Bulgaria could be headed for its third national parliamentary elections in a year

Following the stalemate produced by April's elections, Bulgaria has just gone to the polls for the second time this year. Ekaterina Rashkova-Gerbrands argues that these elections have resolved nothing, leaving Bulgaria with an insoluble dilemma

If at first you don’t succeed…

On 11 July 2021, Bulgaria held its second national parliamentary election of the year. It came after three parties' failed attempt to form a government in the aftermath of the April election.

The surprise in that election was the success of three newly formed political parties / coalitions. These had a common goal – to oust GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, the last decade's incumbent party) from power. That much they did. However, with the way the vote was distributed, they couldn't do much else. The inability of any political force to form a government meant only one thing: new elections.

Trifonov’s slim victory

The July election produced a slim victory for the party of Slavi Trifonov (There is Such People – ITN) over GERB. It also brought four additional parties into parliament: Democratic Bulgaria (DB), Rise Up! Thugs Out! (IMV), the Bulgarian Socialist Party, and the Turkish minority party (DPS). In the 11 July election, each party captured between 5% and 24% of the vote. Bulgaria is, therefore, once more at a political crossroads.

The so-called ‘protest parties’ – ITN, DB, and IMV – ousted GERB, making ITN triumphant. However, they won just 65 seats; only two more than GERB. ITN were also unwilling to engage in discussions with DB and IMV, assumed pre-election to be GERB's likely coalition partners. It is unlikely, therefore, that ITN will manage to achieve much.

Winds of change or political stalemate?

While one can still sense winds of change, the direction remains unclear. Uncertainty arises from two factors. Once again, there is neither a clear majority, nor a majority of like-minded parties, to support a working government. There is also the sense that some claims of newness might be an illusion.

there is neither a clear majority, nor a majority of like-minded parties, to support a working government

For example, before his party had even been officially declared the winner of the election, Trifonov proposed a governing coalition. To everyone’s surprise (including even his supporters and the other ‘protest parties’) this coalition included a significant number of old faces largely disliked by the public. They are politicians from the early 2000s government of Simeon Sakskoburggotski (Saxe-Coburg-Gotha), Bulgaria’s exiled king, whose party ruled between 2001 and 2005.

The idea is, therefore, unlikely to receive support in parliament from either the protest parties (DB and IMV), or (new) opposition parties DPS, BSP and GERB. And it is improbable that any other government coalition will form. Bulgarians may thus be forced to go to the polls for a third time in a single calendar year. Until then, or until an alternative solution is found, the existing government remains in office.

Voting fatigue

What are the prospects for change if Bulgaria ends up having its third parliamentary election this year? Put simply, breaking the logjam requires at least some of the political forces to secure more votes.

Parties can do so in two ways. They can focus on increasing the electoral turnout at home and abroad. They can also develop more targeted campaigns based on concrete policies and plans for the country, giving voters real choices.

breaking the logjam requires at least some of the political forces to secure more votes

It will be an uphill task. There are clear signs that Bulgarians are suffering from voting fatigue. Turnout was down 8% (from 50.6% to 42.2%) between the elections of April and July.

The protest flame still burns

Despite this, results of the latest election confirm overwhelming support for the parties Stoyanov dubs the ‘new kids on the block’. In addition, the vote from abroad, which had previously been mostly exploited by the DPS, veered towards ITN and DB. Both these parties received 50% more votes from voters living abroad than from those at home.

This suggests that the Bulgarian diaspora overwhelmingly supports the protest parties. ITN received 35.6% and DB 18.6%, even though only just over 170,000 votes were cast abroad.

Bulgarians who have chosen to leave the country seem much more interested in rooting out corruption and fighting political mafia than those still living there

Considering an estimated 1.3 million Bulgarians live abroad, there is a largely untapped pool of voters available for interested parties. It also suggests that Bulgarians who have chosen to leave the country are much more interested in rooting out corruption and fighting political mafia than those still living there.

At the same time, despite the lower turnout, voters at home in the July election did give significant support to protest parties. This implies that, with better campaigning and extra effort on the part of the protest parties to mobilise those who previously abstained, there is a chance of real change occurring. There is hope for Bulgaria yet.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Author

photograph of Ekaterina Rashkova
Ekaterina Rashkova
Assistant Professor in Comparative Politics, Utrecht University

Ekaterina has held positions at Leiden University and the University of Innsbruck.

During the 2015-2016 academic year she was a Junior EURIAS fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Study (NIAS), where she worked on a research project studying the effect of electoral regulation on party competition.

Her research interests lie in understanding the behaviour of political actors and the strategies they employ, given the institutional framework and societal pressure in which they operate.

Currently, she is busy better understanding substantive representation and the extent to which parties operate abroad.

Her work has appeared in Comparative European Politics, International Political Science Review, Party Politics, Political Studies, Representation, and West European Politics as well as in several edited book volumes.

She is a co-editor of the journal European Political Science.

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