This Sunday Bulgaria is going through a new round of parliamentary elections, following the inconclusive ones from April which saw ruling party GERB lose votes and a Parliament dominated by opposition. The elections were called after no common ground was found between any of the parties in search of a coalition. The coming Parliament looks set to be as fragmented as the one that brought early elections. What will happen next is, thus, anyone’s guess. One thing seems sure though: long-serving former prime-minister Boyko Borissov will not return to power.
The veteran politician and the discrete entertainer
Former ruling party GERB and newcomers “There’s Such a Nation” will be fighting it off for the popular vote. They are ran by the most popular and talked-about figures in Bulgaria: semi-autocrat Boyko Borissov, Prime Minister between 2009-2013, 2014-2017, 2017-2021, and entertainer, longtime TV host and singer turned opposition voice Slavi Trifonov, who came second in April without a proper campaign.
Although the main figure behind “There’s Such a Nation”, he has made vague statements on his possible new role as a politician. “I will not run for an MP because my place isn’t in parliament”, Trifonov said on his social media on June 7, again raising more questions. Unexpectedly, on July 7 Trifonov broke his stance on giving interviews accepting French outlet Le Monde in his office. “We have brilliant laws but they are not followed - we must rebuild the justice system“, said Trifonov, who added that he’s not talking to local media because he doesn’t believe that free press exists in the country. Trifonov, who around the elections in April tested positive for COVID-19, was described in Monde’s article as being visibly in ill health. Rumors on Trifonov’s health condition have been plaguing him for the last few years but always denied by him or the members of his party. He remained secretive on what political future he sees for himself but he insisted, again, that he’s not after the PM seat.
As for the party, where does it exactly stand in the political spectrum continues to be debated – although “There’s Such a Nation” claims to be pro-EU and pro-NATO, some of its members have been associated with nationalist and conservative sentiments.
Opposition parties, both liberal and nationalist, are also expected to have a significant back-up from immigrant votes as there will be a record 791 voting sections abroad.
The elections are set to have a particular resonance: there hasn’t been such a shift in local politics in the last two decades. And this shift is long-awaited by society even if uncertainty rules the day in Bulgaria.
GERB’s fading aura
GERB’s diminishing influence seems to be a product not of a unified opposition but rather of their own damaged reputation. As commentators point out, Borissov has been losing his aura as a political strongman – a result of constant criticisms of corruption, doubtful spending of EU funds, suppressing media freedom, imposing an omnipresence in business and politics and mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite their seemingly pro-EU and democratic stance, the ambition of GERB to control every layer of the local economy has created a growing association of their rule with the tight regime of the Communist party and Borissov modelling himself as one-time leader Todor Zhivkov. Many voters found GERB’s new slogan “Order in chaos” ironic as the party has been a major player in local politics since 2008.
GERB’s fall is additionally fueled by the various revisions of the party’s affairs initiated by the outgoing caretaker cabinet which was in charge since May. The technocrats in the government, appointed by President and Borissov opponent Rumen Radev, made the headlines almost every day, bringing to light a host of dubious activities and decisions of the former cabinet, from shady deals in infrastructure and agriculture to mass eavesdropping on protesters and opposition figures during the large-scale protest wave of the summer of 2020.
The latest standings
According to a poll released by Market Links on July 5, GERB is leading with just 19,7 percent (a significant drop from their already shaky 26,8 percent win in April), “There’s a Nation” is less than a percent behind with 18,8% (an improvement on their 17,66% take in the spring). The Bulgarian Socialist Party is coming third with 16,9 percent which will see them making a cautious rise after getting only 15,01% in April. Two of the opposition parties, which gathered wider recognition - pro-EU and pro-West Democratic Bulgaria - are keeping up their momentum with 12,5 percent. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms, focused on the Turkish minority in the country and associated with various cases of corruption and influence peddling through the years, is expected to be voted by 9,5% of the voters. “Stand Up.BG! Mobsters Out!”, who similarly to Democratic Bulgaria found a bigger audience after the protest wave, will possibly enter the parliament with 5,4 percent.
An interesting layer is that far-right parties are set to have no presence in the next parliament after failing to do so in April too. Most of the polls leave below the 4 percent barrier some of the parties which actually have been quite vocal, are easily recognizable in the media and associated with controversial opinions. The Patriotic Front, which includes arguably the most ultranationalist party of all, Vazrajdane, is set to take only 2,9 percent.
Also seemingly out is Bulgarian Summer, led by oligarch in exile Vassil Bojkov, sought for numerous charges and lately part of a blacklist by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. “I expect us to come first or be runners up”, Bojkov boasted during a TV appearance from his home in Dubai on July 6, unbothered by the prognosis.
Wanted: new Prime Minister of Bulgaria
If GERB continues to be the party with most votes after July 11, the demand for a change is now something to be reckoned, even by Borissov. A search for a different face and attitude of the party is a possible scenario.
In April, opposition parties were coy about singling out leaders for potential PM’s, preferring to see what the outcome is before making any announcement. Through the spring and the early summer, the caretaker cabinet was led by defense expert Stefan Yanev, highly critical of the previous cabinet and its corruption. The elections will see whether Bulgaria is ready for another type of leader and Yanev, a rather unknown figure for most, is a teaser for what might be in store.
“In people’s perceptions, the government doesn’t do anything, politicians don’t improve the laws”, he said in an interview for the Swiss daily newspaper Blick, published on July 5. “We don’t have a politician in jail, bar none. Free press, as small as it is nowadays, manages to come up with major investigations but there’s simply no institution to follow them up. Scandal after scandal, and the Prosecution doesn’t do anything”, added Yanev who also described last years’ protest wave against GERB and Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev as a sign that Bulgarian society is reaching a certain maturity in the way it's thinking about politics. This has been a rare example of a leading political figure in Bulgaria, criticizing the status quo, while being in power.
Yanev, not affiliated with a party but close to the President who in turn is supported by the Socialists, so far has not announced whether he’ll chase a position in the next government.
In a bid for reinvention, Borissov might take a step back for a while and put forward 43-year old former caretaker Minister of Foreign Affairs (2014) Daniel Mitov. This has been rehearsed and shows the party is capable of unexpected moves. Mitov, curiously a former critic of Borissov and the party he’s now part of, was GERB’s choice for a PM in their failed attempt to offer a cabinet and win coalition partners in April. Despite this, Mitov is still part of GERB’s campaign and is there to stay.
On July 6, Democratic Bulgaria co-leader, longtime critic of Borissov, activist for a justice reform and former Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov, for the first time openly said that he would take the responsibility to become a new Prime Minister if the alliance is in the ruling coalition. “I’ll do whatever is needed to bring a result.” In an interview for Radio Free Europe Bulgaria, he said that “There’s a Nation” are a “natural partner” because of their opposition stance, but claimed there are no discussions between the two parties.
In many ways, the situation in the summer repeats the odds from the spring: GERB are heading to a parliament with no partners for a coalition. Especially if Bulgarian Patriots don’t make the cut, Borissov will find himself again in a complete political isolation. However, There’s Such a Nation are now more likely to find common ground with Democratic Bulgaria on the basis of their mutual desire for reforming the justice system.