by Galan Dall, Editor-at-Large, Visegrad Insight & Res Publica Nova
The dramatic results from the 4th April elections have changed the political landscape in Bulgaria. While prime minister Boyko Borissov’s GERB party still came in first with 25 percent of the vote (eight points down from the previous election) and their coalition partner unable to meet the 4 percent threshold to enter parliament, Borissov’s ability to form a government looked unlikely.
The polls had indicated this trouble for the GERB party which will return some confidence to the beleaguered industry. However, the real surprise was that the populist party There is Such a People (ITN), led by former-rocker Slavi Trifonov, took second place with 17 percent overcoming the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which had a horrible showing of only 14 percent.
The election confirms the depth of the populace’s discontent with the current parliamentary make-up, punishing not only the ruling party but the main opposition parties as well. Moreover, Bulgarians are fed up with the continual, high level of corruption that has essentially turned the country into a mafia-state by sending to parliament an additional two new parties, Democratic Bulgaria and Stand up.BG. The three new parties’ results reflect the large anti-corruption protests from last summer, which did not yield immediate consequences but have catalysed a movement. Surprisingly, these three parties will most likely have a mandate to form a government, but since they will be shy of the necessary number of MPs, they will probably need the BSP. This scenario does not spell confidence in this potential government’s longevity nor match the resolute decision of the voters. In this case, new elections would need to be called, most likely coinciding with the presidential campaigns in the coming autumn.
There is one scenario, however, where GERB could attempt to make a coalition with BSP and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (Renew). These three parties have dominated the Bulgarian political landscape for nearly three decades, but all have had a considerable decline of support in these elections. If they were somehow able to put aside their previous ideological differences (not very likely), they would have enough seats to form a coalition. For this to be feasible, a tectonic shift would be necessary.
After his party’s rather dismal performance, Prime Minister Borissov resigned adding – some may say ominously – that he does not require immunity. Subsequently declaring that he would not lead the new government GERB is trying to form, Borissov put forward diplomat Daniel Mitov as his possible successor. Still, no additional grouping has exhibited their willingness to go into coalition with the winning party.
However, the initial silence from Slavi Trifonov and his party after their surprise second-place showing, began to be intolerable for the electorate. It was most likely a strategic choice to wait until the GERB party is unable to form a new coalition before revealing their plans; however, it left some analysts to conclude that ITN lacked the experience to lead.
Those assumptions were perhaps premature. In the party’s first show of strength, the proposal to change election legislation from ITN was the only one accepted by the legal committee. Moreover, Bulgaria’s Parliament has passed a moratorium on concessions and appointments by the outgoing GERB government, specifically focusing on the sales of hospitals and state enterprises; a move GERB promises to fight in the courts. Nevertheless, this move by the parliament indicates that MPs are accepting the reality that the electorate has sent them; they want new leadership and direction for the country.
It would be too early to write Borissov off completely as his influence in Bulgaria is entrenched; he served as prime minister for the vast majority of the past twelve years and has aided and benefited from the consolidation of power through state-connected oligarchs, nepotism and rampant corruption. The most likely reason for Borissov’s resignation – besides his avoiding any embarrassment for GERB’s poor performance – is interest in a potential presidential bid later in the year.
His chances at winning would not be outlandish, especially with a regional and domestic decline in security stemming from malign foreign influences. Just prior to the election, a large Russian spy ring was broken up by Bulgarian police leading to the expulsion of two diplomats. More recently, the heightened diplomatic row from Bulgaria’s Central European neighbour around the alleged Russian connection to a Czech ammunition explosion from 2014 has sent ripples across Sofia. Borissov has been asked by MPs from Democratic Bulgaria if there is any intelligence linking the Czech explosion to a number of similar ammunition blasts occurring the same year in Bulgaria.
If Borissov had knowledge of such events and had not informed the public or parliament, his political career would be over. However, if the intelligence is inconclusive or enough subterfuge marks the media landscape, he could escape culpability. Then, these events would open up a space for nationalist rhetoric and policies to fill, and it is here that Borissov would certainly be able to exploit the vulnerabilities – both real and presumed – felt by the public.
Regardless of these potential scenarios, the election most definitely sent a message to Brussels: that the Bulgarian people are dissatisfied with the illiberal state capture by their government, and the silent tolerance of the EU towards their country’s corruptive tendencies (unlike their treatment of Hungary and Poland) is no longer acceptable.
More articles on the Visegrad region are available here.
Galan Dall, currently located in the United Kingdom, is the editor-at-large for Visegrad Insight. He is the author of numerous scenario-based reports on topics such as the future of work, democratic security and information sovereignty. He has been the editor of many political and cultural reports and books based on Central Europe, and he is a graduate of the University of Madison, Wisconsin.