SOFIA, Bulgaria -- Bulgarian lawmakers on Tuesday started debating a no-confidence motion against the minority government, on the eve of the vote that could well topple centrist Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, elected just months ago on pledges to fight corruption.
Parliament will vote Wednesday on the motion filed last week by the center-right opposition GERB party, over the government's handling of the public finances and economic policy in the face of sharply rising inflation.
If the motion passes, as expected, it will thrust the NATO and European Union nation of 7 million people back into political turmoil. In 2021, three separate general elections were held as Bulgaria lurched from one political crisis to another. Political instability could also boost historically strong Russian influence in the Black Sea country that has seen a spike in pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda.
Petkov's coalition controls only 109 of parliament's 240 seats, after his populist coalition partner, the There is Such a People party, quit this month over similar fiscal complaints and Bulgaria's relations with neighboring North Macedonia. While five legislators from the party defected to Petkov, he will need at least another 6 votes to survive Wednesday's ballot.
Inflation in Bulgaria — the EU's poorest member — hit 15.6% in May, which is the highest year-on-year increase in consumer prices since 2008.
About a thousand pro-government protesters converged near the parliament building in the capital Sofia late Tuesday, to express their support for Petkov's administration with chants of “we will succeed together.”
Petkov, a 42-year-old Harvard-educated businessman elected in December, addressed the rally — telling supporters that “we will all change Bulgaria together.”
“I believe that no matter what tomorrow’s vote will be, no one can stop us," he said. “Sooner or later Bulgaria will be where it should be: a prosperous European (country), with working institutions, a working judiciary, good education (and) healthcare.”
Several hundred anti-government protesters also gathered Tuesday evening near parliament.
Petkov urged lawmakers on Tuesday to keep “the interests of the people” in mind when they vote.
Ruslan Stefanov, program director at the Center for the Study of Democracy, a Sofia-based think tank, described the no-confidence motion as the result of “internal squabbling over the allocation of budgetary funds.”
“This is not a good moment for Bulgaria not to have a parliament,” he told The Associated Press. “Bulgaria is about to receive about 4 billion (euros) in funds from the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Mechanism, but needs to adopt a package of about 20 laws before this happens — Bulgaria needs this money.”
Bulgaria has been steadfast in backing the west’s sanctions against Moscow since it invaded Ukraine on 24. Feb. In late April, Russia cut off the country’s gas supplies after officials refused to pay for bills in rubles, Russia’s currency.
But the current crisis, Stefanov added, especially if prolonged and leading to another election, would favor “forces that will be much closer to Russia that will win a bigger chunk of the pie,” potentially creating issues with Bulgaria's western partners.
GERB, the opposition party that triggered Wednesday's vote, is headed by former prime minister Boyko Borissov, who governed Bulgaria for about a decade until 2021.
In March, Borissov, who faced huge anti-government protests in 2020, was detained in a corruption crackdown along with other GERB party members following investigations by the EU prosecutor’s office. He was released a day later without being charged.
McGrath contributed from Sighisoara, Romania.