ZOiS Spotlight 12/2021

Three Paradoxes in the Bulgarian Parliamentary Election

by Daniel Smilov 31/03/2021
The parliamentary building in Sofia, Bulgaria. IMAGO / Ray van Zeschau

Bulgaria will hold a regular parliamentary election on 4 April. The country has been ruled by GERB-led governments since 2009, except for a brief period from 2013 to 2014. GERB is a centre-right party with a strong populist bent and is led by prime minister Boyko Borissov, a charismatic figure in the style of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi who loves the media and political wheeling and dealing. To the EU, Borissov presents himself as a committed European and a reliable ally—and, indeed, friend—of German chancellor Angela Merkel. Domestically, his reputation is much more complex, and especially since last year, it has been seriously downgraded.

Corruption and unrest

In 2020, Borissov became personally involved in a series of corruption scandals, none of which has been conclusively and convincingly resolved to date. The most serious relates to a €350 million tax benefit given to a gambling operator, allegedly in exchange for millions of kickbacks for the prime minister and the finance minister. Other scandals involved leaked tapes of Borissov, which strongly suggested that he had committed an abuse of power. One scandal, which captured the public imagination in particular, was sparked by leaked photos of the prime minister’s bedside table arranged with a gun and €1 million in cash and gold.

This was more than enough to trigger a huge wave of public protests that took place in Bulgaria in summer and autumn 2020. Somehow, however, Borissov managed to cling to power. Despite the scandals, the protests, and a harsh resolution by the European Parliament about the rampant corruption and the lack of rule of law in Bulgaria, according to current polls, GERB may still end up as the biggest party in the parliament after the next election.

It will most likely be a very fragmented parliament, with up to seven political actors in it. Aside from the governing parties, the rest of the vote will be split among the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the Turkish-minority Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), the liberal pro-European Democratic Bulgaria (DB), and two other parties, which emerged as a result of the protests: There Is Such a People (ITN) and Rise Up! Thugs Out! The nationalists, who are currently coalition partners of GERB, may fail to clear the 4 per cent threshold needed to gain seats in the parliament, but they cannot be written off at the moment.

The emerging picture of serious parliamentary fragmentation makes forecasting future government scenarios extremely risky. The uncertainty about the result of the election is exacerbated by the fact that the vote will take place at the peak of a third wave of Covid-19: Bulgaria now nearly tops the table of the spread of the disease and has extremely high mortality rate in Europe – among the highest in the world. How this will affect the vote is impossible to predict. On the basis of existing information, Bulgaria’s political situation presents three paradoxes.

Paradox 1: Continued support for GERB

In summer 2020, 60–70 per cent of Bulgarians declared their support for the protests, which demanded the resignations of Borissov and chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev. Nevertheless, GERB is now preparing to be the largest political force again after the election. What are the causes of this paradoxical development?

The first reason for GERB’s advantage is the fragmentation of the opposition. Dissatisfaction with the government is channelled through several parties, which can hardly be described as a united front. This enables Borissov to underscore the division in the opposition against him.

Second, but no less importantly, that the main opposition party, BSP, has failed to become a genuine European left-wing party. It continues to be ex-communist, strongly pro-Russian, openly anti-migrant, and even homophobic. The party is a vehement opponent of the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which has become a target of homophobes across Europe. Ultimately, all of this distances BSP from both young people and the more dynamic, business-oriented parts of society. Support for BSP is confined to the countryside and the elderly.

Paradox 2: Media that ask no questions

Bulgaria’s recent scandals have neither been seriously investigated nor have those involved credibly explained their behaviour. Yet, the media, especially the major television stations, have virtually stopped asking pertinent questions about the scandals. Why? According to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders, Bulgaria ranks 111 out of 180 countries. This may help explain the media’s silence.

Paradox 3: Tricky coalition building

Most coalitions after 4 April seem impossible, and yet a government is likely to be formed. Borissov has a theoretical chance of staying in power if GERB, the nationalists, and DPS together win a majority in the parliament. This is not very probable at the moment—and even worse for Borissov, this theoretical coalition is in fact practically impossible. The nationalists and DPS are unlikely to enter a formal coalition, while GERB cannot afford to formalise its relationship with DPS: most of the public would see this as a confirmation of long-standing opaque and corrupt relationships between these two parties.

Borissov’s predicament suggests that it will most probably be up to the opposition to try to form a government. This is not going to be easy, either, since the pro-European DB will hardly coalesce with the ex-communist BSP. ITN has also declared that it will not enter a coalition with BSP.

In these circumstances, a technocratic government that is not based on a classic coalition is likely to emerge. Its mission will be to implement the European Green Deal and the EU’s post-Covid-19 recovery fund as well as to carry out meaningful judicial reform. At the moment, the opposition has a slightly better chance of being in a position to form such a government after 4 April. That would put an end to Borissov’s long and controversial time in power.

Daniel Smilov is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Sofia and Programme Director at the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia.