informal coalition of the left parties. The possibility of a minority government is being examined and new elections cannot be ruled out, although the latter solution is not supported by a majority. The results of the last election are still too attractive for the “winning” parties to deviate from them. In addition, the outgoing Rutte cabinet, which acts as the transitional government, continues to grapple with pressing political issues such as pandemic restrictions, vaccinations, the country’s economic recovery and the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Break the deadlock

An important difference between the two countries is that the political parties in Bulgaria receive a fixed-term mandate from the president to form a government, while in the Netherlands there is a mandate without a time horizon. Nevertheless, it is not a sustainable process to discuss various political options for months with no results. In the Dutch context, the introduction of a certain deadline could become relevant to prevent extended rule by a transitional government, as the current government lacks legitimacy and public support.

Another crucial difference lies in the attitude towards possible coalition agreements. In the Netherlands, with its long tradition of broad coalitions, there is agreement that both party promises and key positions are important and must be secured in a coalition agreement. In Bulgaria, the formal winner of the last election, the ITN, refused to consider such an agreement, arguing that as the election winners they would be free to choose any minister. This position is clearly unsustainable as control over ministerial posts is vital to policy making during a new government.

Both the Bulgarian and Dutch processes underline that coalition building can be a sensitive process, in which negotiations are conducted both publicly and behind closed doors at the same time. It is necessary to come to an understanding between the coalition partners about politics, but also about personalities. If such an agreement can be reached, it has the potential to instill confidence in the parties that their cooperation will lead to at least part of their agenda being implemented and valued by their constituents. So far, however, none of the political systems has found a way to overcome their respective dead ends.

Note: This article reflects the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Photo credit: European Council

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