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Anamaria Waschnewski & Teodora Ivanova: Third Time's a Charm? Hopefully!

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

Bulgarians Vote for the Third Time Hoping to Ensure a Government that Can Cope with the Pressing Domestic Crises

Unprecedented Elections

On Sunday, November 14, the citizens of Bulgaria went to the polls to participate in an unprecedented election. For the first time ever, the parliamentary and presidential elections coincided. This marks the third time in 2021 that Bulgarians have voted for the parliament, since the results of the first two elections were too inconclusive and fractionated to permit the formation of any coalition. Altogether, the outcome of the November elections is surprising: for the first time in Bulgarian history, the leading party was formed only a few weeks ago by political novices whose first political roles were to be appointed ministers in the temporary caretaker government of the past months.

The Bulgarian political system is complex and fast-paced (Deegan-Krause & Haughton 2021). It is common in Bulgarian politics to see the birth of political parties aimed at addressing specific time-sensitive issues, yet lacking broad societal and historical foundation. These parties are unable to persist, and therefore disappear off the political scene as quickly as they emerged (Deegan-Krause & Haughton 2021). Aside from this, the set-up of the more stable party-like institutions are electoral alliances (Deegan-Krause & Haughton 2021), making it difficult for Bulgarians to keep up with day-to-day developments in politics. Additionally, the alliances formed by parties bring about collisions of political stances - the parties involved may agree on domestic affairs, but have different positions when it comes to the European Union, for example. Also, in a country riddled with corruption, it is difficult to differentiate between the politicians who have allegations to their names, and those who don’t.

The Parliamentary Election

This party, whose name translates to “We Continue the Change” (PP - according to its Bulgarian name), formed and led by Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev is perceived to be the uniting force destined to end the political gridlock of Bulgarian politics, (Reuters 2021). 25.3% of those who voted on Sunday believed that PP could live up to this expectation, and hence they casted their votes for the political newcomers. PP has replaced GERB-SDS, which formed an electoral alliance under the name “Union of Democratic Forces”, as the leading party.

GERB-SDS, a centre-right populist party led by Boyko Borisov, has been winning increasingly less votes with in round of the parliamentary elections of 2021, starting with 25.8% in April, going down to 23.78% in August and scoring only 22.4% in the most recent election (Tsolova 2021; Nordsieck 2021).

A similar trend can be observed in the vote of the Bulgarian social-democratic electoral alliance BSP, whose percentage went from 14.79%, to 13.22% and now down to 10.1%. Same goes for Democratic Bulgaria (DB), an electoral alliance of three parties devoted to fight latent corruption, which started with 9.31% in April, climbed to 10.57% in August and fell back to 6.3% in November (Nordsieck, 2021).

ITN, a party founded out of protest and anti-establishment resentment by Bulgarian celebritySlavi Trifonov , experienced the most severe decline in popularity. In the April elections, the party received 17.4% of votes, came in second in August with 23.21% and now fell to 9.4% (Tsolova 2021; Nordsieck 2021).

Lastly, in order to paint the picture of the November election, two more parties are worth mentioning. Firstly, the DPS (Movement for Rights and Freedom), led by Mustafa Karadayi, which is the biggest European minority party, with a centrist stance and a support among Turkish minorities, won 12.8% (Nordsieck, 2021). And finally, Revival, a right-wing party nationalist party, for the first time passed the threshold of 4% in this year’s elections, has scored 4.8% (Nordsieck, 2021).

The centrist-right party GERB that had been governing Bulgaria for more than a decade sought to mobilize Bulgarian voters under the slogan “Order in Chaos” matching perfectly the current state of the public affairs during the duration of the provisional government which Tsolova names as the prolonged political deadlock, the rising level of coronavirus infections and the high energy costs. These helped the party activate its regional structures and preserve its supporters (Tsolova 2021). What was missing in his convincing election campaign perhaps was one key transformation necessary for long-term survival: for Borisov to give away the party’s leadership (Deegan-Krause & Haughton 2021).

A counterpart to the status quo and an alternative to GERB’s governing model was offered by the recently established party PP. Its founders Kiril Petrov and Asen Vasilev, “the Harvards”, as they are called by both sympathizers and critics are a dynamic duo portraying themselves as “new center”. Their pre-election slogan was “left-wing goals with right-wing measures''. One of their main goals to illustrate this political mindset was redirecting corruptly granted funds by introducing education and healthcare reforms instead of raising taxes. Among their party ideals were also Bulgaria becoming a ‘zero corruption’ State and transforming the lagging Bulgarian economy into one worthy of a chapter in an economics textbook. They tried to gain Bulgarian voters’ support by establishing themselves as not an ego-driven party, open to a coalition putting an end to the political stalemate in the country. (Dzambazova 2021) Although such a political campaign seems to be unprecedented for Bulgarian politics, Ruzha Smilova, programme director at the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia found a similarity between two opposites a prima facia. She argued that Petkov was ‘the first politician since Borisov to have such evident charisma’ (Crawford 2021). And apparently his charisma was enough to replace his rival.

The Presidential Election

The presidential election ended in a less spectacular way: Rumen Radev, the incumbent and favored candidate, won 49.45% of the casted votes. Radev has been backed by Petrov’s and Vasilev’s PP, the same two whom he has employed as provisional ministers of economy and finance, as well as by all other anti-graft parties like ITN, DB and BSP. On the political front, incumbent president Rumen Radev’s great opponent remained a mystery until the 1 st of October when a GERB-backed candidate emerged. Anastas Gerdzhikov, currently rector of Sofia University, a political newby backed by GERB-SDS, has won 22.85% of the votes. Although the results are clear, the low turn-out of only 40.5% has made the Bulgarian Central Electoral Commission decide that there will be a runoff on the 21st of November between the two most voted candidates Radev and Gerdjikov (Novinite 2021).

The prominent academic, but not a recognizable figure among the mass, introduced his candidacy certain that he could contribute to Bulgarians’ unity. Nonetheless, this sequence of events was referred to as surprising by some political analysts such as Milen Lyubenov who outlined that not many personas would run for this highly-respected state duty supported by GERB which finds itself in political isolation and dealing with grave image problems (Todorov 2021). While his opponent had been announced only a few weeks before the election, Rumen Radev on the other hand announced his pitch for a second term trying to mobilize his sympathizers as early as February this year, his campaign continuing his anti-status quo and anti-establishment rhetoric. While serving his term as a president he continuously criticized the ruling coalition of GERB and United Patriots, going as far as to point to Borisov’s government as “mafia” after the arguably triggered by his 2020 Bulgarian protests. He has also incessantly manifested his disapproval of Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev (Todorov 2021). Thus, one can only expect Radev to perform as well in the upcoming runoff presidential election.

Looking into the Future

There are two likely outcomes of the elections – either PP forms a coalition government, or Bulgaria sets its own electoral record with four sequential rounds. PP won against most sociological forecasts, but this fact is not that surprising having in mind the failure of the so-called “protest parties” to nominate cabinet. Logically, the first mandate is given to PP who need to have at least four partners to reach the parliamentary majority. Those are likely to be BSP, DB, and ITN, only after crucial negotiations, especially with ITN. If they secure a mandate, GERB will be in opposition and Kiril Petkov will be the new prime minister. After the elections, Petkov commented on national television that he feels optimistic and shares a lot of common policies with DB and ITN. He stated that the main points they need to agree on are the change of the chief prosecutor and a change in the Anti-Corruption Commission (Novinite 2021).

Chart: Novinite 2021

Nonetheless, if this scenario fails, the mandate is given to GERB who find themselves in political isolation so their chances of forming a government are little. The third mandate is given by the president to a party of his own choice. But if the first two do not produce results, it is unlikely that a third party will. Therefore, the second most likely outcome is new snap elections scheduled after the dissolution of the National Assembly, which is possible after January 22, when the next president's term begins (Novinite 2021).

All in all, after the political turmoil of this year, one can only wonder: Is fresh wind to be expected in Bulgarian politics? And, as Ruzha Smilova wondered: Is Petkov going to change Bulgarian politics, or is Bulgarian politics going to change Petkov? (Crawford 2021). A lot of wondering, little clearance… Yet, one can only hope that this has been the third- and last - election in the coming four years, and that it would have been a vote casted in favor of ‘freedom, legality, and justice’, as incumbent president Radev has stated as he voted himself (France 24).”

Written by Anamaria Waschnewski, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons

Photo: Reuters 2021


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