The two buildings are practically neighbours. The cabinet is housed on No. 1 Dondukov Boulevard and the presidency occupies No. 2 across the street in the centre of Sofia. But the institutions inside them couldn’t be further apart.
As anti-government protests in Bulgaria continue for more than ten weeks, the president, Rosen Plevneliev, and the Socialist-led government are entrenched in a cold war. The political crisis in European Union’s poorest member shows no sign of abating.
The row also marks a shift in the presidency’s role. Mr Plevneliev, a former technocratic minister of public works in the government of Boyko Borisov, has transformed it from a largely ceremonial institution to an active, and often controversial, participant in Bulgaria’s political life.
The latest skirmish occurred around the revised budget, which would allow the government to raise €500m ($660m) in new debt in the hope of stimulating the struggling economy. Mr Plevneliev vetoed the budget bill in early August saying that while he supports increased social expenditures, he does not want to do so at the cost of raising the national debt (two thrifty decades and a tough currency-board regime have left Bulgaria with one of the lowest debt-to-GDP ratios in Europe, at only 18.5% in 2012). But the move was a rare exercise of presidential power: only the second such budget veto since 1990.
The government mustered enough support in parliament to overturn the president's veto, and counter-attacked. Plamen Oresharski, the prime minister, accused him of a “grossly interfering with the executive branch with a series of unbalanced and biased actions" Kristian Vigenin, the foreign minister, said that “the state became hostage to the personal ambition and ego of one politician.”
Mr Plevneliev's presidency started quietly in 2011. The 49-year-old former construction manager took centre stage only reluctantly, in February, when anti-poverty protests pressured Mr Borisov to resign. The president nominated a interim government which served for just two months. It managed to diffuse some of the social tensions, but public opinion boiled over again after snap elections in May which brought Mr Oresharski's Bulgarian Socialist Party to power. Protests initially focussed on the appointment of a controversial media mogul to head the powerful national security agency. They soon widened into general discontent with a government which critics say is too dependent on shadowy corporate interests.
“People will no longer close their eyes so it is high time for politicians to open theirs,” the president said in an address in early July. He sided with protesters by openly, and unusually harshly, criticising the government and demanding new elections.
The president's position is "dictated by elementary common sense and political morality,” said Daniel Smilov, a political analyst at the Sofia-based think-tank, the Centre for Liberal Strategies. “Before February, most Bulgarians thought Plevneliev was a boutique president, a man from the business, modest and ready to compromise,” said Victor Bachev, a TV producer and fervent protester. “Now the presidency is the only democratically functioning institution in Bulgaria,” he said, largely capturing the mood of the demonstrators.
Such sentiments are not shared by all Bulgarians, however. The political tumult has left the country deeply divided. About 40% say they want the government to resign against 38% who still support it, according to a recent Gallup poll. This division has also put a dent in Mr Plevneliev’s personal rating. Yet he remains the third most-trusted politician in the country.
Having cast his lot, the president can do little to bridge these divisions, nor end the stalemate between the protesters and the government. Daily protests have continued throughout the summer in Sofia and other big cities, numbers have fallen to a few hundred from the tens of thousands who turned out in June and July.
“The president is not the main actor: there has to be an agreement in parliament for early elections,” Mr Smilov said.
Might Mr Plevneliev one day want to take the short walk between the presidency and the cabinet building? He is not saying. But his role in the current crisis may bode well for his future career.