On October 2, Bulgaria will vote in early general elections – for the fourth time in a year and a half. This bears witness to the serious political instability in the country after 12 years of rule by the GERB party (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria) and its leader Boïko Borissov, which for many Bulgarians has become synonymous with corruption, stagnation and authoritarian practices. . The GERB’s hold on power ended amid mass public protests and gave way to a new party, “We Continue the Change”. Established by young people educated in the West, it raised hopes that the impasse could be broken and the country would move closer to European standards. However, the government formed by “We continue the change” lasted only 7 months, under a complex four-party coalition, and collapsed under the weight of contradictions between the coalition partners. This is why Bulgarians have to go to the polls again.
As expected, the great intrigue of the vote is precisely the clash between GERB and ‘We Continue the Change’. While the new political actor presents this clash as a choice between “status quo” and “change”, the former longtime leaders present it rather as a dilemma between “stability” and “amateurism”. Polls indicate that GERB is currently in the lead at around 25% versus 20% for “We keep the change going”.
The post-election scenarios are also not entirely clear. “We Continue the Change” hopes to recreate almost the same coalition with which it has governed so far, but without one of the participants. While the GERB seems to lean more towards a sort of technocratic cabinet of experts without pre-agreed participants. At the same time, no one rules out the threat of a political deadlock and new early elections.
Russophiles, Russophobes and the President
The pre-electoral situation presents two other unconventional characteristics. First, there is the role of President Rumen Radev. According to the Constitution, Bulgaria is a parliamentary republic and the Head of State has, in large part, representative functions, but also the prerogative to appoint interim governments in the event of a political crisis. Since the April 2021 elections, the country has been governed longer by Radev cabinets than by ordinary cabinets elected by parliament. This is why politicians and pundits have increasingly commented that the incessant confrontation between parties creates the conditions for a long-term presidential regime.
Radev ran in 2016 as an independent candidate for the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the successor to the Communist Party. He remains the most popular politician in the country. Moreover, the members of his cabinets are also distant from the party leadership. Thus, their political future largely depends on the future political influence of the president himself. Bulgarian public opinion, for its part, appreciates Radev’s balanced foreign policy positions. This makes the head of state a rival of the parties in the interpretation of ongoing processes, but also a tacit actor in the campaign due to his ability to set the political agenda.
For cultural and historical reasons, Bulgaria is one of the EU countries with the greatest share of sympathy for Russia.
Another major factor is the war in Ukraine, which is at the center of the election campaign. This is unusual because, as a rule, elections in Bulgaria, even those for the European Parliament, revolve around internal issues and almost never touch on international issues. However, the Russian invasion exacerbated the deep divide between Russophiles and Russophobes in society. For cultural and historical reasons, Bulgaria is one of the EU countries with the greatest share of sympathy for Russia. Pro-Russian politicians from the left and nationalist spectrum insist on pragmatism and “neutrality” regarding the conflict, and oppose any military aid to Ukraine. On the other hand, the traditional right-wing parties, and also a bit of the newcomer “We continue the change”, call for a clearly pro-European and pro-Euro-Atlantic position in the country, which refuses any rapprochement with the regime. of Putin.
Since the start of the war, relations with the Russian gas giant “Gazprom” have also become a bone of contention. President Radev and his caretaker government, as well as the Socialist Party and even former GERB leaders, are accused of intending to negotiate deliveries from “Gazprom” and thus perpetuate energy dependence on Russia. While the right and “We continue the change” arrogantly ignore the serious social and economic consequences of a possible lack of gas and raw materials during the coming winter. Paradoxically, during the election campaign, only the radical nationalist “Vazrazhdane” (Renewal) party openly came out in favor of improving relations with Moscow. The others – from the president to the GERB – are suspected of secretly and behind the scenes protecting Russian interests.
Low expectations and disappointment
These two factors – the president’s increased political influence and geopolitical tensions – are distracting from the race of electoral platforms and party candidates and making the outcome of the October 2 elections more difficult. After all, neither the president officially supports any party, nor any of the major parties officially support Russia. Nevertheless, the political debate is largely focused on the activities of the president and the relationship with Russia.
The last snap election in November 2021 set a record turnout as only 40% of voters exercised their right to vote. Some analysts now expect an even lower turnout. Much of the population does not understand why parties consistently fail to produce a functioning government to deal with the coming social crisis. Low voter turnout erodes the democratic legitimacy of the political system. Widespread comments that a government will not be formed this time and that new elections will be called at the end of winter only add to the political apathy. This could give chances to radical parties and supporters of constitutional changes, which could in turn aggravate the general political uncertainty in the country.