Political Exhaustion Weighs on Voters in Third Bulgaria Poll

While the November 14 presidential election looks like a shoo-in for the incumbent Radev, the general election on the same day looks harder to call

Bulgaria is closing an unprecedented year: by the end of 2021, its citizens will have voted in no less than four elections: inconclusive general elections in April and in July, yet another general election on November 14 and, on the same day, presidential elections scheduled by default for 2021.

According to the Central Election Commission, turnout was 49.10 per cent in the April elections, dropping to 41 per cent in July. The turnout in November’s two-in-one election is harder to predict.

“The biggest factor that will define the voter turnout will be the social and the health crisis we’re in,” Ivan Radev, of the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria, told BIRN.

Amid fresh surges in COVID cases and a slow rate of inoculation, Bulgaria is dealing with a record numbers of infections and deaths.

Rising prices, unrest over COVID restrictions and anxiety over the quality of life during the coming winter are also factors. “All of this, along with the heavy cloud of disinformation people are under, could lead to a sizable protest vote,” Radev said.

“But it’s hard to predict who will benefit from this protest vote,” he added. “If [former ruling] GERB and its partners were once considered the status quo, and people voted against that, now it is trying to rebrand itself as a fresh opposition to the interim government, appointed by the President.”

In the November parliamentary elections, former PM Boyko Borissov’s centre-right GERB party is expected to get most votes once again; the winner last time round, “There is Such a Nation”, is losing trust following some chaotic moves.

The newly formed “We Continue the Change” party, led by former interim ministers Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev, is expected to make a splash and come in third place, possibly collaborating with Democratic Bulgaria in a potential coalition.

“It will be interesting to see whether ‘We Continue the Change’ will motivate those who didn’t vote before, and whether Democratic Bulgaria reached its potential in the last two elections,” Radev noted.

The presidential elections are more predictable. Current President Rumen Radev, who has a strong reputation, will run as an independent candidate, supported by the Bulgarian Socialist Party. He will face Sofia University rector Anastas Gerdjikov, backed by GERB, and Lozan Panov, backed by Democratic Bulgaria.

According to the latest Gallup International research, Radev is predicted to win easily, with some 51.2 per cent of vote, far ahead of Anastas Gerdijkov on 22.5 per cent, followed by Mustafa Karadaya of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms on 7.9 per cent and Lozan Panov on 6.2 per cent.

Courting voters who abstained before

For some, the presidential elections are not an add-on the general elections but an issue in their own right.

“My dislike of Radev is the reason I’m voting in the presidential elections,” 38-year-old Stanislav Borisov, working in law, told BIRN.

He’s felt critical of Radev ever since he opposed EU sanctions against Russia in 2018 and describes the President as a populist who escapes taking firm positions on important geopolitical issues.

Borisov didn’t vote at all in April or July, as he felt out of options, but has less reservations about the presidential elections, when the vote is for a person.

“And since these are ‘2-in-1’ elections, why not also vote for a party?” he asks, rhetorically. “My main motivation to vote this time is to prevent the influence of ‘There is Such a Nation’ and give a chance for a regular government to be formed.” He would support a party “that plays by democracy’s rules”.

Apart from possibly attracting votes from disappointed “There is Such a Nation” voters, “We Continue the Change” is also engaging with people who didn’t vote before.

“I didn’t vote in the 2021 elections as I didn’t see any real alternative to GERB,” 52-year-old Georgi Georgiev told BIRN. An engineer by training, now developing a private business, he is inspired by “We Continue The Change” and has met its co-leaders, which has solidified his trust.

“I like their way of thinking. In November I’ll vote, as finally I see a political power that can change Borissov’s model of governing,” Georgiev added.

Some have had enough with parties

“I voted in the previous two elections but I’m skeptical about the next polls; it’s all a waste of time without any progress in the overall situation,” 31-year-old Mariana Gospodinova told BIRN.

She’s one of the many Bulgarians living in Spain, 122,813 of them, according to the National Statistical Institute of Spain’s census from 2019.

Based in Madrid, she is working as a programmer. Polling stations for Bulgarian elections are few and far between there, which creates logistical issues for non-drivers especially. Long queues and chaos are also a concern: “In the April elections the organisation was very poor, but in July it was fine,” she recalled.

In an interview with Bulgarian National Radio on October 27, Stoil Tzezelkov, of the Central Voting Commission, said voters abroad might be troubled by the slow distribution of voting machines to some areas, while in Bulgaria the raging pandemic may encourage some to abstain from voting.

Bulgaria’s perceived mishandling of the pandemic is why some have lost faith in any government’s ability to solve the situation.

“I voted in April, as I thought a stable government might handle the current crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic,” 30-year-old Stanislav Kaschiyski, a specialist in digital advertising, told BIRN. “By July I didn’t have these hopes anymore but I still voted because a person I know, like and believe in was running for an MP.”

He is disappointed that the pandemic is not being discussed by the politicians in detail. Bulgaria is seeing a surge in cases, hospitalisations and deaths, caused by confused measures and slow vaccination rollout.

“None of the parties shows a bare minimum of qualities and potential,” observed Kaschiyski. “It’s the same with the presidential runners. There are 200 people dying every day and a rising mortality rate. I no longer want to occupy myself with party battles or follow all the behind-the-scenes scheming – plus the candidate MP I voted for is no longer running in my region,” he said.

GERB hopes to regain top position

While all polling agencies show a deeply fragmented voting bloc, GERB is eyeing a comeback that could send it back to where it was in April – in a parliament full of opposition forces that cannot agree on as coalition.

A Gallup International research from October 15 predicted that GERB would again come first, with 22.5 per cent of votes the cast, followed by the Bulgarian Socialist Party on 15.1 per cent.

Newcomers “We Continue the Change” come third on 13.4 per cent with “There is Such a Nation”, winners of the July elections, slipping to fourth place, on 12.2 per cent.

The same poll puts Democratic Bulgaria in fifth place on 11.2 per cent, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms in sixth place on 10.8 per cent.

According to this study, Stand Up.BG! We’re Coming!, one of the parties that arose from the 2020 protests and entered parliament twice, will not pass the 4-per-cent threshold to get any seats this time. However, other polling agencies, such as Sova Harris, give them 4.2 per cent of the vote.

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