Bulgaria held its first regular parliamentary elections on April 4th, 2021 after a decade of snap elections. Bulgaria is the EU’s poorest member state riddled by political instability and corruption which has led to years of protests in the country. The most recent slogan of protesters was “EU are you blind?”, highlighting the notion that the situation in Bulgaria is not only of domestic concern, but should also be of EU concern.
A brief history of Boyko Borisov & the GERB
Boyko Borisov has been Prime Minister of Bulgaria since 2009 (with the exception of two brief hiatuses in 2013 and 2016). If you were to look him up online you would see words associating him with “corruption”, “protests”, “bribery”, and other adjectives that your average politician would not like to see their name anywhere near to. However, Borisov has been the leader of the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) since its first victory in the 2009 elections, the party which has also largely been in power since then.
April 4th, 2021 marked the first regular parliamentary elections in a decade. An ebb and flow of GERB’s popularity resulted in its victory and subsequent demands for resignation from the government a few times since 2009. For example, the 2009 elections saw GERB win around 39% of the parliamentary vote, just to be met with nationwide protests calling for Borisov’s resignation in 2013 over low living standards, high energy costs, and corruption.
In the summer of 2020, anti-corruption protests erupted in Bulgaria, sparked by a police raid on the offices of the Bulgarian President, Rumen Radev— an open critic of Borisov. The two leaders are known for having a long-standing rivalry, with Radev frequently accusing Borisov’s government of being corrupt and having “links with oligarchs”. The protests have expanded since 2013 into “demands for systemic change on three fronts: the fight against corruption and the mafia links of those in power; reforms to the judiciary; and freedom of speech”. Amidst the protests, President Radev called for the resignation of Borisov and his government. Borisov refused.
So, what do Bulgarian domestic politics have to do with EU politics?
GERB is part of the European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament, the EU’s largest centre-right party. With 82 parties and partners spread across 43 countries and The President of the European Commission as members of the EPP, it can be said that it is the largest European Parliament party with considerable influence. In regards to the unrest in Bulgaria, the EPP has been vocal in its support for the Bulgarian government despite the protests. EPP group leader, Manfred Weber, stated on 10 July 2020:
“The EPP Group fully supports the Bulgarian government of Boyko Borisov and its efforts to protect the economy against the negative effects of the Corona crisis, fight against corruption and the progress that is being made to join the Eurozone”
Given the history of Borisov’s reign, Weber’s comment appears to be an oxymoron. If people repeatedly are protesting the corrupt nature of the Borisov government, why is a leader of the EPP undermining the domestic realities and concerns of Bulgarian citizens? A statement like this creates, intentionally or unintentionally, a “sense of external support for the GERB-led government, which it then deploys domestically in support of itself”, frustrating citizens. The fact that Borisov is getting support from the institution that prides itself on transparency, democracy, and European stability makes the fight against his leadership even more challenging.
What were the results of the 4th April elections and what do they mean?
GERB took the highest percentage of votes by securing 26.2%; however, the party also lost 20 seats in parliament, showing the impacts of Borisov’s reputation on his popularity. Borisov’s decline in popularity was likely the result of poorly handling the pandemic response in the autumn and the 2020 anti-government protests.
Unlike before, the election produced a “fragmented parliament with no clear winners”, posing a dilemma in forming a new government. Three new parties were elected; especially interesting is the popularity of the populist There is Such a People (ITN) party which placed second behind GERB with 17.7% of the votes. ITN is led by a TV show talk host and musician, Slavi Trifonov, and the party is rather similar to the Five Star Movement in Italy with its populist, anti-establishment rhetoric. ITN’s success is also significant, because it booted the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) out of second place in parliament, eliminating the BSP as GERB’s primary competition for the first time in many years.
The fact that the three new parties combined make up around 32% of the vote also implies that the Bulgarian political landscape is “undergoing a major transformation”. The nature of the new parliamentary electorate makes it challenging for the parties to create a stable coalition government – something essential after so many years of political dissatisfaction and repeated snap elections. However, granted the nature of the two leading parties (GERB and ITN), this may be harder to achieve than it seems.
ITN has repeatedly hinted at its unwillingness to work with the traditional parties, GERB among them. The two new parties, Stand Up! Thugs Out! and Democratic Bulgaria (DB), have agreed to form a coalition government with ITN, but even if the three combine forces, they remain 29 seats short of a parliamentary majority and would have to turn to the BSP or DPS for the extra seats. The challenges they face in forming a coalition between them would involve policy compromises, setting a political agenda, and more typical hurdles when forming a multi-party coalition with diverse political priorities.
In terms of GERB, Borisov has decided to take a step back from the Prime Minister position and is instead proposing Daniel Mitov to take his place as Bulgaria’s next PM. The party “has not done itself many favours”; Borisov had not attended any parliamentary meetings in an attempt to avoid parliamentary questions and the party made the decision to disband the institution handling the pandemic response.
A hopeful future
With the question of how politics will move forward in the coming months, it is important to note that Bulgaria’s socioeconomic situation is serious. The European Recovery Fund allocated €12.3 billion to Bulgaria to help recover from the financial damage of COVID-19, yet the government has been unable to pass a recovery plan to date; a new parliament and government may prolong this process even further. The Bulgarian economy contracted approximately 4.2% in 2020 and around 6 out of 10 households are unable to meet the level of subsistence, which is levelled at €325 per household member per month.
While the situation is dire, there is hope that a new, stable coalition government can come into power. With Borisov all but out of power now, the question which likely matters more is: will a new government be able to make the change that is needed in Bulgaria for the sake of the country itself as well as for its place in the EU?