In Bulgaria, the fifth parliamentary elections in the last two years were held on 2 April. These snap elections, just like their predecessors, juxtaposed parties of the status quo with reformists. This time, however, writes Dragomir Stoyanov, the status quo prevailed
The latest snap elections in Bulgaria answered one important question. Will the parties of the status quo continue to oppose the fight against corruption and proposed reforms to the judicial system? They will. This issue, therefore, will continue to dominate the Bulgarian political landscape. The outcome of this election suggests Bulgaria could now follow Hungary and Poland in becoming the EU's next enfant terrible.
Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007. Since then, the Bulgarian political elite has been discussing reforms related to the country's widespread corruption, and the need for judicial reform. In 2020, as a result of mass protests demanding action, the parties in support of tackling corruption attracted considerable support. The protests breathed new energy into political parties that opposed the status quo, including Yes, Bulgaria, Democrats for Strong Bulgaria and the Green Movement.
These parties formed a coalition, Democratic Bulgaria, which entered parliament in 2021. In 2022, a new reformist party, We Continue the Change, was established under the leadership of Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev. These two were key members of a caretaker government in 2021. However, coalition party efforts, along with the enthusiasm of civil society organisations to bring political change, were not enough. Bulgaria called snap elections in 2021 and in 2022. In the 2023 Bulgarian elections, it seems the status quo parties have now regained the upper hand.
Polls taken weeks before election day predicted a close-fought competition. The two frontrunners were reformist coalition We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria and pro-status quo coalition GERB-SDS. The results, therefore, did not come as a surprise:
GERB-SDS won with 26.49% of the votes, on a 40.69% turnout. GERB leader Boyko Borissov was extremely active during the campaign, meeting local mayors, municipality councillors and party leaders. He promised stability and financial support for the municipalities. As a result, the GERB-SDS coalition registered an increase of 40,000 votes.
On the other side, following a largely toothless campaign, the reformist coalition registered a 70,000 drop in votes. The coalition attracted severe criticism from GERB-SDS, BSP, Revival and the President Rumen Radev for its short-lived coalition government, which had tried to implement reforms in different sectors. With only 24.56% of the votes, We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria is, post-election, in a much weaker political position than before.
In third place came the pro-Russian, Eurosceptic, far-right Revival, with 14.16% of the votes. Understandably, this caused anxiety for pro-European liberal experts. The party of the status quo, Movement for Rights and Freedoms, came fourth, with 13.75% of votes. The Bulgarian Socialist Party finished fifth, with 8.93% of votes. This continued the decline of the party registered in the 2021 and 2022 elections.
The populist There Is Such a People secured a mere 4.11% of the vote. Its withdrawal of support for Kiril Petkov's reformist coalition government in 2022 effectively put an end to the hope of reforms in Bulgaria.
What is different after this election? At first glance, there is no significant change in the electoral geometry. However, the election has indeed affected Bulgaria's political landscape. For the first time, parties of the status quo have political dominance. GERB-SDS and DPS declared that they would work towards forming a government, and it will not be a surprise if BSP or ITN support such a coalition. On the other side, the reformist coalition seems politically isolated and lacks any other parliamentary support. The reformists did get an offer from GERB-SDS to be part of a coalition government. However, accepting this offer could bring about the coalition’s political collapse.
If GERB-SDS succeeds in imposing its political agenda, the chances of Bulgaria reforming its judiciary and fighting corruption are doomed. On the other hand, progress in the fight against corruption would provoke the collapse of GERB. This, in turn, would spell the end of Boyko Borissov's political career.
One important election outcome is the increase in support for radical-right party Revival. The party is the third largest in parliament and could be a leading party to form a government if the first two coalitions fail.
Before the elections, Revival campaigned for a referendum against Bulgarian accession to the Eurozone. This helped it attract pro-Russian far-right supporters. But it also attracted people concerned that the introduction of the Euro would increase the cost of living in the EU's poorest member state. Revival stoked this fear, and turned it to their advantage in its electoral campaign. The party also proposed a neutral stance in Russia's war against Ukraine, and campaigned for the removal of international retail chains. Revival's good results are the consequence of a decline of Bulgaria's other far-right parties and the successful mobilisation of its own voters.
As a result of the 2023 Bulgarian elections, we can expect one of three scenarios before the autumn local elections. The first is a government formed by GERB-SDS and politicians from the reformist coalition. The latter would hope that their participation would achieve at least some reforms. The second scenario is a coalition of the parties of the status quo and a return to the time of stagnation (described by them as ‘stability’) under the ruling GERB-SDS. A third scenario is yet another snap election.
In either of the first two scenarios, the reforms championed by civil society organisations and activists in the big cities will be postponed indefinitely. If so, Bulgaria will continue as the laggard of the EU, despite huge financial support from EU funds.