2024: The year of the "Great Reset"?

Three Takeaways from Bulgaria’s Upcoming Double Trouble Election

Leader of GERB party Boyko Borissov attends an event to present pre-election management program in Sofia, Bulgaria, 21 May 2023.
© EPA-EFE/VASSIL DONEV   |   Leader of GERB party Boyko Borissov attends an event to present pre-election management program in Sofia, Bulgaria, 21 May 2023.

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The latest phase of Bulgaria’s stalemate continues with a double election on June 9. The seemingly unending cycle of elections that started three years ago saw numerous new figures rising on the local political scene, a signal that voters are hungry for the next hero of the day. However, right now the election-weary Bulgarians are at the cusp of restoring the political status quo many rebelled against.

Bulgaria will head to the ballots to vote both in the European Parliament plebiscite as well as in the general local elections – the sixth round since 2021, this time triggered by the crumbling of the short-lived coalition between GERB / United Democratic Forces and We Continue the Change / Democratic Bulgaria.

United last June by the promise of shared pro-EU perspectives and keeping themselves at a safe distance through a system of rotating Prime Ministers between the blocks, the trust between the parties survived for just 10 months. Leaders have rewound back from frenemies to being major opponents again.

  1. The election spiral might end – but not for good

GERB and party leader Boyko Borissov (in office between 2009-2013, 2014-2017, 2017-2021) are set to win the popular vote in both races, this time much more pronouncedly: most polls suggest an 8 to 10 per cent lead and a tight battle for the second place between their partners from Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF, pro-European opposition We Continue the Change / Democratic Bulgaria, and pro-Russia party Revival.

GERB’s isolation in the parliament, the party’s Achilles' heel in mustering a majority, is expected to be eased by a better performance by Movement for Rights and Freedoms and support from a lesser influential party seeking for power (such as There’s Such a People, formerly in opposition to GERB, now fierce critics of We Continue the Change with whom they were in office between 2021-2022).

A cabinet between GERB and MRF will cement the long-running partnership between the forces, especially between leaders Borissov and oligarch Delyan Peevski of MRF, a party that was tied in corruption allegations, just like GERB, and which historically controls the vote of the Turkish diaspora in the country (with most of its members of Turkish descent).

Peevski paradoxically has only grown more visible and popular after his media and business influence was a subject of several protest waves since 2013 and after he was sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act in 2021 and from the British government in 2023. As a MRF member of the parliament, Peevski has spoken in favour of EU, Bulgaria’s pro-West perspectives and even battling Russian meddling. Another impressive facet around Movement for Rights and Freedoms is that the party has never been in a coalition with GERB so far – the party has always acted as a silent partner in the parliament, as a regulator of the status quo.

  1. Opposition is at a crossroad: We Continue the Change to gain less votes

The elections will be the biggest test so far for the relevancy of reformist duo We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria, which gained momentum in 2021 following the anti-government protest, and led the two short-lived coalition.

On May 8, Alpha Research pointed to GERB winning both the general and the European Parliament elections, significantly ahead of We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria (25.4% for GERB against 17.5% in the general elections, 25.1% against 18.5%), with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and Revival behind.

Another survey, published by Trend agency on May 22, predicted a fierce battle for the second place: We Continue the Change / Democratic Bulgaria are set to take 15.4%, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms – 14.9% and Revival – 14.8%, meaning the battle is also between political and ideological values.

However, a poll by Mediana agency, published on May 20, positions Revival as a second power with 15.7%.

According to the polls, over 600,000 voters are still undecided and that’s where smaller parties hope to get a piece of the pie.

III. Disinformation Rides High, Voters Lay Low: a flock of pro-Russia voices might head to Brussels

The EP elections will be an opportunity for several pro-Russia figures to find seats in Brussels. Among them is political novice Petar Volgin, otherwise a long-time journalist mainly known for his show “Politically Incorrect” on the national radio where pro-Kremlin narratives have circulated freely. He recently joined Revival’s list and in interviews has openly talked about Bulgaria “re-assessing” its membership in NATO and in the EU.

Left-wing figure, EU-sceptic Vanya Grigorova reached the knock-off stage on the 2023 Sofia mayoral elections and is now running for both the European and the Bulgarian parliament with newly established alliance Solidary Bulgaria, the latest effort to unify left-wing voters amid the receding support to Bulgarian Socialist Party, marked by power struggles and internal divisions for the last few years. Another journalist who has turned politician and has expressed soft on Russia views through the years, Elena Yoncheva, is running for the EP with the list of MRF despite the pro-EU makeover of the party and was previously a member through the socialist party.

Although Bulgaria’s pro-Russia parties vary in the radicality of their leanings and are often internally bickering, current interim Defence Minister Atanas Zapryanov warned there’s a bigger action going on: during the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Sofia, the minister claimed Russia is directly meddling in the forthcoming elections through hybrid actions.

Although pro-Russia narratives are most evident in parliament mainstays Bulgarian Socialist Party and Revival, they have also been blossoming in almost all recently established parties who so far have little chance to pass the 4 per cent threshold but would benefit from further destabilisation.

Some of them are founded by locally well-known figures such as former gambling tycoon Vassil Bozhkov (Center), who on May 28 was released from house arrest and previously evaded from charges in Dubai; former General Prosecutor Ivan Geshev (Citizen Block / Justice for Bulgaria) and ex-Sports Minister Radostin Vassilev (‘Sword’). In varying degrees, all are close to the far-right rhetoric and have been playing the nationalist card, likely to divert votes from Revival.

The June 9 elections will also see the debut of ‘Greatness’ (Velichie), another marginal (yet!) pro-Russia and nationalist party.

‘Greatness’ is founded by former National Security expert Nickolay Markov and entrepreneur Ivelin Mihaylov (both are running for the EP), as well as a circle of partners known as the creators of the tourist attraction ‘Historical Park’ in the Neofit Rilski village near Varna.

In the last four years, a series of investigations by Capital weekly newspaper claimed the tourist site – a Bulgarian history-themed complex built in 2019 – is essentially a Ponzi scheme, a long-term strategy to acquire power in the local municipality and a cover-up for para-military training. On May 27, Interior Minister Kalin Stoyanov stated that authorities have started investigating Historical Park for suspicious activity around acquisition of weapons and unregulated surveillance, as well as financial wrongdoing. Mihaylov and his partners have repeatedly denied the claims and have used their social media channels and free local newspaper to attack their critics. In a recent piece, Dnevnik.bg described “Greatness” as an “ideological Molotov cocktail”.

In previous years, investigations – including from Bellingcat in 2019 and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee as early as 2016 – have connected another rarely mentioned pro-Russia party, BNO (Bulgarian National Movement), to para-military training. However, BNO is alive and well, has sided with Vassil Bozhkov in 2021 during the launching of his previous party, Bulgarian Summer, and is also running in the June 9 elections.

Amid the chaos and constant influx of new political players (which works for Borissov as a “lesser evil” option for indecisive voters), the elections are not expected to bring the masses to the ballots. According to Trend’s analysis, 48 per cent of the Bulgarians will vote in the general elections and 45 per cent for their EP representatives.

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