Who will lead the next Bulgarian government?
Bulgaria’s 2021 elections produced a fragmented result, with six different parties entering parliament. The outgoing Prime Minister of the country, Boyko Borisov, has already indicated that he will not run as a candidate for the head of the next government. Ivaylo Dinev and Petar Bankov assess options for a new coalition and what failure to reach an agreement would mean for the future of the country.
The elections that took place in Bulgaria on April 4 produced a fragmented parliament with no clear winner, making government formation a difficult task. Bulgaria’s center-right Citizens for European Development (GERB) and its leader Boyko Borisov saw their grip on power weakened due to their handling of the pandemic and the major anti-government protests that took place during the year last.
These developments have also marginalized the political influence of other traditional parties in the Bulgarian political system. This opened the door for three new parties who entered parliament following a growing wave of public dissatisfaction. Overall, the election results suggest that Bulgarian politics are going through a period of significant change.
Table 1: Results of the Bulgarian parliamentary election of 2021
Source: Central Election Commission.
The results, presented in Table 1 above, partly reflect the broader political trends present in Central and Eastern Europe. Just like in Romania and Croatia, where the recent elections saw record turnout, there was a decline in turnout, although the 50.6% overall participation rate was broadly similar to the level recorded in the Bulgarian elections of 2013 and 2014, despite the current pandemic.
With six parties entering parliament, the Bulgarian party system remains fragmented, a trend as well. Latvia, Slovakia, and Slovenia. The two main Bulgarian parties, the center-right GERB and the center-left Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), lost significant support, while the representative of the Turkish minority, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) , failed to recoup its losses. from 2017. For the first time since 2005, the radical populist right will not be in parliament, the IMRO-Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO) barely missing the 4% threshold.
Table 2: Long-term dynamics of the Bulgarian political system (1991-2021)
Source: ParlGov database (Döring and Manow 2021) and Central Election Commission.
The three new parties joining parliament include two populist parties, “There is such a people” (ITN) and “Stand up! Thugs Out! As well as Democratic Bulgaria (DB), which is a coalition of liberal and green forces. Together they won around 32% of the vote.
At first glance, the current situation looks like the 2014 election, when a similar proportion of new actors appeared on the political scene, but without being able to challenge the hegemony of the traditional parties. This contrasts with the 2001 and 2009 elections, when new parties achieved major breakthroughs (see Table 2 above). The 2021 election nevertheless indicates that the Bulgarian system is undergoing a major transformation.
Three important points show this development. First, the newly formed ITN pushed the BSP out of second place and is now the main opposition to the GERB. ITN succeeded in mobilizing a third of the voters of the diaspora and passed the youth vote. The party shares similarities with the five-star movement in Italy and its anti-establishment platform has tapped into mild nationalist sentiments with prospects of developing a new niche within the Bulgarian party system. Another important change was democratic Bulgaria leading the vote in the capital Sofia for the first time since the GERB came to power.
Second, the traditional center-left BSP suffered a major electoral failure, losing 13 points compared to the last elections in 2017. This is the worst result in its post-socialist history and particularly dramatic after a period of opposition. The BSP has failed to mobilize even its main voters, while prolonged infighting within the party’s highest ranks and disillusionment with Korneliya Ninova’s authoritarian leadership sows future problems.
Finally, the DPS lost its role as kingmaker, after being pushed to fourth place by ITN and BSP. This could potentially open up a space in the Bulgarian political system for new, stable coalitions that can come to power without relying on the tacit support of the DPS – a feature of Bulgarian politics that has helped entrench the horse trade, patronage and socialization. corruption.
A difficult, but not impossible, coalition-building process
In general, all parties in parliament will need to be much more innovative to form a stable coalition government. After the wave of anti-government protests and growing public tensions, the GERB faces stronger and less compromising opposition than before, revealed in the first parliamentary session when all parties except the GERB elected the speaker of parliament. So far, the GERB has been in firm political isolation. Borisov has sought a breakthrough by proposing a more acceptable candidate for the Prime Minister, Daniel Mitov, instead of himself. Nevertheless, the party did not do itself much favor. Borisov avoided attending parliament to deal with parliamentary questions, while the outgoing government dissolved the national operational staff (NOS), who was handling the country’s pandemic response, in a surprise gesture.
In such circumstances, the task of forming a government falls on the political opposition, especially ITN as a second party. The party has avoided making clear statements beyond his refusal to collaborate with traditional parties (GERB, BSP, DPS). The other two new evenings, “Stand Up! Thugs Out! ‘and democratic Bulgaria, support the entry into a government coalition with ITN.
The success of such a coalition would depend on three factors. The first would be to find additional support. The three parties are 29 seats short of a parliamentary majority, so they need the support of the BSP or DPS. Both parties have already declared their willingness to support such a coalition, so the question is whether the three new parties would accept the potential electoral costs and political compromises of collaboration. ‘Get up! Thugs Out! ‘ is already divided on this question.
The second factor would be to reach agreement on the government’s immediate priorities. The three new parties are in favor of a fundamental reform of the electoral code, improved measures against the pandemic, a thorough investigation of the previous government and the reversal of major government policies related to the functioning of the justice system. The question here is which of these policies would take priority, as the three new parties have not denied the possibility of early elections if the deadlock persists. Therefore, time seems scarce.
Third, there is the issue of appetite for new elections in the fall. While it is not clear who would benefit from the return to the polls, a second election could have a significant negative impact on the country. After long discussions with social actors, the government did not adopt its recovery plan concerning the 12.3 billion euros allocated to the country by the European Recovery Fund. In addition, Bulgaria still does not have a strategy on how to spend the 16.7 billion euros allocated under the 2021-2027 multiannual financial framework. Now the new parliament and potential government have the difficult task of revising and adopting the plan in a short period of time if they are to avoid losing access to these funds.
No solution for the rise of social inequalities
Such a financial stimulus is absolutely necessary. The pandemic has hit the Bulgarian population and their healthcare system hard, while the overall socio-economic situation deteriorates. According to IMF data, the Bulgarian economy contracted by 4.2% in 2020 and exports fell by 11.3%, while investments fell by 5.1%. GERB’s conservative fiscal policy has been maintained during the pandemic, with Bulgaria ranking last in the EU for spending on anti-crisis measures at just 6.7% of GDP compared to the EU average of 14.3%.
In addition, the country lags behind in the absorption of financial resources from the SURE fund to protect jobs and incomes affected by the pandemic. It is therefore not surprising that Bulgaria has once again found itself at the top Eurostat measure of income inequality in the EU. Bulgaria remains the country with the lowest hourly labor cost in the EU and has extremely high levels of material deprivation. A recent report on cost of living in bulgaria shows that six in ten households are unable to reach the subsistence level, which equates to around € 325 per household member per month.
In this socio-economic context, the fragmentation of the political system and growing political instability may herald a deeper long-term crisis. Currently, none of the six parties entering the new parliament is committed to fundamentally changing the Bulgarian socio-economic system. A recent analysis political manifestos from the main political parties have shown a strong imbalance towards economically right-wing measures and positions, while more socially oriented alternatives are almost absent.
Internationally, the situation is a source of problems as the failure to properly use EU funding in the coming months will slow the country’s economic recovery while limiting its efforts to catch up with other EU member states. EU. Meanwhile, the absence of any nationalist parties in parliament may mean potential moderation on the issue of North Macedonia’s EU membership, as well as a firmer commitment to Bulgaria’s Euro-Atlantic orientation. . It remains to be seen whether political fragmentation will enable Bulgaria to improve its quality of democracy.
Note: this article gives the point of view of the authors and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured Image Credit: European Council