What are the effects in Bulgaria after the refusal to ratify the Istanbul Convention?

Photo: BGNES

For no longer than two hours on Wednesday, the government decided to withdraw its proposal for the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, while the parliament rejected the motion of the Socialists for a referendum on the issue. After two hours a rather contentious issue was removed from the agenda of Bulgaria’s political life, after in the course of three months it was the subject of dramatic disputes including disagreement inside the ruling coalition. But either because this outcome was predictable, or because public and political debate in this country has shifted to another thorny topic – the sale of the power distribution company CEZ, the fate of the Istanbul Convention no longer concerns the media and looks like a closed chapter for them. However, this topic is still worthy of comment.

The refusal to ratify the convention has been explained by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov with the need for his party Gerb to respond to the strong reactions of its coalition partners, of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and of the Grand Mufti’s Office, as well as to the fears of Bulgarian people elicited by a few texts in the convention regarding gender that Bulgarians find unacceptable. At a cursory glance the biggest government party has followed the maxim Vox populi, vox Dei, but it is not exactly the case.

The United Patriots warned that if Gerb continued to demand the convention’s ratification they would question the stability of the coalition government. In this sense the refusal of the big coalition partner can be defined as taking into account the stance of the smaller one. This however is not the whole story, because the prime minister himself admitted that Gerb’s decision had derived from fears that the party might suffer the negative consequences of possible ratification on its own.

The smaller partner in the government – the nationalist coalition of the United Patriots, has hailed the decision of Gerb. The refusal to ratify the document has allayed fears of destabilization of the government but also of possible snap elections which have not been ruled out by Ataka party, member of the United Patriots. In the meantime this refusal has neutralized or at least minimized the threat of internal trouble in the ranks of the Patriots. The leaders of VMRO and Ataka were explicit that they had differences with the third formation in their nationalist coalition regarding a possible referendum on the Istanbul Convention. Against the background of these differences they worried that the National Fund for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) might withdraw its MPs from possible voting of the document in the National Assembly and thus cause the United Patriots to split. There was no voting anyway, and we can claim that though indirectly this has preserved the unity of the nationalist formation. This however hardly applies to the Bulgarian Socialist Party.

Parliament rejected the motion of the Socialists for a referendum on the ratification of the Istanbul Convention with 121 votes from Gerb, MRF, and part of the United Patriots and Volya. 23 MPs from the United Patriots and Volya abstained and only the BSP voted in favor of the motion. This distribution of votes in parliament suggests that Bulgaria's largest opposition party is seriously isolated - not only by all other parliamentary groups but also within the ranks of the opposition itself, which also includes MRF and Volya. On the question of the Istanbul Convention, the BSP is also isolated from the Party of European Socialists headed by the former BSP leader, Sergei Stanishev. This is so, because at the European level BSP favored the Convention but today, at the national level it took the opposite stance.

At the end of the day Bulgaria has remained in the group of countries which have not ratified the Istanbul Convention. Figures carried in Bulgarian media suggest that the document has been ratified by 26 countries. Two of them are willing to withdraw their signatures following hot public debates. Seventeen countries have not ratified the document due to internal debates, and seven EU countries have refused to sign it based on controversial texts. The non-ratification by Bulgaria has not caused much worries. According to a poll by Gallup agency held in mid-February disapproval of the document is substantial: 86% of all respondents have heard about the Istanbul Convention and among them, 58% disagree with its ratification by Bulgaria; 19% supported its ratification, and the rest to 100% were hesitant on the issue.

English Daniela Konstantinova

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