As the citizens of Bulgaria went to the polls on the 4th of April, they looked back at a volatile year characterised by two crises – one of health, which locked the people inside their homes for what felt like an eternity, and one of public trust, which drove tens of thousands into the streets over the course of several months. It might come as a surprise that the protests, rather than the pandemic, guided the public's hands as they cast their ballots and chose their next government in the parliamentary election of 2021.
The current government was elected in 2017 and consists of Bulgaria's strongest party, the centre-right populist GERB, and United Patriots, a right-wing nationalist coalition of three parties – IMRO, Attack, and NFSB. The election signalled for the third time that Boyko Borisov, the charismatic leader of GERB, would again claim the prime minister's title. His two previous terms were both cut short by his resignation, and while his party won the 2017 election, it carried on a reputation stained with allegations of corruption and fraud.
Corruption appears to be a problem for all of Bulgaria, not only GERB. The country continuously ranks lowest among the EU member states on the Corruption Perception Index, and the issue is tremendously affecting the country’s citizens, bringing anger and frustration to the masses. These emotional currents erupted in 2020 as massive protests flared up in multiple cities across Bulgaria. This was in reaction to corruption scandals that involved leading members of both GERB (namely Borisov himself) and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a centrist opposition party that mainly represents the Turkish minority. While the protests encapsulated a disdain for politics in general, they quickly became a playing field for multiple existing and newly emerging opposition parties. BSP for Bulgaria, a left-wing coalition that scored 27.2% votes in the 2017 election, promptly sided with the protesters. The president of Bulgaria, Rumen Radev, who won the 2016 election as an independent candidate backed by BSP, publicly voiced his support of the protests and demanded the resignation of the government, a statement that resulted in his office being raided by the police. Ironically, the raids only further fuelled the protests and strengthened the crowds’ sympathies towards the president.
Certain politicians, such as Hristo Ivanov, went further and took on a central role in the protests. Ivanov is one of the leaders for Democratic Bulgaria, a centrist, pro-European, anti-corruption coalition created in 2018 through the unification of Yes, Bulgaria!, Democrats for Strong Bulgaria, and the Greens. He was openly involved in the organization of the protests. Notably, his role was similar to the Poisonous Trio, the three men central to the logistics behind the protests. The trio decided to join forces with Maya Manolova, former National Ombudswoman. At the end of 2019 she founded a populist, anti-corruption, centre-left civil platform, endorsing the EU and direct democracy, named Stand Up!. Both Stand Up! and Democratic Bulgaria sensed the underlying discontent of the population and felt that they would be able to utilize the feelings evoked by the protest for political gain, providing alternatives to those who considered the present choices unacceptable. However, neither one of the parties managed to capitalize on the current state of affairs
Slavi Trifonov, another popular figure, also failed to make waves. The singer and talk show host beloved by the nation had been vocal about his political opinions long before the protests erupted, going as far as launching his own TV channel to challenge the limitations on freedom of the press that prevented him from politicizing the content of the talk show. In February 2020, he founded his own political party: There Is Such a People. While none of the aforementioned parties have precise agendas, Trifonov’s anti-establishment party undeniably dominates the field of unclear stances and extreme statements that further emphasize their ambiguity, offering only the vague promise of direct democracy and an end to corruption. Compared to the other actors, Trifonov holds the advantage of being simultaneously well-known and perceived as entirely separate from the rather corrupt realm of Bulgarian politics.
The entrance of multiple new players into the political arena further complicated the already impossible feat of predicting the outcome of the election. The official results of the six parties or coalitions that crossed the 4% threshold and therefore got into the parliament are summarized in the graphs below.
While the results seem optimistic for GERB at first glance, the reality behind them does not offer many feasible possibilities for Borisov and his party. In order to hold a majority in the parliament, they have to form a coalition with one or more of the other parties elected. However, the odds of such a scenario happening are very slim since most of the other parties have explicitly denied any possibility of forming a government with GERB. Predictably, Borisov is trying to come up with alternatives, such as a technical government, which is much needed in a pandemic. He even issued a statement about giving up his seat in the parliament and his claim to the title of the prime minister. His statements do not resonate with the other parties, meaning that Borisov will most likely be forced to hand over the government-forming mandate to Trifonov. However, the leader of There Is Such a People is also not faced with an abundance of possible coalition partners. While three of the other parties elected, BSP, Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up!, share Trifonov’s disdain towards the current state of Bulgarian politics, they are not likely to be his preferred coalition partners. In the few clearly formulated areas of Trifonov’s party agenda, the stances reflect the right section of the political spectrum, whereas BSP and Stand Up! are located on the opposite side. Trifonov’s willingness to overcome the ideological differences is extremely hard to evaluate, especially since he has not publicly spoken about the implications of the election results. Therefore, If neither he nor Borisov manage to form a coalition, the election will probably take place again, with little chance of any significant changes to the outcome.
All in all, Bulgaria’s political future has not been made much clearer by the election. While the pandemic did not have a strong influence, apart from the turnout dropping from 54% in 2017 to 50.6%, it is clear that the protests significantly complicated the situation. Not only did they contribute to the failure of previous government parties to enter the parliament, they also shifted the political scene into chaos. The unpredictable and somewhat vague character of the parties that rode the wave of dissatisfaction has somewhat maximized the pre-existing political chaos, engulfing Bulgaria and its future in a cloud of uncertainty.
Written by Lucie Schejbalová, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons.