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Bulgaria’s election spiral: the anatomy of disappointment

Bulgaria still appears to be mired in a never-ending cycle of elections. Often characterised by overt corruption and backroom deals, the country’s political system is still being manipulated by long-term autocrat Boyko Borissov and his circle. This will prove important as political elites once again attempt to form a functioning government.

April 21, 2023 - Radosveta Vassileva - Articles and Commentary

The leader of the GERB political party, Boyko Borissov, speaks to journalists in January 2023. Photo: Ivan Nikulic / Shutterstock

On April 2nd this year, Bulgarian citizens cast their ballots in the fifth parliamentary election in the span of two years. Foreign analysts are puzzled by Bulgaria’s seemingly endless election spiral and wonder when it will ultimately end. The prospects of forming a stable regular government after this election appear slim. The opposition coalition PPDB, formed by “We’ll Continue the Change” (PP) and Democratic Bulgaria (DB), which came in second in this election, has already declared that it would not support a government proposed by Boyko Borissov’s GERB party, which came in first.

However, from a Bulgarian perspective, how rather than when this election spiral will end seems to be the more pertinent question. After all, each election is an occasion “to separate the wheat from the chaff” on the Bulgarian political stage. Moreover, the ability of the Bulgarian president to dismiss parliament, appoint a caretaker government, and schedule a new parliamentary election if a regular government is not elected is enshrined in Bulgaria’s Constitution as a safety valve. It is supposed to protect against unprincipled coalitions and excessive arm-twisting at times of uncertainty, assuming the country’s president acts in good faith.

The current political crisis can only be overcome if its roots are properly understood and addressed. In a country like Bulgaria, where appearances may often be deceiving, however, identifying these causes is not a straightforward task. To understand what is at stake regarding the latest parliamentary election, we need to take a closer look at the events which conditioned and continue to propel the election spiral.

Some prehistory: an autocrat holding a nation hostage

In 2020, Bulgaria saw mass protests against the corruption of Boyko Borissov’s third government and General Prosecutor Ivan Geshev. Borissov, nevertheless, pulled every trick out of his autocratic bag to prevent his resignation and a snap parliamentary election – responding to protests with excessive violence, cabinet reshuffles, and a bogus proposal for a new constitution.

After the regular parliamentary election in April 2021, Borissov’s GERB party came in first. Yet its victory was pyrrhic – it did not have enough seats in parliament to form and elect its own government. At the time, in my article titled “Dramatic parliamentary elections in Bulgaria: will Borissov transfer power peacefully?”, I wondered to what great lengths Borissov would go to remain in power.

Here it should be clarified that since 2009 Borissov, his circle, and his allies behind the scenes, including the powerful DPS party, have managed to build an autocracy and capture all institutions. As a result, excluding Borissov’s party or DPS from participating in government is clearly not enough to dismantle this “state within a state”. Despite this, Borissov and his allies have a lot to fear, as tearing down the autocracy would lead to them facing proper investigations into their alleged wrongdoings, including corruption. The sanctions placed on Vladislav Goranov for corruption under the Global Magnitsky Act earlier this year by the US Treasury alone show why such investigations are urgently needed. Goranov served as finance minister in Borissov’s second and third governments, and as vice-minister of finance in Borissov’s first government. DPS is also worried as their own Delyan Peevski was sanctioned for corruption under the Global Magnitsky Act by the US Treasury in 2021. He was also sanctioned by the UK government, under the Global Anti-Corruption Sanctions Regulations 2021, earlier this year.

Unhealthy behind-the-scenes ties

The past four snap parliamentary elections, which took place in July 2021, November 2021, October 2022 and April 2023 (see results in Table 1 below), have given us a clearer idea of the status quo’s various strategies that are designed to sabotage the formation and election of a regular government unless Borissov’s GERB party is involved.

Foreign observers, for instance, may be surprised to hear about the “poisonous lookalike” phenomenon in Bulgaria. As I have explained in earlier work: “When it comes to mushrooms, there are poisonous lookalikes of edible mushrooms that may easily be confused with edible mushrooms. When it comes to political parties, there are parties that try to portray themselves as opposition parties, but, in reality, have toxic dependencies behind the scenes. They seem to be created with the only purpose of deviating votes”.

Sadly, the July 2021 snap election illustrated how such poisonous lookalikes may take votes from parties with a genuine anti-corruption stance. In my article titled “Snap elections in Bulgaria: who is ready for political suicide?”, I explained how the ITN (“There is Such a People”) party, which portrayed itself as an anti-corruption party to earn the votes of those protesting in 2020, tried to twist the arms of other opposition parties to elect a questionable cabinet, even though it earned only 24.08 per cent of the vote. Even more shockingly, many of the proposed experts present in this cabinet seemed to have ties to circles connected to Borissov.

Luckily, after ITN’s blow to civil society hopes that Borissov’s era was coming to an end, a new party emerged on the political stage – “We’ll Continue the Change” (PP). Not only did this party win the November 2021 snap parliamentary election (see Table 1 below), it even managed to form a compromise regular government, excluding Borissov’s GERB party. Regrettably, the compromise was accepting ITN as a coalition partner.

The radical anti-corruption reforms by Kiril Petkov’s government (December 2021 – July 2022), however, scared GERB and their allies behind the scenes. Thus in July 2022 Bulgarians witnessed a peculiar coup – GERB united with DPS, ITN, and the overtly pro-Russian Revival party to overthrow Petkov’s regular government and to relaunch the parliamentary election spiral. While GERB’s ties to DPS are well known to Bulgarian civil society, their synergy with the Revival party foreshadowed a new trick that Borissov would exploit in the October 2022 and April 2023 snap parliamentary elections.

President Radev’s U-turn and the “Revival” scarecrow

Following the coup against Petkov’s government in July 2022, Bulgarian voters witnessed an unexpected turn of events. President Rumen Radev, who had earned the support of many citizens with his “Mafia Out!” slogan at the 2020 protests, demonstrated a radical change of attitude. First, he started publicly attacking PP, going as far as calling them “charlatans”. He seemed to have forgotten the raid against the presidency by the Prosecutor’s Office led by Ivan Geshev, which triggered the 2020 protests and which clearly served GERB’s interests. Second, the caretaker governments appointed by Radev, which came to power after the coup against Petkov and after parliament’s failure to elect a regular government in the aftermath of the October 2022 snap election, began reversing many of the positive changes implemented by Petkov’s government. For instance, the caretaker governments began reappointing staff linked to GERB and DPS to key positions in government and state-owned entities.

All these developments raised suspicions that Radev had struck a deal with GERB and DPS behind the scenes. Meanwhile, before the October 2022 election, Borissov and his GERB party voiced a hypocritical call for the formation of a Euro-Atlantic government – a suggestion previously made by DPS. Considering that the rule of law is a primary Euro-Atlantic value, to ordinary citizens it seemed that GERB and DPS merely wanted to shield their corruption and continue to act with impunity behind a Euro-Atlantic façade. However, since PP and DB did not want to jeopardise their reputations and accept Borissov’s hypocrisy at face value in the aftermath of the October 2022 election, the status quo needed a “scarecrow” for the April 2022 snap parliamentary election. The useful puppet here was the pro-Russian “Revival” party – the same one that had helped GERB and DPS overthrow Petkov’s government.

Understanding the mathematics of disappointment

The above account of recent manoeuvres on the Bulgarian political stage and behind the scenes is necessary to understand the peculiar dynamics of voting in Bulgarian parliamentary elections, including the latest results.

Table 1 below shows the number of votes for parties that passed the four per cent barrier to enter parliament at least once since 2021 in each of the last six parliamentary elections. There are several notable trends. First, in as much as GERB display confidence that they won the April 2022 election, a mere comparison with their results in the March 2017 election shows that they have lost significant support. Second, at the April 2023 election, PP and DB decided to run as a coalition – sadly, they earned less votes together than separately at the October 2022 election. Third, the “I don’t support anyone” category has soared in the April 2023 election – these are voters interested in politics who have taken the time to show up at voting stations to express their disappointment with Bulgarian political life. Social surveys suggest that more than 14 per cent of these voters voted for DP or PP at the October 2022 election. The most notable development, however, at first glance is the rise of the “Revival” party. From being a negligible actor on the political stage with just 37,896 votes in the March 2017 election, it rose to 358,174 votes in the April 2023 elections.

These numbers may help explain Borissov’s current attempt to rebrand himself as a Euro-Atlantic saviour yet again. On the one hand, he is using the rise of the “Revival” party to prove that there is a threat to Euro-Atlanticism at home and abroad. On the other hand, he is using the slight decrease in the popularity of DB and PP to blackmail them into joining forces with him to defend Euro-Atlanticism.

The rise of “Revival” – too many questions left unanswered

Indeed, at first glance, the rise of the “Revival” party raises concern for those believing in Euro-Atlantic values – the party engages in far-right rhetoric and advocates for Bulgaria’s exit from the EU. Yet it is possible to imagine that “Revival” may simply be a controlled experiment by Bulgaria’s status quo designed to help Borissov. It is already striking that media groups traditionally friendly to Borissov have persistently provided positive coverage for “Revival”, while disseminating tarnishing, libellous content about PP and DB.

A closer look at the far-right votes raises even more suspicions. One should not forget that Borissov’s third government was a coalition with three far-right parties (the “United Patriots” coalition comprised of VMRO, Ataka, and NFSB) that overtly promote xenophobia. As visible in Table 2 below, at the March 2017 parliamentary election, these parties earned 318,513 votes together. As evident from the same table, these parties began participating in different configurations at parliamentary elections from 2021 onwards. Moreover, VMRO and NFSB decided not to participate in the April 2023 election, essentially freeing up space for someone else to attract their traditional votes. While a comprehensive social survey is necessary to prove this point, it is clear that 318,513 Bulgarian citizens who believe in far-right narratives cannot simply disappear into thin air overnight. As a result, they probably cast their ballots for another party embracing their beliefs at the latest election. Coincidentally or not, at the April election, “Revival” obtained 358,174 votes.

Where next?

Bulgaria has been at a crossroads since the protests of 2020. Those who protested know very well who Borissov is, what his GERB party represents, and how far both Borissov and GERB are willing to go to avoid accountability. If PP and DB fall into Borissov’s trap, they will keep losing popularity because they will be helping Borissov ensure impunity and/or a soft landing for himself.

As the negotiations for the formation of a new government are about to begin, one thing is certain – if a regular government is formed this time, its main achievement will be legitimising GERB. This prospect on its own can only disappoint voters. At the next election, the “I don’t support anyone” category may soar even higher.

Table 1: Number of votes and their distribution at the last six parliamentary elections*

*A “—” indicates that the political party/coalition in question either did not exist or did not participate in the election at the mentioned time. A “//” indicates that the coalition in question participated in the election in a different format. Note the table includes only the votes for parties that have passed the four per cent barrier to enter parliament at least once since 2021.

Source of data: Central Election Commission

Table 2: The number and rebranding of far-right votes*

*A “—” indicates that the political party/coalition in question either did not exist or did not participate in the election at the mentioned time. A “//” indicates that the coalition in question participated in the election in a different format.

Source of data: Central Election Commission

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. She is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at Middlesex University.

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