Five elections and counting, is there an end in sight to Bulgaria’s political stalemate? 

Unless two seemingly irreconcilable parties can form an unlikely alliance, Bulgaria will need to hold yet another election later this year. That’s bad news for Bulgarian democracy.

Bulgarians headed to the polls on April 2 for the fifth time in two years. No country in Europe has ever voted as frequently in such a short space of time.

The political deadlock has put Bulgaria in a difficult position as it tackles multiple crises. Sunday’s elections, however, once again failed to produce a clear winner, meaning that there is likely to be no end to the stalemate.

As was widely expected, the centre-right GERB party of former prime minister Boyko Borissov and the reformist We Continue the Change – Democratic Bulgaria (PP-DB) alliance each received roughly a quarter of the vote.  

Election night was tense with uncertainty over which party had taken first place lasting until Monday when the Central Electoral Commission released the official results – yet another fractured parliament. 

GERB, the party which ruled Bulgaria for over a decade, came first with 26.51 per cent of the vote. The PP-DB alliance came in second with 24.54 per cent. The pro-Russian Revival party made surprising gains, reaching third place for the first time with 14.15 per cent. 

A total of six parties will enter the National Assembly, but the only real options for a ruling coalition are centred around the two biggest parties. For Bulgaria to once again boast a fully functional government, they will have to work together. This is unlikely, and coalition talks will not be easy. While both parties claim to promote broadly pro-Western policies, anti-corruption reform – a key part of the PP-DB platform – remains a contentious issue. 

Furthermore, the two parties campaigned against each other extensively and aggressively. Now, as neither emerges with a clear upper hand, they will have to decide what their electorate will tolerate more – a compromise or another election. 

The European dream 

Bulgaria has been in a constant state of crisis since protests in 2020 brought down the third Borissov cabinet. The five elections that followed have failed to create a workable alternative, allowing the Bulgarian president, Rumen Radev, to strengthen his grip over the country by appointing a succession of interim governments. 

From Schengen and the euro to the war in Ukraine and rising inflation, any prospective Bulgarian government will have a long list of challenges to tackle.  

Deeper integration into Western structures has been a long-standing policy of nearly every cabinet since the 1990s. Progress, however, has been slow. Bulgaria’s bid to join Schengen was vetoed in December 2022. In February, the country dropped its goal of adopting the euro by January 2024 and there is a risk Bulgaria will miss out on EU Recovery Plan funds. The country is also still trying to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 

PP-DB has vowed to continue Bulgaria’s European course. Ivo Mirchev, an MP for Democratic Bulgaria says that his party’s vision for the future of Bulgaria is a free European country of equality and shared progress.  

“We believe that our country’s potential has been stifled for decades and can be unleashed if we provide the necessary conditions – for a state governed by the rule of law, confident in its geopolitical choices and which, with investment, innovation, modern technology and modern education, achieves at a rapid pace high or at least average European levels of economic and human development,” he tells Emerging Europe

Two days after the election, the OECD released its latest Economic Survey of Bulgaria, underlining that, while the economy is reaching OECD levels, reforms are needed to raise living standards. 

“As Bulgaria grapples with the implications of the global energy crisis, ambitious reforms are needed to boost productivity as the major driver of growth in recent years and to improve public finances in order to guarantee the necessary and essential services for its citizens into the future,” said Secretary-General Mathias Corman during the report’s release in Sofia. 

The issues at play 

Bulgarian society remains polarised over Russia. The war in Ukraine has forced all parties to take a clear stance and the division is clearer than ever. According to Gallup International, around 23 per cent of Bulgarians support Russia, which corresponds to the vote share of the pro-Russian parties. 

The debate became increasingly heated in the lead-up to the election. On March 3, Bulgarians celebrated Liberation Day – a holiday which sparks debate over the country’s historic relationship with Russia. A few days later, Sofia’s city council agreed to remove a Monument to the Red Army, causing a protest. 

Broadly, however, Bulgaria’s caretaker governments, after initial hesitancy, have quietly supported Ukraine. Indeed, it has contributed a third of all ammunition pledged by the EU. GERB, PP-DB and the MRF, which draws its support from Bulgaria’s Turkish minority, have all taken a pro-Ukraine stance. 

It is corruption however that has been the main topic of every recent Bulgarian election, and the question of the Bulgarian judiciary in particular is at the centre of the current crisis. Chief Public Prosecutor Ivan Geshev has been accused of politicising the role and refusing to investigate political allies. PP-DB sought to mobilise the pro-Western electorate with a strong anti-corruption platform. Its target – the status quo it says GERB represents. 

Electoral fraud has also been a longstanding issue. In late 2022, GERB, the Socialists and the MRF voted to restore the use of paper ballots for the latest election. This so-called ‘Paper Coalition’ was accused by critics of using paper ballots to manipulate the vote more easily. The change led to multiple anti-corruption and media agencies forming the Alliance for Fair Elections. Their conclusion was that the elections were legitimate, but the rushed changes to the electoral system resulted in unnecessary complications during the count as people were not properly trained. 

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The common good and the common foe 

Perhaps the only unifying force in these elections is Radev. The Bulgarian presidency is normally a ceremonial role. When a government cannot be formed, however, the president is tasked with forming a caretaker government to organise the next elections. Due to the ongoing crisis, Radev has been able to rule the country – some have suggested undemocratically – through appointed ministers. 

This has become a pressing issue as the president is known for his friendly views towards Moscow and wants Bulgaria to remain neutral.  

Radev has also expressed a desire to transition the country away from parliamentarianism and towards a presidential republic. Pro-Western parties fear this will open the door to creeping authoritarianism, turning Bulgaria into a small Russia. 

Will GERB give in to demands for reform? Will PP-DB compromise on its anti-corruption stance for the sake of stability? Will Radev once again rule the country and stifle its pro-Western orientation?  

If we do not get an answer to these questions in the coming weeks, yet another new election in the autumn is likely. 

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