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Fifth Election Leaves Bulgaria’s Political Stalemate in Place

On April 2, Bulgarians voted for the fifth time in two years in a parliamentary election. And while election night had a few surprises in store, the main outcome of “Bulgarian elections 5.0” is that the country can now start gearing up for the 6.0 edition sometime this summer or perhaps in the autumn.

The now seemingly seasonal organisation of elections was kickstarted in the summer of 2020 by mass anti-corruption protests against the then-ruling GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria), the party of long-time prime minister Boyko Borissov, and the MRF (Movement for Rights and Freedoms), a party founded and steered by the Turkish-minority strongman Ahmed Dogan. But nearly three years and five elections later, it appears that no working government without GERB or MRF can be formed.

As a result, the bulk of the past two years has seen caretaker governments appointed by the President, Rumen Radev. This has led to a curious situation in which an increasingly disaffected population engages in a serial “celebration of democracy” but is governed by unelected governments tailored by a more and more Bonapartist-acting president.

Against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the faltering of EU integration in the Balkans, it is worth asking what the future might hold, or at least what path out of Bulgaria’s protracted political crisis and stalemate could be found. Also, could Bulgaria’s conundrum spill over and reverberate in the region, the EU or NATO?

Election dominated by apathy and resentment

Members of the electoral commission count the ballots for the parliamentary election in Sofia, Bulgaria, 02 April 2023. Bulgaria is holding its fifth parliamentary election in two years. EPA-EFE/VASSIL DONEV

Pre-election polls had predicted a neck-and-neck race between Borissov’s GERB-UDF coalition and the pro-reform and anti-corruption coalition of “We Continue the Change” and Democratic Bulgaria.

The dead heat was not resolved as the polling stations closed and as the first wave of exit polls projected a win for WCC-DB, only to be overturned as the results started coming in, giving Borissov another electoral victory.

The far-right pro-Kremlin Revival also managed to outperform itself to come third, ahead of the MRF. The Bulgarian Socialist Party BSP continued its steady decline, with its worst election result ever, and was only prevented from becoming the smallest grouping in the next National Assembly because the populist motley crew of “There is Such a People”, ITN, led by TV showman Slavi Trifonov, unexpectedly crossed the threshold by the smallest margin.

The final big performer of the evening was, ironically, the “I don’t support anyone” option, which ultimately reflects an exponentially growing protest vote amidst a stagnating low voter turnout of 40 per cent. While the cost-of-living crisis barely resonated in the election campaign, Bulgaria’s political crisis is underwritten by voter apathy and resentment.

What to make of these results? While GERB has lost about half its voters since 2017, the party is still holding strong, coming out on top in three of the last five elections. With MRF capable of constantly mobilising its average number of voters, the only party of the so-called “status quo” that is in serious decline is the BSP, which interestingly had been on the side of the protesters in 2020. Its decline has ultimately more to do with other factors such as the passing away of a percentage of its elderly electorate.

The far-right Revival seems to have hoovered up nearly the whole traditional far-right electorate and has become one the main benefactors of the growing protest vote. According to voter surveys, it attracted the highest amount of defecting voters from the pro-Western WCC.

Finally, the “new coalition” of the WCC and DB failed in its primary objective. Though a lower voter tally was expected, the coalition hoped to come first in the elections in order to receive the first mandate to form a government. All in all, it seems that this round of elections did not produce any real winners, as the victories will likely turn out to be Pyrrhic and short-lived, while the political deadlock continues.

GERB search for partners may prove fruitless

Members of the electoral commission count the ballots for the parliamentary election in Sofia, Bulgaria, 02 April 2023. Bulgaria is holding its fifth parliamentary election in two years. EPA-EFE/VASSIL DONEVo

What can be expected to happen next? Despite alleged Western pressure for a Euro-Atlantic “grand coalition” government to be formed, the likelihood of this happening is next to zero. WCC leaders Kiril Petkov and Asen Vassilev have already stated that they will not join a GERB-led government.

That leaves GERB and Borissov with one option, as his usual formula of partnering with a far-right party is not only tedious due to Revival’s pro-Kremlin positions, but mathematically impossible without a third partner. ITN’s seats are not enough to bargain with for anything, so Trifonov’s setup is basically irrelevant despite getting into parliament.

The only remaining logical path would be for Borissov to pursue a “Status Quo” coalition with the MRF and BSP, but this option seems highly unlikely for two reasons. Firstly, such a coalition is perceived as toxic and would likely not play out well with this year’s local elections in mind.

Secondly, it is debatable whether the BSP and its leader, Kornelia Ninova, would be keen to govern with GERB as the latter has cannibalised its former junior coalition partners into political oblivion. Given the BSP’s woes, it is doubtful whether Ninova would gamble away her party’s continuing existence for another ministerial post.

In any case, even if Borissov and GERB were to tinker a governing coalition together, the chance of it lasting is next to nothing because of the looming local elections. This is certainly understood in WCC circles, as the local and regional administrations are GERB’s real power base and the source of Bulgaria’s clientilistic politics. The anti-corruption WCC-DB coalition will be aiming to challenge GERB on that level in the autumn.

This leaves the country again in the hands of caretaker governments appointed by President Radev who is seen as trying to carve out his own base of power and influence in opposition to parliament.

Not quite the ‘Moscow Trojan horse’ of legend

Leaving aside the fact that certain parties like ITN or Revival are trying to push for referendums on Bulgaria’s constitutional setup or its EU and NATO memberships, Radev’s growing influence and ambiguous positions and pro-Russian statements have left many observers wondering about the country’s course, against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the slumping EU integration process in the Balkans.

For now, it seems that Bulgaria’s entry into the Schengen zone and adoption of the euro are postponed but not necessarily off the table. The same applies to resolving the situation caused by Bulgaria’s nationalist theatrics and chauvinist bullying of neighbouring North Macedonia.

Despite the questionable and notorious reputation Bulgaria has earned as “Moscow’s Trojan Horse” the country has not lived up to the expectations of this infamous role – this now rather applies to Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Bulgaria did not make any fuss about the most recent NATO enlargement nor did it succumb to Moscow’s “gas blackmail”.

In fact, Bulgaria has been one of the countries that has kept Ukraine in the fight. It has recently become public knowledge that Bulgarian arms and ammunition have found their way to Ukraine, while Russian-imported oil been exported from the country to Ukraine.

It is beyond irony that against the backdrop of the country’s economic troubles, its arms-producing industry is booming and enjoying the most profitable year in decades since Russia invaded Ukraine. Despite all the pro-Russian rhetoric its politicians might embrace, business trumps politics and the country has effectively one of the highest percentages in relation to GDP when it comes to military aid to Ukraine.

For all the talk about pro-Russian sentiments among the population, Bulgarian Russophilia is an abstract phenomenon usually not based on any first-hand knowledge or experience concerning Russia.

Most Bulgarians just want to make ends meet and have a better life. For all the extent of the protracted political crisis over the past two-three years, Bulgaria may have become “unstable” but it will not rock the boat internationally.

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