Snap Elections Fail to Calm Bulgaria’s Political Instability

As the latest election fails to resolve the political deadlock that has gripped Bulgaria since April, the country is heading into uncharted territory.

For the second time in just over three months, Bulgaria has seen parliamentary elections. While the April 4 vote resulted in a surprise, Sunday’s poll was hardly that. The outcome looks to be another hung parliament with the same six parties and coalitions crossing the electoral threshold, as in April.

Now nearly all the ballots are counted, it is clear that for the first time since 2009, Boyko Borissov’s centre-right GERB has not come out on top of the pack, albeit with the smallest of differences. A political newcomer, showman Slavi Trifonov’s “There is Such a Nation”, ITN, instead edged into first place by just a few thousand votes.

With additional gains for Democratic Bulgaria, DB, and “Stand Up! Mobsters Out!”, ISMV, the balance of power has shifted slightly in favour of the so-called “protest parties” given that GERB, though commanding about a quarter of the vote, remains isolated and shunned by the other parties. However, as the vote count was rolling in, it also became apparent that the combined seats of the three “protest parties” would not command a majority in the next National Assembly.

The election has, therefore, failed to resolve the political deadlock that has gripped Bulgaria since April, and the country is heading into somewhat uncharted territory. As a result, in the coming weeks and months, a protracted political crisis will likely materialize, whose outcome is hard to predict. Another round of elections could well take place in autumn.

Status quo weakened, not destroyed
The key to understanding the political conundrum in Bulgaria over the past year is the widespread resentment against the status quo and a strong desire for political change. Last year, mass protests erupted in the summer in reaction to the blatant corruption of the country’s political class and the arbitrary abuse of power by the public prosecutor’s office.

The electoral and parliamentary challenge by the “protest parties”, ITN, DB, and ISMV, is a continuation of this movement. But although their challenge has weakened the status quo, it has not defeated it. Borissov personally has become toxic, and GERB’s decline is palpable, but they are far from the political collapse some had hoped for.

GERB’s traditional nemesis, the Socialist Party, BSP, has sunk to an all-time low but even so it remains ahead of the anti-corruption Democratic Bulgaria. The ethnic-Turkish-focused Movement for Rights and Freedoms has in contrast held on to a stable share of the vote, but is also experiencing decline as it struggles with diminishing turnout in some of its core constituencies.

Finally, as in April, the various far-right parties that had propped up GERB and BSP-led governments in the past failed to cross the threshold and saw their collective vote share decrease, signaling, perhaps, a change in the “protest vote” on the part of their traditional electorate.

More importantly, the interim government appointed by President Rumen Radev after the failure to form a government in the wake of the April elections has gained genuine popularity in the past weeks, thanks to an anti-corruption drive of its own, thereby further undermining the status quo.

Shaky prospects for change

Shaky prospects for change
Despite the weakening of the status quo in the past months, the desire for change remains unfulfilled. When the new parliament convenes, it will most likely try to continue in the spirit of the previous short-lived assembly and push legislation aimed at bolstering the rule of law and combating corruption.

But everything hinges on whether a new government can be formed or not. The constitution foresees only three possible attempts before parliament is dissolved and new elections are called by the President. One of these three mandates could be ruled out beforehand, as it is clear that GERB would not be able to form a government, due to its current political isolation and Borissov’s toxicity.

So, as the election results started coming in, there was a widespread expectation that some form of the coalition government of the “protest parties” would be attempted. However, on Monday this hope was dashed by Trifonov who stated that ITN would not engage in any coalitions and instead would propose a “government of experts” of its own.

This move – or stunt – caused consternation among the other “protest parties” as well as the public at large, as the list of names put forward by Trifonov is far from promising change; his choice for Prime Minister, Nikolai Vassilev, was a deputy PM in two former governments with an unfavourable legacy. Nor does it imply many perspectives for meaningful change beyond a change of faces, as the proposed platform includes an unrealistic space programme but no tangible policy for judicial reform – not to mention any plan to handle the ongoing pandemic.

While it may be assumed that such a one-party minority government would not get the support of a parliamentary majority, this cannot be ruled out. There is weariness among the political class about the prospect of yet another election, and this could be a possible path for Trifonov’s government to take office. Still, it would require nearly 60 MPs from other parties to back it.

If ITN fails to get support for its government, the last mandate would be given at the discretion of President Radev. Most likely, it would fall to the Socialists – who backed Radev’s candidacy for president in 2016. But although their leader, Kornelia Ninova, has declared that she would attempt to form a government, the likelihood of success is even smaller than the ITN government being sworn in, as neither GERB nor ITN – who together hold a majority of seats – would support a Socialist-led government.

Turbulence could attract EU and US attention

As the prospect of another round of elections looms, it is also highly likely that Bulgaria’s political arena will become reduced to a three-way contest dominated by Borissov, Trifonov and Radev. The current Borissov-Trifonov alpha-male rivalry would be complicated by Radev’s expected run for re-election. Radev’s resilient popularity as a politician – he won by a landslide in 2016 – and the fact that “his” interim government enjoys some genuine support, could mobilise the electorate, resulting both in a higher turnout as well as another possible redrawing of the political landscape.

Internationally, Bulgaria does not receive much attention, but this could change if the EU or NATO start to perceive the country’s instability as a threat. While the European Parliament formally voiced its support for last year’s protests, and the US sanctioned several Bulgarian businessmen with murky political ties for corruption, the largest European political family, the centre-right European People’s Party, EPP, has remained unequivocal in its support for Borissov. It is likely that Borissov, who has long nurtured good relations in Brussels and Berlin, hopes European pressure for political stability could open a way for him to return to power.

Finally, in a country where resentment is high and instability has seemingly taken root, the showman Trifonov is the unknown wildcard, and for now the ball is in his camp.

It is conceivable that ITN might lose support due to voter fatigue in another round of elections, but it might just as well swing the other way and push ITN to unseen heights. Bulgaria would not be the first country to see the rise of a celebrity-turned-politician shaking up the status quo. In that sense, Bulgaria is not that different from Beppe Grillo’s Italy, Donald Trump’s America, or Volodymyr Zelensky’s Ukraine.

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