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What to Expect from Sunday’s Election in Bulgaria

Bulgaria will hold a parliamentary election on 2 April. The vote will be the country’s fifth parliamentary election in the last two years, and the latest attempt to end a prolonged stalemate between Bulgaria’s main political parties. Petar Bankov and Ivaylo Dinev write that despite some interesting developments since the last election, the upcoming contest is unlikely to produce a quick resolution to the crisis.

On 2 April, Bulgarian voters will go to the polls to elect their National Assembly. The vote will be the fifth parliamentary election in the last two years and will result in Bulgaria setting an unwanted post-war record as the established democracy with the most parliamentary elections held within the shortest period of time.

But will this latest election finally end the country’s political stalemate? Against the backdrop of an ongoing economic recession, a war in Ukraine just 200km from the Bulgarian border, and increasing attacks against the democratic order and geopolitical orientation of the country, it seems unlikely Sunday’s vote will bring a quick resolution to what is now a prolonged political crisis.

How did it come to this?

Two years ago, at the April 2021 parliamentary election, Bulgaria seemed to have ended the decade-long dominance of Boyko Borisov and his centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), which was characterised by rampant corruption, economic mismanagement, and rising social inequality.

GERB experienced a sizeable drop in support during the election and following two snap votes, a four-party government coalition was established with the aim of strengthening the country’s democracy. However, this coalition faced significant internal and external resistance, culminating in a vote of no confidence in July 2022. Ever since, Bulgaria has come under the growing influence of its President, Rumen Radev, who had a key role in forming the original coalition and then in its dismantling and the subsequent revision of its policies.

Sunday’s election

Currently, Bulgaria is governed by a caretaker government picked personally by Radev. This government was formed after the most recent election, in October 2022, failed to produce a stable coalition. The period since the last election has nevertheless produced some interesting developments. GERB, which has been completely isolated within the party system since the April 2021 election, appears to have broken through this cordon sanitaire by forging some tacit cooperation with other parties.

To improve its credibility to its European partners, GERB supported more active efforts in arming Ukraine in a broad coalition with their main opponents from the liberal-centrist We Continue the Change (PP) party, led by Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev, the liberal-right alliance Democratic Bulgaria (DB), the liberal-centrist Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), the main representative of the Turkish minority, and the nationalist-conservative Bulgarian Rise (BV) party.

More importantly, they have worked particularly well with the centre-left Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the DPS. These three parties have cooperated to restore the use of paper ballots in Bulgarian elections and, thus, water down a previous law that required the exclusive use of machine voting.

The use of paper ballots allows GERB, the BSP and the DPS to return to their previous clientelist practices of electoral mobilisation. This is particularly important for GERB as the party would like to maintain its dominance in local government following local elections in October this year. Despite this, GERB’s electoral prospects have not improved ahead of Sunday’s election, with the party predicted to receive around 25% of the vote share in recent polls.

GERB’s main opponents, the PP and the DB, both advocate radical judicial reform, a heavy anti-corruption crackdown, and rapid digitalisation. They have formed an electoral alliance in an effort to avoid splitting their support, which undermined their performance in the last election. The PP-DB alliance faces an uphill battle, with the polls putting their support around 25%, slightly below their combined result in the last election.

There is also a fierce battle playing out for third place, with the DPS and the radical-right Revival party neck-and-neck in the polls at around 12-13% each. Support for the DPS is largely determined by its ability to mobilise Turkish minority voters. Revival’s growth, in contrast, has come from its outspoken criticism of Bulgarian membership of the EU and NATO. The party is currently pushing for a referendum on Bulgaria’s upcoming accession to the Eurozone and has also backed pro-Russian ‘anti-war’ rallies.

Revival’s growth has primarily come at the expense of the BSP, which remains less outspoken in its pro-Russian stances. The BSP has experienced internal turmoil: at its latest party congress in February, it expelled several high-ranking opponents of Korneliya Ninova’s leadership. The congress also deepened the BSP’s recent conservative turn, with the party deciding to seek a referendum on ‘gender ideology’. This attempt to tap into the conservative leanings of its largely elderly electorate does not appear to have been successful as the party is facing yet another historically low result according to the polls. The party has been further weakened by the latest inclusion of key party figures in the US Magnitsky list of sanctions due to their promotion of Russian interests in the energy sector.

Aside from Revival’s improved electoral prospects, the other main parties have made little progress since the last election. Three further parties have a chance to enter parliament as they are hovering around the 4% threshold. The first is Bulgarian Rise, which has close ties to the Bulgarian President but failed to become a focal point for a government coalition in the last parliament.

The second is the populist There is Such a People, which is calling for a referendum on the introduction of a presidential political system in an attempt to recover from a rapid decline in popularity after it left the previous government coalition. Finally, there is the Left, an alliance of former BSP representatives and recognisable left-wing figures that mainly draws support from disillusioned BSP voters.

Likely outcomes

The prospects of forming a government after Sunday’s election are limited. While most parties have declared their openness to entering a coalition, they have set difficult conditions for this: GERB and the PP-DB alliance are open to supporting each other’s government as long as Borisov, Petkov, and Vasilev are not part of it, while a GERB-DPS-BSP coalition, replicating the current Romanian coalition government, seems electorally toxic for all parties involved. This makes the role of Revival and any additional parties in parliament crucial for forming a government.

The main reason for the country’s deadlock remains profound disagreement among the national political and economic elite over which direction Bulgaria should take in the medium term. There is consensus that Bulgaria should continue to be part of the EU and NATO, but there is a disagreement on the extent to which Bulgaria should support Ukraine in the war with Russia.

The second cleavage is the pace and nature of anti-corruption reforms. While one part of the Bulgarian elite favours the rapid containment of corruption to open space for improved redistribution, fair economic competition, and closer Euroatlantic integration, another part of it seeks the preservation of the status quo and its privileged position within it. These two dividing lines form the current party system, but also create obstacles for ending the crisis.

The lack of a quick resolution to this dispute has already had three major consequences. First, any ongoing issues related to the growing recession in the country or the ongoing war in Ukraine have been left in the hands of the Bulgarian President and his caretaker governments. While these governments have gained experience of handling crises during the Covid-19 pandemic, the fact they have not been elected challenges the legitimacy of their policies.

Second, political parties have failed to capitalise on the momentum from 2021 and prove themselves viable vehicles for political change. This has deepened widespread public disillusionment with the current political system and empowered those calling for a radical overhaul. Third, a space has opened up to actively question the current Bulgarian geopolitical orientation toward the West as a potential resolution to the crisis, as seen in the support for Revival, which has grown from 1% support to 13% in just four years.

The lack of a resolution is also occurring during a period when supporters of rapid reforms are on the defensive following the fall of the short-lived coalition government in 2022. Power has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of Radev, who favours a more moderate reform process. However, his opposition to arming Ukraine threatens to deepen the political crisis as it sets him against the parties with public positions supporting the Ukrainian resistance, notably GERB and the PP-DB alliance.

In short, it seems the political crisis in Bulgaria will likely continue beyond Sunday’s election. This may further marginalise the country’s efforts to tackle deepening socio-economic inequality and the impact of the ongoing recession, as economic issues became a secondary question despite mounting labour protests. It could also undermine attempts to adapt to the major geopolitical shifts and tensions taking place in Bulgaria’s neighbourhood.

Some observers are already looking at Borisov’s potential departure from politics as a possible breakthrough. A key push in this respect could be the local elections scheduled for later in the year. Should GERB suffer significant losses in these elections, the pendulum could turn back to the supporters of rapid reforms.

Local government remains one of the last strongholds for GERB and it has allowed the party to sustain its organisation and clientelist network. A loss of power there would further weaken GERB’s political and public influence. Other open questions are whether public support for a presidential republic will continue to rise, as well as the growth of the radical-right Revival. These issues may ultimately lead to a breakthrough capable of ending the crisis.

Source : LSE