Bulgarian Elections: Fifth Round Sliding Into Sixth?

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The centre-right alliance of former Prime Minister Borisov has won Bulgaria’s 5th parliamentary election in two years. But the status quo remains, and the prospect of a sixth election is not implausible.

Results and changes

The April 2th elections returned a Parliament seemingly once again deadlocked and thus opening the prospect for a sixth early election. This would also mean that the country would continue to be governed by another caretaker cabinet appointed by President Rumen Radev.

Percentage of votes and number of parliamentary mandates of parties that passed the 4% barrier, ranged in accordance with the results of the 2th April 2023 elections:

GERB/SDS (EPP) – “Citizens for a European development of Bulgaria”/”Union of democratic forces”
PP (EPP) – “We continue the change” – a new party emerging from the 2020 protests
(Văzraždane)– a strongly nationalist far right party
DPS (ALDE) – a “Rights and freedoms” mostly Turkish ethic party
BSP (S&D) – the Bulgarian socialist party
DB (EPP) – “Democratic Bulgaria”- a three-party center-right coalition
ITN – “There is such a people”- a populist party of showman Slavi Trifonov

Yet a number of significant shifts can be noted, reflecting the evolution of issues and priorities of greatest importance for Bulgarians over the last two years following the mass ant-GERB protests of the summer of 2020.

Issues and strategies

Initially, the protests were driven by overarching demands for “changing the system” and rejecting the status quo – i.e. GERB rule marked by widespread corruption and lack of a functioning judiciary, with calls not only for the immediate resignation of Premier Borisov, but also for a new Constitution. Over time however drastic price rises for basic necessities and skyrocketing cost of living increasingly became the overriding public concerns and by far the number one factor in the run up to the April 2nd elections.

In addition, the lack of a regular cabinet elected by Parliament has left the country without an updated budget for over a year. Bulgaria’s Plan for recovery and resilience still remains to be approved by the EU Commission. The refusal by the European Council to include Bulgaria, along with Rumania in the Schengen zone provoked bitter disappointment. The country’s entry into the Eurozone has also been delayed. Another set of issues impacting on the last elections have been whether to provide arms to Ukraine, how to diversify energy supplies and nuclear power development away from dependency on Russia, plus what direction to take in relations with the Republic of North Macedonia.

In addition, the question whether to vote by machine or paper ballot became a particularly contentious one. In the outgoing Parliament three parties – GERB, DPS plus BSP – came together to restore voting by paper ballot with the claim that lack of this option had discouraged many less familiar with machines to vote. This in reality was seen as collusion by the “systemic” parties of the old status quo to gain votes, including through controlling the vote and manipulating sectional protocols of the results. A dual ballots-plus-machines system was finally adopted, which however led to no real increase in participation, while creating serious administrative hassle in registering and compiling the final results.

The interplay of this whole set of broadly divergent issues finally translated into the following end-strategies and outcomes.

  • While initially losing support, moving into 2023 GERB were able to presented themselves as the “experienced hand”, capable of providing security and stability, plus championing a strong Euroatlantic commitment. Nevertheless PP and DB continue to flatly refuse forming a coalition with them as a matter of principle;
  • The newcomers, PP, had “burst on the scene” after the 2020 protests, promising a clean break with the past, winning in the November 2021 elections and forming a four-party coalition with BSP, DB and ITN to do away once and for all with “model GERB” governance, only to collapse in July 2022 after being abandoned by ITN and losing a no-confidence vote introduced by GERB, thus slipping down to second place in the October 2nd 2021 polls;
  • Hence, PP and DB decided to enter this year’s April 2nd elections as a  coalition with strong expectations of winning on a clear pro-European and Euroatlantic platform for through-going change, however once again losing to GERB and even falling short of the sum of the turnout for each of the two parties in the previous elections;
  • On the contrary, Revival has achieved the most dramatic growth in popularity, rising from being an outsider to third place in the new Parliament on a strident “Bulgaria first” platform, questioning outright NATO and EU membership and calling for a referendum against joining the Eurozone with the argument for preserving the sovereignty of the national currency the lev, thus winning increasing support from a wide cross section of society;
  • DPS, though still seen as part of the GERB-dominated status quo, was able to maintain and even expand support beyond its traditional base, also striving to position themselves as favoring dialogue and stabilizing compromise;
  • The sharp ups and downs of the populist ITN over the last two years, traditionally calling for a referendum to replace the parliamentary republic with a presidential one, have reflected the initial outburst of reformist energy followed by disillusionment in particular with their kind of showmanship in politics, with much of their support shifting in favor of Revival.

Underlying these issues and concerns have been charges and counterclaims that the President has been engaged in steadily eroding the multiparty system in favor of increased presidential prerogatives, plus refraining from providing full-fledged military assistance for Ukraine’s war effort.

The overall post-elections mood has been a predominant sense of déjà vu and of deepening disappointment with elections and parliamentary democracy in general. However, as a kind of reaction, there has also been a growing understanding that the country simply can’t afford to enter yet another cycle of a failed Parliament, absence of a regular cabinet and one more early election.

This understanding to a certain extent became evident at the opening of the newly elected 49th National Assembly on April 12th. Although postponing to elect a Parliamentary Speaker and PP-DB refusing to form a coalition with GERB, the two have engaged in negotiations over a set of common legislative priorities following much less confrontational opening statements.

The Left

In the last elections the BSP registered a new all-time low of 225 914 votes, amounting to 8,93 percent of ballots cast – another result of its’  policies of a conservative and nationalist bent. Thus in the last election it proposed a national referendum on whether or not to teach “gender ideology” at schools?!

Thus BSP acquired a two-faced image –joining PP and DB in a pro-reform government while collaborating with GERB and DPS in a “paper ballot coalition”. This deeply flawed line completely overshadowed the party’s social policies and pro-peace declarations, depriving it of support from committed left-leaning voters.

A new development was the participation in the elections of a coalition named “The Left!”. This however failed to overcome the 4 percent threshold, partly because it consisted mostly of former leading BSP personalities.

What now remains to be seen is whether at long last there will be a working Parliament and a regular government, or the country once again will face new elections – a prospect hugely detrimental to democracy, hopefully this time to be avoided.