How patchwork coalition governments are undermining democracy in Europe
Just six months after Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov ushered in what promised to be a new, pro-European beginning for his country, his coalition government has collapsed in a no-confidence vote, triggering a fresh political crisis that could push Bulgaria into Russia’s arms.
Petkov’s wide-spanning coalition had come to power in December 2021 on a strong anti-corruption platform, riding a wave of mass protests against former Prime Minister Borisov’s GERB party, which lost its parliamentary majority the previous April after a decade of rule.
But Petkov has just learned a lesson that other European leaders ignore at their own peril: forming patchwork coalition governments with little-to-no ideological coherence united only by a self-professed “zero tolerance for corruption” is a recipe for instability and loss of public trust that undermines democracy.
These types of coalitions, which have also been formed in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and other countries across Europe, thrive at election time, particularly when scandal-ridden incumbents have alienated voters desperate for change and hope. But they quickly fall apart when it comes down to making serious decisions for the future of their country.
Diverging views on Bulgaria’s future
In Bulgaria’s case, internal conflict amongst the parties of the ruling coalition has been fueled by allegations of state funds mismanagement and Petkov’s plan to unilaterally lift Bulgaria’s veto on North Macedonia’s EU accession, as well as disagreement on the process to join the Eurozone by 2024. With such fundamentally different positions on key policy issues, Petkov’s coalition was doomed to fail.
If Petkov is unable to create a new parliamentary majority, Bulgaria’s EU-skeptic, pro-Kremlin, corruption-tainted opposition led by GERB could make a comeback, jeopardising much-needed EU recovery funds and judiciary reforms at risk. This turmoil in Bulgaria should serve as a warning sign for other countries across Europe with similar political climates.
Slovakia’s anti-corruption coalition descends into chaos
For example, in Slovakia, the ruling OLaNO coalition was also elected on an anti-corruption platform bringing together parties from across the political spectrum. However, two years later, the government is at a dead end due to bitter in-fighting, ineffective governing and an inability to develop a cohesive political programme beyond its dubious war on corruption.
While high-profile corruption indictments have increased during its reign, the OLanO-led government has failed to deliver meaningful change for the country, leaving it near the bottom of opinion polls and vulnerable to a snap election. With nowhere left to turn, OLaNO has resorted to doubling down on a worrying anti-corruption campaign that has weaponised the judiciary to target leading opposition figures.
Particularly troubling is the prosecution’s coercive investigation approach, which involves indicting small fish from opposition parties – including SMER-SD and the new HLAS party that has risen to the top of the polls – and pressuring them to incriminate senior members of the party while in custody.
This targeting of, and over-reliance on, flipped witnesses with close relations to opposition leaders has significantly undermined OLaNO’s once-promising anti-corruption crusade and cost it the trust of its citizens. While its popularity had already been in a nose-dive for the past year, OLaNO has recently entered a full-blown crisis of legitimacy over its top target: former prime minister Robert Fico of the opposition Social Democratic party.
OLaNO accuses Fico of having created and run a criminal organization with deep ties to rogue oligarchs while in office. However, their relentless pursuit has suffered a major setback with the unsuccessful May vote in parliament to strip Fico, who remains an MP, of his parliamentary immunity. Notably, it was not the opposition that derailed this moment of truth for OLaNO, but Sme Rodina, the second largest party in the coalition, whose 17 MPs abstained from the vote.
Unsurprisingly, this move, possibly motivated by a fear that the sword of OLaNO’s campaign could soon be turned on one of their own MPs, has plunged the coalition into chaos. One party is calling for Sme Rodina’s expulsion from the coalition, while OLaNO has relieved two MPs of their duties for failing to fall in line on the Fico vote. Yet OLaNO is unlikely to part ways with Sme Rodina, as this would end their parliamentary majority.
Trouble brewing next door
The neighbouring Czech Republic, meanwhile, is being rocked by a corruption scandal that threatens to undermine its upcoming EU presidency. Instead of focusing on displaying its new pro-EU, anti-corruption image to Brussels, the Czech five-party coalition government is currently managing the fallout of allegations linking one of its parties to an organised crime network.
The crisis began with accusations that Petr Hlubuček, Prague’s deputy mayor and a member of the Mayors and Independents movement (STAN) – the coalition’s second-largest party –played a leading role in a tender bribery scheme run by Prague’s Public Transport Company. It has since come to light that STAN’s ties to organised crime likely run much deeper, triggering resignations from senior party members over their association with businessman Michal Redl, who is believed to be at the core of the criminal operation.
Prime Minister Petr Fiala is hoping that these resignations will preserve his coalition’s legitimacy and insulate himself from the public’s scorn, but this seems like wishful thinking. The Czech public’s response to the emerging scandal can be summarised by the increasingly popular refrain amongst its citizens that “they’re all as bad as each other,” in a clear indictment of the political elite that has hijacked democratic institutions in a worrying number of European countries.
The corruption scandals spreading across Europe have shown that while politicians may be able to pull together marriage of convenience coalitions long enough to win themselves the premiership, the ensuing chaos suggests it is wiser to build stable coalitions around a coherent and deliverable policy agenda. European leaders must wake up to this reality before it’s too late, because weakening democracies in the EU play right into Putin’s hands at a time when the West must remain united.