The country where elections solve nothing? How Bulgaria reached its fifth round of early elections in just two years
Cristian Bolotnicov, Agora.md, 19 April 2023
The Bridge of Friendship republishes an article by the Moldovan media Agora.md, made on the basis of an interview with Vladimir Mitev. The words in block quotes belong to Vladimir Mitev
“We go to elections – we don’t have a government; we go again – again we don’t have… and so we can go on until we close down the territory,” describe the situation in the country to journalists of the Bulgarian publication Dnevnik.
Often referred to by the international press as the “poorest” or “most corrupt” country in the European Union since 2020, Bulgaria is going through a period of political instability. A somewhat familiar experience for Moldova. This, after our country was without a president between 2010 and 2012, which did not affect the functionality of the state very much, since it is a more ceremonial function.
AGORA has been browsing the Bulgarian press and spoke to Bulgarian journalist Vladimir Mitev on the subject, finding, for example, that political instability creates a much worse situation. The lack of a stable coalition in parliament means a caretaker government without the ability to make much-needed reforms or achieve goals such as joining the eurozone or passing a law on the national public budget for 2023.
One of the serious problems of instability is the delay in voting on the country’s budget. This makes it difficult for the state administration and local authorities to work. Another problem is that there is almost no legislative activity. Due to the inability to adopt certain laws, the date of accession to the euro area has been postponed by one year to 1 January 2025. And it is not known whether there will be further postponements.
Where it all started
Bulgaria’s political crisis has both internal and external reasons. It began with good intentions – the overthrow of the long-ruling stabilocracy of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, seen by many as a corrupt politician. After Borisov’s overthrow, we have seen that Bulgarian society is deeply divided politically and has difficulties in forming a common direction for the political movement.
Ground zero is the gesture of Democratic Bulgaria party activist Hristo Ivanov, who landed near the villa of MP Ahmed Dogan, known as one of the country’s oligarchs, but was stopped by state security. The next day, however, several raids were carried out by the Prosecutor General’s Office at the presidential administration’s headquarters in the summer of 2020, resulting in the arrest of two of his closest associates on corruption charges.
It should be noted that these events were the culmination of a period of tele-justice in which the Prosecutor’s Office was attacking businessmen and distributing the filings and internal communications of politicians and businessmen to discredit them.
Thus, from 9 July until November 2020, hundreds of demonstrations took place, which led to the fall of the government and the dissolution of parliament.
Oasis of stability?
As a result, the first parliamentary elections were held on 4 April 2021, ordinary this time, won, surprisingly, by the very prime minister ousted by the protests, Boiko Borisov.
On the other hand, his party and allies did not win enough seats to form a coalition, and new elections were called for 11 July 2021. The second round surprisingly brought a more “exotic” party to the country’s political scene, namely “There Is Such a People”, led by media star Slavi Trifonov, which won 17.40%. However, neither Trifonov nor Borisov managed to form a coalition or a government, and parliament was dissolved again, according to Euractiv.
The third round of early parliamentary elections took place on 14 November 2021, this time bringing primacy to other new politicians. This is the “We Continue the Change” party, led by two Harvard graduates and former businessmen, Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev. Their party won 25% of the vote, and after negotiations they managed to form a coalition and form a pro-reform, pro-Western government.
Under Donald Trump, Boiko Borisov has had excellent relations with the American president, German chancellor, Hungarian prime minister, Turkish and Russian presidents. Then, under Petkov, the government was said to have the support of Joe Biden and the European Commission, but there were also parties known for their ties to the Russian and Turkish spaces.
Sworn into office on 13 December 2021, the coalition government led by Petkov was backed mainly by media star Slavi Trifonov’s There is Such a People party, the Bulgarian Socialist Party and Democratic Bulgaria.
The December 2021 formation of Kiril Petkov’s government took a line against Borisov and Prosecutor General Geshev, but its anti-corruption stance remained largely a hot air. The outbreak of war in Ukraine intensified the contradictions within this government and within Bulgarian society itself.
The life of this government and coalition was not long, however, as in early June 2022, the coalition broke up after disagreements over supporting Ukraine in the war, lifting the veto on North Macedonia’s EU membership and the difficult economic situation in the country. On 22 June 2022, the Petkov government was dismissed and the parliament was subsequently dissolved.
The outbreak of war in Ukraine intensified the contradictions within this government and within Bulgarian society itself. This exposes the external causes of the crisis, as a government with a full mandate cannot be formed after the fall of the Petkov cabinet in August 2022. The external causes are linked to the fact that Bulgarian political elites traditionally play the role of a bridge between the West and the so-called East.
Two other rounds, similar results
The new round of early elections on 2 October 2022 returned former prime minister Boiko Borisov and his GERB party to first place, but this time it did not give any party the majority it needed.
Thus followed another dissolution and early elections on 2 April 2023, which produced broadly the same results.
“After Sunday, for the fifth time, we got similar results – parity between the big political blocs, it is already extremely clear that we have a systemic error, which turns the most democratic thing in the world – elections – into a futile effort of the people, and then – into a disaster for the state,” notes Bulgarian publication Dnevnik.
But the political crisis has favoured the rise of the nationalist, anti-EU, anti-NATO and pro-Russia “Renaissance” party, which scored 13.58% of the vote, placing it in third place and winning 10 more parliamentary seats than in the previous elections.
According to journalist Vladimir Mitev, the most likely scenario is that important laws will be passed, but forming a government remains problematic. So there is some talk of both parties approving draft laws such as those on justice reform, Schengen and eurozone membership and protection against domestic violence.
Today, the country appears to be heading for a sixth round of early parliamentary elections, after the bloc of liberal parties led by former premier Kiril Petkov rejected an alliance with the conservatives led by Boiko Borisov. The chances of a new election are high, according to Ekaterina Mihailova, a former speaker of parliament who was quoted in Novinite.
The adoption of these laws is necessary for Bulgaria to at least partially overcome the legislative deadlock and receive a new installment under the Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP). However, at this point, it is quite realistic to have new parliamentary elections in the autumn.
With 64 and 69 seats in parliament respectively after the fifth round of parliamentary elections in the last two years, none of the PP-BD or GERB-SDS blocs can form a 121-seat parliamentary majority with any of the other four parties that entered parliament, these being the nationalist and anti-Western “Revival” party (Vazrajdane), the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS – Turkish minority party), the Socialist Party (SPB) and the anti-system party “There Is Such a People” (ITN).
My hypothesis is that the two biggest coalitions could cooperate on certain laws, but I don’t know if they can agree on the main international and domestic issues (…) I think Bulgarian political elites traditionally try to have a certain ambiguity, to look around and listen to what is going on and only when they feel safe to define themselves politically.
Ukraine, helped by Sofia
Despite political instability, there has always been a pro-Ukrainian majority in Bulgaria’s parliament, although the position in society is more complex and less firm. This is due to Bulgaria’s stance on the war, which is meant to be a bridge between Russia and Ukraine after the war is over.
This explains why the Petkov government did not officially send weapons to Ukraine, while unofficially it was known that Bulgarian weapons were reaching there via third parties. The Lukoil refinery in Burgas supplied fuel to Ukraine. Subsequently, Bulgaria started official arms deliveries to Ukraine, but the President objected. The Bulgarian leadership supported the pro-Ukrainian UN resolution voted on the first anniversary of the war, while refusing to participate in the European programme to produce and purchase artillery shells for Ukraine.
However, Bulgaria offered Kiev aid in the amount of approx. 400 million euros, even though internally this gesture was not fully supported. There were even demonstrations demanding peace or the preservation of neutrality.
President Radev’s role
President Rumen Radev is an air force general. He has created a network of advisers, many of whom are now ministers. (…) I tend to see Radev as a politician who is banking on the idea of a bridge between the West and the “East” at a time when the bridges between them are under fire. But I think the other two coalitions, each in their own way, would also develop the bridge concept if they took power. The question is which bridge connects what.
Meanwhile, pro-Russian President Rumen Radev won a second term as head of state in November’s elections. Radev is also seen as one of the beneficiaries of the political crisis, since he decides on the formation of the government and represents the country at major international meetings, notes Politico.
After the fall of the Petkov cabinet, President Rumen Radev appointed an interim cabinet, with Radev’s foreign policy line focusing on relations with Austria, Hungary, Turkey – countries that are also a bridge between the West and the “East”. The foreign policy problem facing Bulgaria’s political elites is that, in the Biden era, the West and the “East” are at war. Bulgaria is a member of NATO and the EU, but its attitude towards the “East” has traditionally been moderate and dialogical.
The journalist says that with political instability, the president is the only stable political institution and the government he supports takes some strategic decisions. One example is the construction of four new nuclear facilities, two Russian and two American.
Radev and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis signed a joint statement on the strategic partnership, which has also provoked critical comments from those who criticise the president because strategic decisions are being made at a time when in March 2023 there is neither a regular parliament nor a regular government. But there is also the opposite argument – that in a crisis situation, Radev is the only stable institution and therefore obliged to make decisions.
The rise of the extremist ‘Renaissance’ party comes amid a decline in society’s trust in the state’s political institutions. With a voter turnout of approx. 40%, Bulgarian citizens are “clearly disappointed, tired and annoyed with their parties, which lack an internal political life, and with the political discourse in the Bulgarian media, because it is lapidary,” says journalist Vladimir Mitev.
Under these circumstances, initiatives to hold a referendum, such as postponing eurozone membership or switching to a presidential republic, are emerging to mobilise frustrated voters.
This is how parties such as ‘Revival’, which simply deny everything Western, without having an alternative vision and experts to implement it, suddenly acquire political content for the Bulgarian voter.
There is also a drop in confidence in the European Union, which is increasingly perceived negatively by Bulgarian society.
Many Bulgarians see the EU as something foreign or alien and there doesn’t seem to be much press and experts to bridge the gap between Bulgarian city dwellers and Brussels.
Even so, life goes on, and despite talk of political instability, there is also a decline in trust in the media. Yet the Bulgarian economy continues to perform despite high inflation.
There are cultural events in major cities. People are free to deal with their immediate problems. And perhaps that’s why there’s not much pressure for anything in politics or the media to change. These spaces create too much distraction and frustration and people choose peace and quiet.
Photo: Boyko Borissov and Kiril Petkov – the last two regular prime ministers of Bulgaria (source: Agora.md)
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