Bulgaria's fourth general election in 18 months promises no end to stalemate

The snap Bulgarian general election of 2 October has failed to resolve the ongoing political stalemate caused by polarisation between two opposing political camps. Dragomir Stoyanov says the new government will be anything but stable – and Bulgaria may even face another snap election next year

Almost two centuries ago, one of the demands of the English Chartist movement was that parliamentary elections be held every year. Bulgaria seems to be attempting to emulate, if not exceed, this demand: on 2 October it held its fourth general election in just eighteen months. Still, no end to the political stalemate is in sight.

How it all started

In 2020, massive protests erupted in the Bulgarian capital Sofia. Bulgarians were protesting against Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, and the coalition government of GERB-SDS and United Patriots. People from across the ideological and social spectrum joined together to demand an end to corruption, freedom of the media from political interference, and an effective separation of judicial and executive powers.

The government reacted with violence. It could quash the protests. But it failed to suppress the people's demands.

As a consequence, in the last ‘regular’ elections in Bulgaria, in April 2021, two opposing camps had already formed. On the one side were the parties of the status quo: Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria and the Union of Democratic Forces (GERB-SDS) along with Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS). On the other side were the parties of reform (or challenger parties): Coalition Democratic Bulgaria (DB), There Is Such a People (ITN) and Stand Up! Thugs out! (IMV).

Polarisation in Bulgaria, already evident in the last 'regular' elections of April 2021, has made forming a regular government impossible

This polarisation made forming a regular government impossible. The first snap elections, in July 2021, resulted in a similarly polarised outcome. The next elections, in November 2021, saw a slim win for the challenger parties. Just before Christmas 2021, a fragile coalition government formed, aiming to challenge the status quo.

But amid skyrocketing gas and electricity prices and a wider cost of living crisis, the new government failed to make itself popular, and it collapsed after just six months in power. The political initiative thus returned to the parties of the status quo, which they used to trigger another snap election, in October 2022.

Political stalemate

The October elections, however, have not solved Bulgaria's political crisis. The rule of law and the fight against corruption still divide the two political camps. The effect of polarisation remains as strong as ever.

GERB-SDS, of the status quo camp, won the elections by improving slightly on its last result. During the campaign, GERB leader Boyko Borissov attacked the short-lived government over inflation and energy price hikes. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), by contrast, was much quieter, concentrating campaign efforts on mobilising its traditional electorate of Bulgarian Turks and a significant part of the Roma population.

On the other side, We Continue the Change and DB campaigned on their positions regarding the rule of law and corruption. Both achieved success in Sofia and a few other big cities, but their vote share is not enough to allow them to form a government.

November 2021 July
  % of vote Seats % of vote Seats % of vote Seats % of vote Seats
Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB-SDS) 25.33 67 22.74 59 23.51 63 26.18 75
We Continue the Change (PP) 20.20 53 25.67 67
Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) 13.75 36 13.00 34 10.71 29 10.49 30
Vazrazhdane (Revival) 10.18 27 4.86 13 3.01 0 2.45 0
Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) 9.30 25 10.21 26 13.39 36 15.01 43
Coalition Democratic Bulgaria (DB) 7.45 20 6.37 16 12.64 34 9.45 27
Bulgarian Rise (BV) 4.63 12
There is Such a People (ITN) 3.83 0 9.52 25 24.08 65 17.66 51

Mainstream parties: GERB, BSP, DPS
Challenger parties: PP, ITN, DB
Far right: Vazrazhdane

Socialists in freefall

The once mighty and influential Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) is now in freefall. Alienated from the issues of the day, its policies attacked by far-right populists and criticised by President Radev, the BSP finds itself at a critical juncture. Its electoral result, the lowest in the 30 years since the fall of communism, testifies to a deep identity crisis.

War in Ukraine has also taken its toll. The BSP opposed sanctions against Russia, and its rhetoric showed sympathy toward the Kremlin. However, far-right parties Revival and Bulgarian Rise (BV) aggressively courted Russian-sympathising voters, with greater success.

The role of the president

Bulgaria's parliament is a one-chamber institution, with 240 MPs. The last two years has seen the president take a more prominent role in national politics. The institution of the president in Bulgaria is a strange one. Presidents are elected by direct voting, which gives them a high level of legitimacy, yet the Bulgarian constitution considerably limits a President's power. This paradox creates significant tensions in the institutional structure.

Prior to every snap election, Radev has appointed caretaker governments. Using this instrument, he has tried to play a more important role in Bulgarian political life. First, he supported the formation of We Continue the Change. Later, however, he entered into conflict with the party over the war in Ukraine.

Over the last two years, the President has taken an increased role in national politics, appointing caretaker governments and influencing new party formation

An open supporter of a more friendly position towards Russia, Radev influenced the creation of Bulgarian Rise. This party, a conservative, pro-Russian formation, swung enough voters away from the BSP to enter parliament. BV's likely role is to act as a bridge between Radev's power ambitions and GERB leader Borissov.

What’s next?

Forming a new GERB-SDS led government will be difficult. However, some other parties have already expressed the will to cooperate with them. These include DPS (a party that shares GERB's interest in preserving the status quo) and the pro-presidential BV. Thus, these parties could form a government which might try to marginalise the reformist parties and prepare Bulgaria for the important municipal elections scheduled for autumn 2023.

It may be possible for GERB-SDS or a non-political figure to form a government; but neither guarantee future stability

The parties of reform rejected the offer to participate in a future GERB-SDS government. They are aware that such a government would be unlikely to uphold the rule of law or tackle endemic corruption in Bulgaria.

Another possibility is a government led by a non-political figure but supported in parliament by a majority comprised of different parties. Neither of those scenarios, however, is a recipe for political stability. Bulgaria may be destined for yet another snap election.

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


photograph of Dragomir Stoyanov
Dragomir Stoyanov
PhD Researcher, LPS School, University of Sussex

Dragomir's research interests are in political parties and elections, with a special emphasis on Eastern European politics.

His current research project deals with Euroscepticism and democratic backsliding in Bulgaria.

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