SOFIA (Reuters) – Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov called on Friday for an overhaul of the constitution in an apparent effort to defuse weeks of anti-government protests by mostly younger Bulgarians weary of endemic corruption in the European Union member state.
Three-times premier Borissov promised to resign if lawmakers approved his call for the election of a grand national assembly tasked with voting on a new constitution that should improve the efficiency of the much-criticised judiciary among other changes.
But protesters as well as opposition left- and right-wing parties who support them, dismissed the proposal as a ploy by Borissov, who has dominated Bulgarian politics since 2009, to win time and stay in power.
Thousands of Bulgarians have been rallying in central Sofia since early July to demand the resignation of Borissov and Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev. Hundreds have set up tents on three major intersections in the capital.
“It is time not only to change the political system but to restart the country,” Borissov, 61, leader of the centre-right GERB party, said in a televised national address.
“The unity, statesmanship and stability of the country are not just words for me,” he said, adding that he understood the protesters’ frustration but said it was being exploited by various political factions and local oligarchs.
In a separate address to Bulgarians on Friday, President Rumen Radev, a vocal critic of Borissov, slammed his proposal.
“A debate on the constitution and the future of the country is possible only after the resignations sought by the society and fair, early elections,” said Radev, who will have to appoint an interim government if there are snap polls.
The protesters accuse Borissov of eroding state institutions to serve the interests of private business interests and say Geshev has failed to wage a genuine war on high-level graft.
Transparency International ranks Bulgaria as the most corrupt country in the 27-nation EU.
Two-thirds of Bulgaria’s 240 deputies need to vote to approve calling an election for a grand national assembly and debates before the body can take up to five months.
It is not clear whether Borissov will be able to muster the support of 160 lawmakers needed for the move.
Borissov’s proposals include cutting the mandate of the chief prosecutor and the heads of top courts to five years from seven and overhauling Bulgaria’s top judicial body to boost its independence and the accountability of prosecutors and judges.
A new constitution should also halve the number of parliamentary deputies to 120, he said.
Political analysts said Borissov’s plan could help strengthen his position.
“If parliament approves it, it is good for him – he can quit with dignity. If it does not, he gets credit at least for trying. He also gains time and stays in office while taking over the main goals of the protests,” said analyst Parvan Simeonov.
Borissov has previously said his coalition government should serve its full four-year term until next March to avoid plunging Bulgaria into “political chaos” during the coronavirus pandemic.
(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Gareth Jones and Jonathan Oatis)