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Dramatic parliamentary elections in Bulgaria: will Borissov transfer power peacefully?

The election results in Bulgaria could be understood as a victory for its civil society. The outcome may bring about changes that could strengthen democracy and make politics in the country more transparent.

April 14, 2021 - Radosveta Vassileva - Articles and CommentaryHot Topics

People with masks are voting during the coronavirus pandemic in the Bulgarian parliamentary elections and for the first time in history with paper and machine voting in Sofia, Bulgaria on April 4th 2021. Photo: R R / Shutterstock

In an interview on the Talk Eastern Europe podcast taken shortly after the mass protests against Boyko Borissov’s third government and General Prosecutor Ivan Geshev erupted in the summer of 2020, I expressed concern that Borissov would cling to power like a hungry dog stuck to a delicious bone. In other words, I suspected that he would do anything possible to prevent the early elections which citizens were demanding. And so he did! Bulgaria headed for regular parliamentary elections on April 4th 2021 instead.

On April 6th 2021, the Central Election Commission of Bulgaria published the final summary data after processing 100 per cent of the electoral protocols. The data clearly illustrates what Borissov was afraid of all along — his GERB party cannot form a government. The golden question now is: will Borissov and his GERB party exit the main political stage gracefully or will agony persist?

Let us take a step back: the protests and Borissov’s obsession with preventing early elections

As I explained in my article “Bulgaria: will Borissov’s government survive this summer?”, in the spring of 2020, it was already visible that Bulgarian civil society had lost patience with Borissov’s government and the persistent corruption scandals shaking the country, either implicating Borissov himself or other prominent figures in the regime he built. I pessimistically, however, concluded that civil society was traditionally fragmented and protesting — a rare phenomenon.

The raid against Bulgaria’s Presidency by Borissov’s faithful Prosecutor’s Office, considering President Radev is from the opposition and has been critical of Borissov, however, provided the last drop in a glass full of anger. It motivated many to take to the streets and demand both the resignation of the government and General Prosecutor Ivan Geshev. In the summer of 2020, public disapproval of Borissov had reached 68 per cent.

Had Borissov resigned, President Radev would have appointed a caretaker government which would have organised early parliamentary elections. Borissov, however, wanted the parliamentary elections to be organised by his own government.

In this light, it is not surprising that he pulled every imaginable trick out of his bag to prevent early elections — gaslighting the protestors, empty promises, a cabinet reshuffle, letters of support by the European People’s Party (EPP), of which he is a valued member, etc. Of course, the greatest trick of all that he relied on was a new exotic proposal for a constitution, which he used to buy time, and which he withdrew at the end of the day. He did not even have any shame in submitting this proposal for an opinion by the Venice Commission despite the fact that leading experts in constitutional law said the proposal lacked merit — the Opinion was rather critical.

Good results for democracy despite rigged elections

While Borissov’s wish for his government to organise the elections materialised, and while it appears these elections were rigged, the results are bad news for GERB. In total, they only received 26.18 per cent of the vote. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the largest opposition party in the previous parliament, earned 15.1 per cent of the vote. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), Borissov’s behind-the-curtain partner, received 10.49 per cent of the vote. All other parties which made it to parliament and cleared the 4 per cent threshold to entry are either newly formed (in the wake of the protests and prior general discontent with the status quo) or reformed sinners disillusioned with the GERB party who were not part of the last government — “There are such people”/ITN (17.66 per cent), Democratic Bulgaria/DB (9.45 per cent) and “Stand Up! Mafia Out”/SUMO (4.72 per cent).

Before I explain what the likely scenarios are, it is important to emphasise why these elections appear manipulated, which may put GERB’s result into question. One of the most benign tricks used in Bulgaria to influence voters is crooked polls relying on faulty methodology. Before these elections, for instance, all major agencies, which are traditionally government friendly, showed that VMRO, one of Borissov’s far-right coalition partners in his third government, would make it to parliament — they did not. Meanwhile, none of these polls showed that ITN would be the second political force in parliament. Furthermore, polls completely ignored other parties from their surveys which may have had a chance to make it. This is important in light of the 4 per cent threshold — if one votes for a party which has no chance to make it, then the vote gets redistributed. That is why voters are discouraged from voting for smaller opposition parties.

Some manipulations, of course, are not so covert — there are diverse allegations by observers and citizens alike of bought votes and forged protocols. The fact that GERB won in many Roma neighbourhoods should certainly be a source of concern as this vulnerable minority is traditionally exploited by being threatened or paid to vote a certain way. For years, GERB has displayed political unwillingness to allow voting from a distance too, which affects Bulgarians abroad — there are more Bulgarians working abroad than in Bulgaria. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which observed the elections, has expressed worries over the “massive” use of state resources in the campaign, which provided GERB with a significant advantage.

What follows next? A question of maths!

The next steps are clearly stipulated in Bulgaria’s Constitution. After the Central Election Commission formally announces the names of the new members of parliament, the president will convene the first sitting of the new parliament. The MPs will take an oath, then elect a president and vice-presidents of parliament, etc. From then on, the new parliament will be functioning. One of its first main tasks is to elect a government. Bulgaria’s Parliament has 240 seats which are always filled, so 121 seats are necessary for a government to be elected.

In parallel, the president will carry out consultations with all six parties that were elected to parliament. After this, he will give a mandate to the person put forward as a candidate for PM by the winner of the elections (in this case GERB) to form a cabinet within 7 days. If s/he fails, he will give a mandate to the party which came in second (in this case ITN). If they fail, he can choose any of the remaining four parties to give a mandate to. If the third try does not work, the president appoints a caretaker government and Bulgaria heads for new parliamentary elections this year.

Of course, the cabinet should be formally elected by parliament. This is Borissov’s nightmare because most parties have declared both prior to the elections and after them that they would not be involved with GERB in any way.

On April 9th 2021, the Central Election Commission formally announced the seat distribution in the new parliament as follows: GERB (75 seats), ITN (51 seats), BSP (43 seats), DPS (30 seats), DB (27 seats) and SUMO (14 seats). Neither can GERB form a government on their own nor form a government with DPS (and finally disclose the relationship which many suspect) — they do not have enough seats even together. The only party which has a chance to form a government based on a lot of compromise is ITN and this, at least in my view, will be possible only in the following scenario — a minority government of ITN, DB and SUMO (92 seats) tacitly supported by BSP.

Where is Bulgaria headed?

As to be expected, Borissov is quite upset with the results. On the evening of election day, he addressed the nation almost crying live from Facebook, saying that he benefitted from EPP’s support and that the country would fall apart if he was not in power. He begged the opposition to agree on an “expert government” with him. On April 7th 2021, he put forward another exotic idea — that the new parliament should pave the way to a grand national assembly. In other words, despite his effective loss, he still hopes to find a way to remain in power.

In parallel, the opposition is fragmented, so while preferrable, they may not be able to form a government either. This means that the most likely scenario is a caretaker government and new parliamentary elections this year.

Foreign commentators should be aware that this is actually good news for Bulgarian civil society. For once, the new parliament can quickly have a positive impact on democracy by agreeing on amendments to Bulgaria’s election law which ensure fairer elections — all opposition parties have an interest in this. It may be far-fetched, but they can even work on other legislative amendments which citizens have been demanding for years, such as an overhaul of the Supreme Judicial Council to restore the judicial independence that has been assaulted so many times in the past decade. Moreover, elections organised by a caretaker government rather than by a government led by Borissov, who has become toxic at this stage, also provide light at the end of the tunnel.

The only worry is how far Borissov will go before finally understanding that he and his party are not appreciated by the majority of citizens. Will he exploit the tools of the autocracy he built? I would not be surprised. Harassment of the opposition and corruption are two main features of Bulgaria’s autocratic model.

The future may be uncertain at this stage, but the election results are actually a massive victory for Bulgaria’s civil society. The next task, of course, is to restore Bulgaria’s democracy that GERB smothered.

Dr. Radosveta Vassileva is a Bulgarian legal scholar whose research interests encompass EU law and comparative public and private law. She maintains a personal blog dedicated to the rule of law in Bulgaria.

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