by Louisa Slavkova – Director, Sofia Platform Foundation
Germans often say that ‘after the elections is before the elections.’ It means that the work of winning and keeping the voters’ hearts and minds is as important after the elections, as it is during the campaign. In Bulgaria’s 2021 super election year, the saying has acquired another meaning. ‘After’ the parliamentary elections of April became ‘before’ the early elections of July. And a third parliamentary election in 2021 cannot be excluded, given the volatile power distribution in parliament.
A chronicle of three dense months
The April 2021 elections followed the 2020 popular protests demanding the resignation of the ruling party GERB, as well as that of the prosecutor general. Accusations ranged from rule of law abuse to systemic corruption. GERB has been in power for almost twelve-years without interruption, led by former PM Boyko Borissov. These elections resulted in a much more fragmented parliament than the previous one, with six parties passing the four percent threshold. These can be divided into two groups: the parties of the establishment – GERB, the Socialists, and the Turkish minority party (DPS); and the so-called protest parties – ‘There is such а people’ (ITN), Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up!. No party had a clear majority to form a government. GERB, came first with 75 out of 240 seats in Parliament, and were the first to put forward a new government. The second party was ITN, who subsequently used the government formation mandate to explore a possible coalition. The Socialists, third in line, returned the mandate immediately.
The shortest Parliament in Bulgarian history, however, did manage to make two amendments to the Electoral Code during its tenure. These were the switch to machine voting and the removal of the limitations of voting sections in both EU and non-EU countries. This impacted the UK and, most importantly, Turkey, a stronghold of voters for the Turkish minority party. Historically, the ceiling was introduced precisely to curb the political support the Turkish minority party could gain from Turkey. The hopes were that these two amendments would increase turnout and decrease fraud. An interim government was then appointed on May 11th, with the task of organising the snap elections.
However, the newly appointed ministers went far beyond this. After unveiling significant tax evasions by large companies under GERB’s rule, the interim government replaced many governmental administrative staff, such as the directors of the National Agency of Incomes and of the Customs. Furthermore, it was brought to light that the Bulgarian Development Bank – a small bank meant to deliver credits to start-ups, had granted over half a billion euros to just eight businesses. The interim government also exposed corruption in the National Highway Agency that paid over 800 million euros to private contractors for the construction and improvement of roads that did not even have a building permit. All of this had happened under a Prime Minister who carried great pride in building over half a billion kilometres of highways. Parallel to this, the US imposed sanctions, under the Magnitsky Act, on three very publicly compromised Bulgarians with extensive corruption networks. Far from an exhaustive list, this news was too much for two months and almost completely overshadowed the parties’ election campaign. This period became, willingly or not, a campaign against GERB.
Despite the changes in the Electoral Code, the July elections saw a lower turnout both abroad (173,000 vs 180,000 in April) and overall (42 percent vs 51 percent). The machine vote remains a challenge for people with lower digital skills and among elderly citizens. Even before the winner was announced, it was clear that the new Parliament’s composition would not be too different from the previous one, so the old dilemmas would remain.
The day after the elections, before the official results were confirmed, the well-known TV personality Stanislav (Slavi) Trifonov, leader of ITN, announced a new government on his own TV channel, setting a dangerous precedent of bypassing parliament and the other parties. ITN did come first this election, but with only 65 out of 240 seats. ITN had also declared that they would not form a coalition government. Thus, lacking a majority and refusing to unite with others, the success of this possible government depended upon the support of the other parties. After negative reactions from all parties, all for different reasons, Trifonov announced on his Facebook page that his party will give a press conference, where they formally withdrew their candidate for Prime Minister and clarified their position.
It remains unclear what ITN is hoping to achieve, but the pressure is mounting on them to form a government and take the political responsibility after coming out strongest. According to the Deputy-Head of the party, Todor (Toshko) Yordanov, they never intended to found a party, but nonetheless felt a sense of responsibility vis-à-vis those who supported their 2016 referendum demands (a majoritarian electoral system, introducing compulsory voting and substantially reducing parties‘ subsidies). While these propositions enjoyed huge support, the referendum turnout failed to reach the 51 percent participant threshold for immediate implementation. Consequently, according to Yordanov’s narrative, ITN became a party to see the ‘people’s will’ fulfilled. But what that translates into practically – the party’s intentions and agenda – remains an open question.
Learning from the April deadlock, President Rumen Radev announced he would slow down the process of handing over the government formation mandates until the parties find a common ground. So far this was their antagonism towards GERB. But this is clearly not enough to create a stable majority and a government that can lead the country through an almost certain fourth wave of the pandemic. A week after declaring they will never make a coalition government, ITN changed their minds and announced they would make one, on the condition that GERB does not participate. If ITN fails, the mandate will go to the Socialists who have declared their readiness to form a government. Although it is unclear with whose support. Amidst this stagnation and inability to form a majority government, another round of parliamentary elections in autumn this year, does not seem unthinkable, though rather improbable. Some sort of programmatic government with issues-based coalitions is probably what awaits the country, the question is how long it will last.
The public arena: signs of renewals or deeper into the swamp
Beyond the immediate events, this dynamic period presents some symptoms of a shift in the political system which was built in the 1990’s. Yet, the nature of this shift is still uncertain. The left-right consensus with its classical cleavages is becoming more and more obsolete, the inability to form a government along ideological lines speaks for itself. Clearly the time of the comfortable one-party majority is over. At the same time Bulgaria is not turning into a ‘Germany’, where grand coalitions govern for years, simply because, for now, the two biggest parties on both sides of the spectrum (the former communist party for centre-left and GERB for centre-right) are impossible to reconcile. Instead, the current situation comes closer to the Hungarian scenario of past elections, where all other parties have united against the ruling party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Coming second in the elections and likely to become the opposition in government for a while, GERB might come back stronger, especially if the emerging governing majority proves too unstable.
It was the new party ITN that was supposed to deliver a break from GERB and bring the winds of change. Even though Trifonov’s party has been given the benefit of the doubt, Bulgarians have been disillusioned with similar populist parties over the course of the past 30 years since the fall of communism. So far, ITN represents a typical anti-systemic party, but the question is whether its leadership wants to change the system or dismantle it. Should their aim be the former, this will take more than introducing a majoritarian vote, something that most Bulgarians do not even consider a priority right now. Should it be the latter, there is the threat of discouraging citizens even further from participation and engagement. At a time when trust in Parliament is at a historic low and political parties score second lowest on the scale of trust, Bulgarians can use some democratic leadership rather than another populist saviour on a white horse.
Louisa Slavkova is director of the Sofia Platform Foundation. She is advisory board member of the European Network for Civic Education (NECE). In 2021 she co-founded the pan-European platform for civic education – THE CIVICS Innovation Hub. Since 2019 she is co-head of the Capacity Building Program at Civic Europe, a program for locally rooted civic actors in so called civic deserts in Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Prior to that Louisa has been a Ronald Lauder Visiting Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, NYC, programs manager at ECFR and adviser to Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov. She is author and editor of several books and publications on foreign policy, democracy development and civic education, as well as co-author of а text book on civic education in Bulgaria.
With special thanks to Lora Naydenova, an intern at Sofia Platform Foundation, who provided the fact-checking of this article.