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Election Surprises End Bulgaria’s Political Stability

Poor election results for the biggest parties, the rise of populist and anti-corruption forces and the lack of a clear route back to office for Prime Minister Boyko Borissov mean that Bulgaria is facing a period of political turbulence.

Few would have predicted the outcome of the parliamentary elections in Bulgaria that took place on Sunday 4 April. After a lacklustre campaign following years of government beset by scandals, the outbreak of mass protests, and a disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic, pre-election polls predicted a lower-than-usual voter turnout with an expected victory for long-time Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s GERB party.

But as the official results started coming in throughout Sunday night and Monday morning, the image of a possible sea-change in Bulgaria’s political landscape began to take shape.

As expected, Borissov’s GERB won more votes than any other party, but its share dropped from its stable one-third to merely a quarter of the vote, its worst performance in over a decade. GERB’s perennial rivals, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP, fared even worse, seemingly caught in a tailspin, plummeting towards their worst election result ever.

And contrary to expectations, voter turnout was not lower than usual, despite the pandemic, with long queues reported, particularly at polling stations abroad. By Monday afternoon, with 80 per cent of the ballots processed by the Central Election Commission, the notion of an election that could mark the upending of the status quo dominated by the GERB-BSP rivalry had become a reality.

In fact, an electoral insurgency has materialised in which a third of the seats in the next National Assembly will be taken up by parties that were not represented in the previous one, a feat not even seen in the elections during and after the 2013-14 protests.

In some ways, Sunday’s elections had a slight echo of those of 20 years ago which saw the ‘return of the king’, when Simeon Sakskoburggotski won in a landslide and broke the post-communist electoral dynamics of the 1990s.

While the final vote count has not yet been completed, it is already possible to draw a few tentative conclusions from the elections, the results of which might draw Bulgaria into a period of protracted political instability or even turmoil, as it is yet unclear what kind of workable government could be formed based on the constellation of the next National Assembly.

The winners

The big winner of the night was political newcomer Slavi Trifonov, a famous singer, entertainer and TV talkshow host, and his party There is such a Nation, ITN, which took about one in five votes nationally (and one in three in the vote abroad).

Neither the pandemic or the protests of the past summer explain ITN’s result as it has taken a COVID-sceptic stance in the past, and while it endorsed the protests, it was not actively engaged in them.

In fact, it is not really known what the party stands for beyond a self-professed anti-establishment creed or if it has any programmatic platform to speak of, as Trifonov refused to take part in any political debates during the election campaign.

What is clear though is that a significant part of the Bulgarian electorate at home and abroad voted for a genuinely popular celebrity against an increasingly unpopular political status quo, leading Trifonov and ITN to significantly outperform its scores in opinion surveys.

The second winner of the night was Democratic Bulgaria, DB, which ran on an anti-corruption platform and traditionally caters to the urban middle class of Sofia and other cities as well as to part of the Bulgarian diaspora.

DB was very active in the protests of the past summer and as a result managed to improve its showing, even coming out on top in two of Sofia’s three voter districts. DB did not expand its electoral outreach beyond its urban strongholds, but a significant part of the capital’s population will once again have parliamentary representation.

Another winner was the upstart Stand Up! Mobsters Out!, ISMV, centred around former BSP heavyweight Maya Manolova and three prominent organisers of last summer’s protests. ISMV is set to cross the threshold to enter parliament, but overall its success is limited, particularly in light of the media exposure it has received and Manolova’s earlier formidable run for the Sofia mayorship in the local elections.

Finally, the last winner, at least formally, is the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, DPS. As the party catering primarily to Bulgaria’s Turkish minority, it can count on a stable electorate and generally is not exposed to any high voter volatility.

Nevertheless, in the elections of 2017, the DPS suffered a significant loss of seats due to a hostile run by its ousted former chairman. Some of those seats now seem set to return to the DPS.

Meanwhile, the controversial media mogul Delyan Peevski no longer featured as a formal DPS candidate. In the past, his visibility was a source of public outrage, and his formal absence makes it more probable that the DPS will extend a potential helping hand to the formation of any governing coalition.

The losers

Although it formally won the elections, GERB also lost them. Despite securing the highest vote share and even beating its arch-rival BSP in the latter’s strongholds in the north-west of the country, GERB has lost a significant amount of its previous support and the election’s outcome has left the party and Borissov in particular without a near-automatic path to power.

To make matters more complicated, the party’s former far-right coalition partners did not even cross the threshold to get into parliament, while the parties that did have formally declared that they do not want to collaborate with GERB and Borissov.

After spending nearly seven years in opposition and facing an embattled governing party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party managed a rare feat: to secure its worst ever showing in a democratic election.

After having gradually shifted to conservative and xenophobic policy positions over the past years in a way that makes it hard to understand how the BSP portrays itself as a European social democratic party, it is even harder to understand how the party will rebound from this historic defeat.

The party’s leader Kornelia Ninova has so far refused to step down, which suggests that for the time being, the BSP will try to muddle on without any profound change of course.

The biggest losers of the night were the four far-right parties that were previously represented in the National Assembly – VMRO, NFSB, Ataka, and Volya.

Running on separate tickets (though NFSB and Volya did form an alliance) none managed to cross the threshold. Nevertheless, their influence will still be felt as part of their agenda has been taken over by other parties (including the nominally leftist BSP), and it is still unclear how their talking points will resonate within or through Trifonov’s ITN.

On the other hand, the silver lining of the far-right’s ousting from parliament may well be that Bulgaria lifts its veto on the EU accession of neighbouring North Macedonia.

Who could form the next government?

Most observers will agree that the outcome of the elections has failed to put a clear solution for a new government on the table.

While Borissov and GERB are the formal winners of the election, it is at the moment hard or perhaps too early to see how he could put together a governing majority.

Another option that has been floated is a ‘government of experts’ supported by several parliamentary groupings until new elections are held (preferably to coincide with the presidential elections later this year). But unless pre-election declarations and promises are broken, Bulgaria is heading for more rather than less political instability.

Post-election conundrums aside, it is indicative of the quality of the political process and the media landscape in Bulgaria that during a global pandemic in a country with currently one of the highest death rates in the world and worst vaccine rollout in the EU, a virus-sceptic party, Trifonov’s ITN, managed to become the big winner at the polls, capturing about one in five votes.

Additionally, with a dozen parties and minor political projects remaining under the threshold, about 15 per cent of all votes cast turned out to be ‘lost’. A significant part of those votes went to the multitude of far right and illiberal formations that were on the ballot.

The far right may no longer be represented in parliament, but it is far from gone. As the previous four years have shown, a simple ‘coalition agreement’ among a sufficient number of Bulgaria’s far right parties could even lead to palpable government participation and influence. This could be repeated in future.

As a country that has been losing people to emigration for years, the Bulgarian vote abroad may have played a more important role than in previous elections. However, with most of the votes counted it is clear that the diaspora, the capital, and the rest of the country live in different realities and certainly vote differently.

What impact this will have on the future course of Bulgarian politics is an open question, but the country’s politicians and parties will surely be looking at this issue in the coming years.

Finally, did last summer’s anti-government protests shape the electoral outcome?

It is tempting to think so, but little evidence supports such a claim. The protests had already fizzled out months before the election campaign started and the parties that supported the protests had rather mixed results in that sense.

But the electoral revolt did happen and while it may bring back memories of the 2001 parliamentary elections, it is important to remember that Simeon Sakskoburggotski’s victory opened the door for the political careers of Borissov and Peevski.

In the days after what could prove to be a watershed election in Bulgarian political history, it is worth remembering that a single election does not necessarily solve a country’s problems, and that political change can have ambiguous results.

Source: Balkan Insight

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