Bulgarians will vote on Sunday in a snap general election, the fourth in just 18 months. By now, Bulgarians are sick and tired of seeing the politicians they send to parliament being unable to form a viable government. And there are no clear signs that this time could be any different.
To put it simply, the parties likely to enter Parliament come in three shapes: traditional, non-traditional, and extremist.
The traditional parties are the Bulgarian Socialist Party (DPS), nostalgic for the communist era; the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a mostly ethnic Turkish force; Democratic Bulgaria (DB), a small party hosting the remnants of the once-powerful anti-communist union; and Boyko Borissov’s GERB, which emerged as a non-traditional party in 2009 but has stayed in power for so long that it is now part of the political establishment.
The non-traditional parties are: ‘We continue the change’ of former prime minister Kiril Petkov, a pro-Western and anti-corruption party; the populist ‘There is such a people’ of showman Slavi Trifonov; and ‘Bulgarian rise’ of former caretaker prime minister Stefan Yanev, which describes it as a “national-conservative” party.
Yanev served as the defence minister in Petkov’s cabinet but resigned after making controversial comments about Ukraine.
This brings us closer to the extremist and ultra-nationalist parties.
These forces have been present in Bulgaria, in one form or another, for the last 20 years.
Initially, it was the extremist Ataka, followed by the nationalist VMRO, and now the same electorate votes for Vazrazhdane (Revival), led by Kostadin Kostadinov, who has capitalised on anti-vaxxer and pro-Russian sentiments and on conspiracy theories blaming the West for the war in Ukraine.
According to opinion polls, Borissov’s GERB could come first with just over 25%, followed by Petkov’s ‘We continue the change’ with around 17%, DPS at 12%, Vazrazhdane around 10-11, BSP 10%, and Democratic Bulgaria with 7-8%.
The polls are divided on whether Trifonov’s ‘There is such a people’ and Yanev’s party will also cross the 4% threshold and enter parliament.
Once in Parliament, the top party will have the first go at forming a government. The problem is that Borissov is unacceptable to most other political players, and the chances that he could form a viable government are slim.
If the reform-minded Petkov gets another chance to form a government, it is unlikely that he could muster a majority of 121 MPs in the 240-seat parliament. Previously he was in a coalition with BSP, Democratic Bulgaria, and Slavi Trifonov’s party, until the latter withdrew and sank the cabinet.
The third – and last – chance to form a government is in the hands of the country’s president, Rumen Radev, who can give the mandate to a party of his choice (not necessarily the third-strongest force).
If this attempt fails, as has happened three times in the last 18 months, there will be another election.
In the meantime, the country is governed by a caretaker cabinet appointed by the president, whose personal ratings, although still reasonably high, are declining because he is perceived as too friendly with Russia and Gazprom.
Bulgaria, labelled as the EU’s poorest country, has many problems, starting with its poor demographic trends. Unfortunately, its biggest export product is its youth.
During 12 years under Borissov, few reforms were made, but a vast clientelist system was established, perceived by many in the country as the rule of the mafia. The widespread corruption prompted mass protests against Borissov in July 2020.
Borissov promoted Russian interests, especially by building the TurkStream pipeline across Bulgarian territory. There is no rule of law and the justice system remains unreformed. Media freedom exists only in small outlets that struggle to survive.
Russian propaganda and disinformation are everywhere, in official media and on Facebook.
It is not unlikely that four pro-Russian forces could make it to Parliament: GERB, BSP, Vazrazhdane, and ‘Bulgarian rise’. Together, they would account for 40% of the vote, which would translate into a majority in Parliament.
Incidentally, there is no love lost between BSP and GERB and such a coalition is therefore unlikely.
Which is why the most realistic forecast is Groundhog Day for Bulgaria, again.
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Views are the author’s.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/ Benjamin Fox]