George Kordas argues that repeat elections can benefit democracy if democratic mechanisms function effectively, giving voice to people frustrated with the current system. But when, as in Bulgaria, elections produce paralysis, and old powers continue in office, this compromises citizens’ belief in democracy
Bulgaria’s quality of democracy has been in question for some time. This situation was only exacerbated between 2021 and 2023, during which time no fewer than five national elections were held: in April, July and November 2021, October 2022, and April 2023.
The background to this turmoil was the outbreak, in 2020, of several political scandals involving Prime Minister Boris Borisov and the country’s General Prosecutor. These scandals frustrated Bulgarian citizens and triggered unprecedented political instability.
The inability of parties and politicians to form a stable government prompted three elections in just eight months. Internal clashes and an unofficial political split between pro- and anti-Russian politicians ended the third government’s term in this period. Bulgaria remained without a stable government until June 2023.
During this crisis, the centre-right GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) maintained its electoral standing, although short of a majority to form a government. GERB’s ongoing presence in a continuously fragmented political scene casts doubt on whether repeat elections can ever resolve Bulgaria’s problems.
The contemporary concept of democracy is confusing. It has multiple splits and differentiations, based, for example, on geographic region, the measure of people’s involvement in democratic processes, or democracy’s digitisation. Jean-Paul Gagnon underlines the complexity of those words; and how and what researchers attempt to explain by way of them.
Post-communist countries began integrating into the EU in 2004 after fulfilling several prerequisites, including the adoption of specific democratic criteria. EU leaders believed that by embedding these provisions, the newcomers could reach the democratic level of the EU’s core.
EU leaders believed that by adopting specific democratic criteria, Eastern European newcomers could reach the democratic level of the EU’s core
Yet, once these countries had joined the EU, there was no close monitoring of these provisions. Soon, other factors began to pull in the opposite direction.
Bulgaria’s democratic transition, for example, had been peaceful. The country subsequently attempted to build and consolidate a modern democratic regime. Yet, political decisions made by the social democrats (former communists), coupled with the rise of populism and the far-right, weakened the attraction – and therefore the idea – of democracy for Bulgarian citizens.
A situation developed in which EU membership expanded faster, although the newcomers questioned, and sometimes outright rejected, EU values.
The 2021–2023 social and political crisis was prolonged by Bulgarian politicians using elections as a ‘fire exit’. With little imagination and even less cooperation, their decision was always to call new elections. The parties continued to maintain a stranglehold on the system, while the electorate became increasingly fragmented in its vote.
Bulgaria is not, of course, the only European country that has experienced repeat elections. Belgium and Greece have recently undergone similar experiences. Yet, in Belgium, democracy still manages to function because all political groups recognise and accept the operation of specific mechanisms. And in Greece, repeat elections failed to prevent the breakthrough of challenger parties.
In Belgium, despite repeat elections, democracy still manages to function because all political groups recognise and accept the operation of specific mechanisms
The Bulgarian case lacks mechanisms like those of Belgium. Bulgarian democracy has not yet matured in the way it has in the more advanced countries of western Europe. Bulgaria's recent coalition governments have delivered poor results in the policy field, resulting in their rapid breakdown.
Moreover, Bulgarian politicians seem to lack awareness that simply insisting on repeat elections could harm democracy itself. Repeat elections increase distrust in a political system that is failing repeatedly to provide solutions to the crisis.
Bulgaria’s recourse to repeat elections is not unique. Indeed, repeat elections are a growing phenomenon, especially in Europe.
Moreover, as a new democracy, Bulgaria has in recent years faced the same challenges as almost every European democracy: corruption, demonstrations, the rise of populist and far-right parties, and conflict between pro-European and Eurosceptic politicians. At the same time, Bulgaria's weak economy renders it vulnerable to external threats such as the migration crisis.
After five elections in two years, GERB and PP have now agreed to form a coalition government in which the prime minister's position rotates after nine months
Is there hope on the horizon? After five elections in two years, Bulgaria finally appears to have reached a political agreement on which direction the country should develop in the years to come. GERB and PP (We Continue the Change) secured the most votes in the April 2023 elections. After two months of negotiations, the parties agreed to form a coalition government in which the prime minister’s position rotates after nine months.
The coalition appears to signal the end of Bulgaria's cycle of repeat elections. At the same time, Bulgarian politics continues to be poisoned by political scandals and deep divisions between pro- and anti- Russian politicians. It remains to be seen how much this cycle has damaged citizens’ trust in political parties – and in Bulgarian democracy itself.