Like many other European countries, on 4 April Bulgaria faced the challenge of its parliamentary elections in the pandemic times of Covid-19. While it is noteworthy that for the first time in ten years the Bulgarian parliament managed to escape early elections, the way the elections were to be held raised many concerns, due to three main factors: the Covid-19 pandemic, the mass introduction of the electronic-vote option, and the difficulty in organising enough polling stations for the Bulgarians living abroad to be able to participate easily.
There were problems with the electronic vote due to software failure in the voting machines in two constituencies in the country. Bearing in mind the amount of money spent on e-government and the fact that these voting machines were only introduced and tested for the first time in the previous regional elections, one can conclude that the Bulgarian government is working disturbingly slowly and that it shows little if any progress in this matter.
Long queues of voters and an approximate two-hour waiting time to vote were the major problems reported from Bulgarians voting abroad. However, this also showed the willingness of the Bulgarians living abroad to participate actively in Bulgaria’s national politics – and indeed, the rising political awareness of Bulgarians abroad is a positive sign.
Despite these procedural problems and the long-lasting protests which started in the summer of 2020 and went on for more than six months, the elections still took place as planned. Yet, the results of this chess game that was played between the Bulgarians striving to change the status quo on one side, and the Bulgarian ruling party GERB, representing the status quo, on the other, are a fact to be dealt with – checkmate.
The election results did not show a clear winner. Indeed, they showed a fragmented society, with polarised views about the future of the Bulgarian government. There is not an easy next step when one starts to think about a possible government formation. GERB is still the formal winner of the elections, being the political party with the most votes. Second place went to the newly formed party “There Is Such a People!” of the showman Slavi Trifonov. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) moved down to the third place. This came as a shock given that the sociological reports and polls predicted it second, even first, place in the elections due to the support of the BSP members of parliament on the streets during the protests of 2020. The centre-right party Democratic Bulgaria led by Hristo Ivanov, former Minister of Justice in the second Borissov’s government showed a good result – higher than any result they had scored in the past ten years, and taking the fifth place in these elections, right after the Movement for Rights and Freedoms.
In addition to There Is Such a People! one more new player has risen on the political scene. This is the party formed by the organisers of the summer protests and a former BSP member and former ombudsman of Bulgaria, Maya Manolova, “Stand Up! Thugs Out!”. Meanwhile, the nationalist United Patriots alliance did not pass the 4 per cent barrier and thus GERB lost its major coalition partner.
Such diverse electoral results are now making the formation of a new government a true challenge. The only way for such a government to come about is with many compromises and coalitions, despite ideological differences. So far, the key players that might be able to form a new government are not showing any preferences for possible coalition partners. If a compromise is not reached, Bulgaria will face further parliamentary elections this year. Unfortunately, however, the sociological analyses do not foresee any major differences in the results. Sooner or later the parties will have to sit around the negotiation table.
The parties that might be able to ally are those of Trifonov and Manolova, and that of Hristo Ivanov (Democratic Bulgaria). But without the support of the BSP they will lack a majority. One thing is sure, none of these four parties are willing to have GERB as a partner.
A deeper analysis into the BSP results is needed in order to be able to understand why the party has become an unsolicited partner for the rest of the players. The BSP conducted a positive and interesting campaign, projecting a new and modern socialist image. Yet it remained largely misunderstood. The chairperson of the BSP, Kornelia Ninova, introduced numerous reforms that aimed to give the party a new and modern face. Despite the fact that she was elected directly by all members of the BSP six months ago, with more than 80 per cent of their votes, the electoral results achieved under her leadership are far from satisfactory.
Apparently, the implementation of such reforms requires more time and joint effort – only then will Bulgarian society see the BSP as a real alternative to the status quo. At the moment, however, not only do last week’s election results show that Bulgarian citizens do not recognise the BSP as an alternative, but the other parties too are also reluctant to see it as a coalition party. Although BSP supported the protests, it remained in the parliament and allegedly this influenced public’s perceptions that socialists are part of the status-quo. Much more time and internal consensus among BSP members is needed for all players on the political scene to see the socialist party as a reliable partner that is able to drive society on the progressive road forward.
The elections of the 45th Bulgarian parliament placed the elected parties in checkmate. Two major changes are nevertheless surely on the way. First, Boyko Borissov’s reign is finally coming to an end. Second, strategy and compromises will now become key for maintaining the balance between ideological decisions and those that are good for the nation.
Anti-government protests enter the parliament, by Kristian Vigenin, Member of the Bulgarian National Assembly and member of the PES Presidency
The Bulgarian parliamentary elections of 4 April and the quest for a new social contract, by Georgi Pirinski, Member of the European Parliament (2014-19)
Bulgarian elections 2021: shattered status quo and the need to revive the left, by Teodor Slavev, senior research fellow at the Bulgarian Institute for Legal Initiatives