The upcoming Bulgarian Parliamentary elections are just around the corner. It will be a hard test for the government but also for the citizens. Is society prepared to move towards the less known in the hope for governance reform or, in these times of a pandemic, it would choose certainty, but also no groundbreaking changes?
For several months last year, the country experienced mass protests, where citizens demanded a change of the government, end of serving the interests of oligarchs, and end of the entrenched corruption. The social impetus eventually subsided and regular elections were scheduled for April 4. What resulted from the protests were numerous movements, parties, and other contenders to enter (for some to re-enter) the political scene. The options for the Bulgarian voter to choose from are many, with a mix of systemic and anti-systemic possibilities.
What to watch for?
First, the political spectrum is rather colourful in origin, programmes and names, with several parties on the edge of covering the minimum 4% to enter the parliament. Bulgarians can vote for the established right (GERB) and left (Bulgarian Socialists) parties, for numerous splinters and movements that gained public attention and created a voter base, mainly due to the protests (systemic and anti-systemic parties), for newcomers, including There Is Such a People, led by a well-known comedian/producer/musician, for the always stable in voter support Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and for the disunited nationalists. While the Bulgarian elections tend to always have numerous parties and coalitions registered for participation, in 2017 about 20 entities were registered and this year there are 34.
Recent polls show that the governing party of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov leads with 18.4%, followed by the Bulgarian Socialist Party with 15.7%, third There Is Such a People with 11.7%, and fourth Movement for Rights and Freedoms with 8.2%. But, more interestingly, at least 3 other parties are likely to clear the minimum threshold. In the outgoing Parliament, there are 5 parties, but it looks that the new Parliament will be much more crowded, not a usual election outcome. The PM’s party seems to also fare worse than in the previous elections (where GERB captured 33.5% of the votes) and his and his government’s popularity has been hit, with only 19% of the population trusting the current government.
What is also worth mentioning, two weeks before the parliamentary elections a network of Bulgarians spying for Russia was broken. The timing was convenient for the current government and it brought praise from Washington and Brussels, sidelining for the time being the pressures from the Western allies towards resolving the impasse with North Macedonia, reforming the judiciary, ensuring rule of law, and stumping corruption.
Second, it is harder than usual to predict the turnout of the elections. With the third wave of the COVID pandemic reaching its peak right around the elections, it is not really known what its effect on the electorate would be. Bulgaria has struggled with the second wave in fall 2020, landing on the top of the mortality statistics. After a stricter lockdown, the situation was returned to manageable but eagerness by the government to show achievement and open the country too early for business led to a third wave. In the meantime, the country lags in vaccinations.
One recent survey shows that as the pandemic has begun to intensify the will of the citizens to go and vote has started to decrease from 51% to 46%, with a large number of unable to decide right now (22.7%). According to Stoycho Stoychev, the turnout will be an important factor for which parties will enter the new parliament. A low turnout will be favourable for the current government but a high turnout, with serious participation of young voters, could lead to a substantial variation in the voting result.
Third, based on the last summer’s mass protests, the citizens should come out to express their discontent through voting. The effect of the protest vote, however, will most likely delude among the numerous fractions seeking the support for the protestor and the undecided. Several months have passed since the last numerous protests, which has allowed for the initial impetus of the citizens to subside. Lastly, the election campaign has been short, without many direct challenges, online, and not very informative. All of these factors contribute towards a lack of predictability about the actual effect of the protest and the undecided voters.
Why do the Bulgarian elections matter?
Internally, Bulgaria needs stability. If there is anything unambiguous before the elections, it is that the next government will be a coalition government. Several scenarios are available from PM’s party giving a try to form a government with one of its current partners and seek some silent support from the smaller fractions to the Socialist party attempting to form a coalition government with some of the new parties in the parliament, to even the option of a government formed by several smaller parties. All options, however, suggest a lower likelihood that the next government will last a full 4-year mandate.
Political instability will affect Bulgaria’s handling of the COVID pandemic, the utilization of the EU Recovery package and the capacity to start using the money from the Multiannual Financial Framework. Bulgaria is in a crucial period when recovery and development can be propelled or hindered. Bulgaria’s ambitions to enter the eurozone and Schengen can also be endangered.
A stable and ambitious government in Bulgaria can matter for its position in the EU, as well. The current government has been proclaiming a strong pro-European direction for the country in official statements and often has been a team player and not a challenger on the European level (exception: North Macedonia accession negotiations framework). Additionally, the government has shown its alignment with the EU’s common foreign policy. Recently expressed by the spy scandal handling and the lower representation at the 17+1 format.
At the same time, the government has always been very courteous and open to cooperation with Russia and China, and it is a strong ally of Turkey. But what can propel the country to a stronger position is to start leading in European initiatives and in strengthening, internally, its judiciary, the rule of law, and overall democracy.