Bulgaria braces for new parliamentary elections on July 11 which fuels the unpredictability in the country’s political life and raises several questions - will GERB return stronger or weaker, will popular singer and talk show host Slavi Trifonov continue his political rise after being a runner-up in the April elections, will the far-right see a resurgence after surprisingly low results?
While politicians are trying to find some common ground, Bulgaria’s slow vaccination rollout, the still present COVID-19 pandemic, EU’s Green Deal and the previous government’s spending all remain unaddressed.
How did we get here?
The April 4 elections ended inconclusively, with a slim victory by longtime ruling party GERB, who got 26,8% of the vote. This sent them in a parliament full of opposition parties - newcomers “There’s Such a Nation”, headed by one of the most popular entertainers and TV personalities in the country Slavi Trifonov, “Democratic Bulgaria”, which is the only clear pro-EU and pro-West alliance, “Stand Up.BG! Mobsters Out!”, which also grew out of the protest wave and is headed by former ombudswoman and socialist member Maya Manolova, the Socialist Party itself – this party has traditionally lead parliamentary opposition to GERB – and, finally, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which is focused mainly on the Turkish minority in the country and has been no stranger to controversy over the years.
The diminishing presence of GERB in the National Assembly hall made for an atmosphere not seen in recent years - the government’s spending and affairs were passionately discussed and Borissov was heavily criticized for alleged corruption, doubtful investments, drying up EU funds, pressure on small business, insufficient reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic and chaotic compensation strategy for the affected sectors.
Whether Netflix should buy the rights to Bulgaria’s National Assembly became a common joke as for the first time in a while, the exchange between the politicians resulted in actual discussions and crossfires.
Borissov himself never faced the criticisms as first he announced a leave, then entered a hospital for a meniscus operation after getting injured in a football game (a notable habit of Borissov, who in 2013, at age of 54 became one of the oldest to play in Bulgaria’s professional football after an appearance for “Vitosha” in the country’s B league). Slavi Trifonov, talking to his voters only through his private TV channel and social media accounts, continued the stance and was absent from the assembly hearings, partly because of a COVID-19 diagnosis after the April elections.
None of the three leading parties that were invited to form a government manages to muster a majority of MP’s for a coalition. No one was willing to side with GERB who promised party reforms and made a curious choice for a prime-minister candidate - pro-EU former Borissov critic Daniel Mitov. President Rumen Radev, a vocal critic of the previous cabinet, handed the mandate then to “There’s Such a Nation”, who immediately returned it on the grounds that are not enough “honest and uncompromised” people in the parliament to make a coalition with - the decision was met with awe by some of his voters, while others deciphered it as cowardly move, serving Boyko Borissov’s narrative that the opposition will never find a common ground and offer an alternative. The Bulgarian Socialist Party, seen as an unreformed successor of the one-time repressive Bulgarian Communist Party and often expressing pro-Russia stances, also didn’t find any partners.
On May 11 President Rumen Radev announced his caretaker cabinet which will lead until the early elections which are to be held on July 11.
Who is caretaker PM Stefan Yanev
General Stefan Yanev, defense advisor to the President, is rather unknown to the general public, has no party affiliation and at the same time has a long political expertise and a EuroAtlantic leaning.
Yanev was born in the village of Popovitsa near Plovdiv in 1960. He held various positions at the Defence Ministry from the mid-1990s and through the 2000s, including Director of Defence Policy and Security from 2009 to 2010. Yanev also held positions abroad – he was Head of the Transformations Department at the NATO Centre of Excellence in Defence Against Terrorism in Ankara between 2005 and 2007, and as a defence attaché at the Bulgarian Embassy in Washington from 2011 to 2014.
This is not the first time he has been called in action: between January and May 2017, he was first Deputy Defence Minister and then Defence Minister in the caretaker cabinet of Ognyan Gerdijkov. His first major decision was to replace the three deputy ministers in the Interior Ministry.
This transitional period might benefit opposition voices who are now having a momentum against the omnipresence of GERB, but is also detrimental in other ways. As uncertainty dominates Bulgaria’s political scene, several important decisions have been delayed.
Caretaker Minister of Labour and Social Policy Galab Donev has already noted that GERB’s strategy on compensating suffering businesses amid the pandemic extends to late June and that Bulgaria’s National Plan for Recovery and Sustainability needs to be urgently revised. Further compensations in the tourism sector and innovations in healthcare have been scarcely discussed in the last few months and in the election campaigns.
As the recovery plan progress has been paralysed by the situation, so is Bulgaria’s strategy for EU’s Green Deal, another topic which is rarely discussed by local politicians.
While Bulgaria currently works with AstraZeneca, Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna, without notable delays of doses, the inoculation continues to be slow. Over 685,000 have been vaccinated, of whom around 388,000 have been fully inoculated. The restrictive measures to curb the coronavirus are currently almost symbolic, which has made virologists concerned with a potential new wave later in the summer or in the autumn. “It’s very possible there will be a new wave of cases, although not in the magnitude of what’s happening in India”, said Chief Health Inspector Angel Kunchev on May 11.
Bulgaria is also yet to ratify an agreement with Romania, signed on March 18 in Ruse, to allow NATO aircraft to operate in its airspace without restrictions. The Atlantic Council in Sofia called for “urgent action to ratify the protocol” in order to enhance the security of Bulgarian airspace in the context of the deployment of tens of thousands of Russian troops and weaponry near the border between Russia and Ukraine.
Secrets out of the shadows
The caretaker cabinet is expected to continue to look deep into GERB’s affairs in the last decade. After the elections on April, 4 Maya Manolova of “Stand Up.BG! Mobsters Out!” initiated a commission to revise the government’s spending, especially in the fields of infrastructure. The commission has a good reason to keep on functioning during the caretaker cabinet as several businessmen have come forward to share how they have been a subject of racket through the years.
Most notably, on May 5, agricultural businessman Svetoslav Ilchovsky shared stories on how GERB, through people close to Borissov, was threatening and extorting money from landowners and businesspeople and that the pressure was becoming unbearable during the last few years. “I paid money willingly, I lost money, I did everything so I could buy some time and wait until their time [in office] is over,” said Ilchovski, who added he had been forced to stop buying land, asked to sell his products at reduced prices, made to pay extra for water supplies and threatened he’ll be chased by a Prosecutor close to the party if he does not obey. He claimed he was shown a video of another businessman, Minyo Staykov, being sexually abused because he didn’t follow the orders. In an interview for Capital Weekly he also said that the GERB is seriously messing with the meat industry which forces producers to export.
Borissov dismissed the claims as a paid attack against his party’s reputation. Staykov said that he’s not the person in the violent video shown to Ilchovsky.
On May 14, Ilchovsky was questioned by the Specialized Prosecutors' Offices of Appeals.
Calming before a storm: a far-right resurgence
The current moment between the transition of powers offers a “mend it or break it” moment for the far-right. None of the radical parties met the 4% barrier, even IMRO, which were coalition partners of GERB. A new alliance of the far-right parties is expected to be launched. On May 13 IMRO leader and now former Minister of Defense Krassimir Karakachanov openly pleaded for a union in the combat against “gender ideology, nihilism and national irresponsibility”, while ultranationalist pro-Russia party “Vazrajdane” has focused on making a contra-protest in Burgas, where a LGBT pride event was scheduled to take place on Saturday.
A stronger far-right however does not mean a potential partner for GERB in the next elections as the relationship between the parties and Borissov grew colder by the end of the last term. The turnout of the next elections will most probably send parties in the parliament which were as fragmented as in the spring - which will only serve GERB’s potential comeback in power, despite their wounded reputation. A factor that may influence the outcome will also be that tens of thousands Bulgarians will probably travel for their vacations in the summer, most specifically in Greece - this might be an issue for Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up.BG’s core voters (mostly young, close to the middle class) and a test on whether they can repeat their momentum, built on the anti-government protest wave of 2020.
A coalition of opposing forces or making compromises that weren’t made in the spring seems like an inevitable scenario.