Bulgaria will continue blocking North Macedonia’s EU accession talks due to nationalist pressures in the governing coalition. The ruling Fidesz party in Hungary proposed a tweak in parliamentary election rules, which could complicate the opposition parties’ performance in the 2022 general vote. The pandemic and multiple political crises are testing the unity of the United Right coalition government in Poland. Following the October parliamentary poll, the contours of Lithuania’s new government are emerging. Finally, Slovenia is emerging as a new hotspot of Covid-19 in Europe.
As expected, Bulgaria opposed the opening of EU accession talks with North Macedonia over historic and language issues during the EU European Affairs ministers’ meeting yesterday, 17 November. Sofia’s non-compromising stance on the issue is largely driven by domestic politics. The alliance of nationalist parties United Patriots (UP) – part of the ruling coalition led by Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) – is seeking to exploit this sensitive issue to muster greater public support ahead of the upcoming parliamentary election in Q1 2021. Until then, the government’s stance on the issue is unlikely to shift as UP has threatened to withdraw its backing for the Boyko Borisov’s (GERB) government if it changes course on the issue.
The epidemiological situation appears to be stabilizing as the average number of new daily infections rose by just 8% to around 4,870 and the daily death count from Covid-19 dropped insignificantly to around 97 during the past seven days. The testing rate has increased by around 18% during the same period. However, these figures show a delayed picture of the situation due to lengthy testing arrangements sometimes taking more than a week. Given the closure of restaurants and bars last week, the government has extended a preferential VAT rate of 5% for the takeout food.
On the political front, the ruling Fidesz has proposed a tweak in parliamentary election rules, which may hinder the performance of opposition parties in 2022 vote. According to the proposed amendment, political parties would be able to register an electoral party list only if they had candidates running in at least 50 single-mandate constituencies (there are 106 such districts in Hungary). The current legislation requires parties to have candidates in at least 27 single-mandate constituencies. This rather technical change would force the opposition parties to unite under a single (or maximum two) national electoral list(s) into order to field a joint candidate against Fidesz in single-mandate districts. However, such joint electoral lists – consisting of both right-wing and left-wing opposition parties – would likely be less attractive for voters than individual parties.
On Thursday, 19 October, President Gitanas Nauseda (independent) will nominate Ingrida Simonyte to form a new government. While formally independent, Simonyte led the electoral list of Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD) in the October parliamentary elections. The TS-LKD-led government will include two junior partners – the Freedom Party (LP) and the Liberal Movement (LS). The three parties together hold 74 of the 141 seats in the unicameral parliament. TS-LKD is expected to delegate nine out of 14 ministers to the cabinet, including the key finance, foreign affairs, defense, energy, health care and education portfolios. The LP will have three representatives in the cabinet and the LS should take two portfolios, in addition to its leader being appointed as the speaker of parliament. The new government and its program are expected to be approved by parliament in early December. The revision of the draft 2021 budget, handling the Covid-19 pandemic and extending new support measures for businesses will top the government agenda in the near term.
The rapidly deteriorating epidemiological situation and multiple political crises in recent weeks have pushed approval ratings of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to the lowest levels since 2018 and are (once again this year) testing the stability of the United Right coalition government. One immediate challenge for the PiS is the potential departure of its deputy Lech Kolakowski from the party, who could be accompanied by several other PiS deputies disappointed in the party’s push to ban fur farming. The United Right coalition government has a slim five-mandate majority in the 460-seat lower house of parliament, which the departure of several deputies would endanger. Another immediate challenge is negotiations with the EU on the rule-of-law conditionality as there appear to be disagreements within United Right on the issue. A junior coalition partner United Poland – led by the justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro – is advocating a hardline stance in the negotiations with the EU, while Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (PiS) appears to favor a more lenient approach. Internal rivalries could add another layer of complexity to the already difficult talks with the EU.
The country has emerged as one of the leaders in Europe in terms of new Covid-19 cases per 1mn residents. In response, on 16 November the government tightened restrictions for at least two weeks on public and economic activities, which include the closure of non-essential stores and suspension of public transport. All public gatherings are banned – except for among members of the same household – and there are restrictions on in-country and cross-border travel. On the economic front, the government has adopted its sixth economic stimulus plan worth around EUR 1bn, which extends the existing furlough schemes, moratorium on bank loans for companies, deferral of rent payments for offices, partial compensation of various fixed costs and other measures.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Janez Jansa (Slovenian Democratic Party, SDS) – a long-time ally of Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban – on Tuesday, 17 November, sent a letter to EU leaders expressing his support for Budapest and Warsaw in the dispute over linking the distribution of EU funds to rule-of-law. However, Jansa’s support is expected to remain mostly vocal and Slovenia would be unlikely to join Hungary and Poland in blocking the EU’s financial package. Moreover, the Jansa’s rule-of-law letter is causing rifts within his fragile four-party coalition government, with the remaining three junior parties swiftly distancing themselves from the statement. This might reinforce the opposition’s threats to remove the Jansa’s cabinet via a vote of no confidence, which could still be called in 2020.