Struggle and stagnation: A crunch time for Bulgaria’s democratic potential
Cheep, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
On the 2nd of April, Bulgaria will hold its 5th parliamentary election since the beginning of 2021. Once again, a disillusioned electorate goes to the polls in a dire attempt to solve what seems like a crisis without end. Is there a formula for a political breakthrough in sight, or the public should simply expect more of the same?
For some backstory on how did the current political turmoil unfold, take a look at Stoycho’s article for our partner platform Eyes on Europe.
Election day hardly represents an alluring déjà vu for the Bulgarian people. It has now been less than two years since the democratic protests in the country and the subsequent political gridlock engulfed the nation’s social life and public debate. Although the continuously failed attempts at forming a cabinet came to an end with a shaky four-way coalition in December 2021, the already evident social unrest and economic uncertainty, soon-to-be-matched with a war in Europe, meant a difficult road lay ahead for Kiril Petkov’s government. Indeed, a successful no-confidence vote last June, and the unproductive coalition talks in January now threaten to throw the state into yet another spiral of elections. This will come as no surprise to Bulgarians, as for the past several years polarization and political stubbornness have predominantly been the norm in this remote corner of the European Union.
A deficiency of hope
This time the stakes seem even higher. Should we witness another political standoff the voters’ disengagement with the democratic process will only grow and further stifle their willingness to have a say in how the country is run. The latter is already evident as the recent elections yet again lifted the curtain on the indifference among the Bulgarian electorate, producing the lowest turnout since the 1990s. Political leaders seem to have very much succeeded in disenchanting the voters entirely with the public dialogue, as a sense of civil fatigue looms large in Sofia.
Unfortunately, such apathy comes at a price. Given the lack of consensus and the sheer unwillingness of the Bulgarian political class to move beyond hard party lines, recent calls for a dramatic change in the form of government and a transition towards a presidential republic model are gaining support. To avoid such a scenario, the outcome of the elections this April must be different. However, this time parliamentary arithmetic seems even more complex, as radical players seek to muddy the waters while notorious political figures from the past aim for a dramatic comeback.
EU2018BG Bulgarian Presidency, Boyko Borissov
CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Irreconcilable as ever
Despite the crucial importance of the vote this Sunday, there seems to be little hope of redrawing the Bulgarian political map. As polls are predicting, Boyko Borisov, the beleaguered leader of the center-right GERB who had been in charge of the country for more than a decade, would again go toe to toe with former prime minister Kiril Petkov and his center-left reformist project We Continue the Change (PP), this time alongside Democratic Bulgaria (DB) – a coalition encompassing liberal, neoliberal and green ideas. Whatever the outcome, it would scarcely be a win to celebrate. Borisov, detained last spring for an alleged fraud of EU funds only to be released 24 hours later, has been trying to attract political partners to reinstate him in power, offering promises of stability within a storm of political insecurity. His words seem to fall on skeptical ears, as those attempts have been stoutly opposed by most groups in recent parliaments. On the other hand, some of PP-DB’s former partners would have a hard time even reaching the electoral threshold, leaving the coalition with even fewer options than before.
Poll (16-19 March 2023), CAM
Thus, in the past few months, the rather dire situation has generated some curious ideas for a Euro-Atlantic grand coalition between political foes Borisov and Petkov, or a minority government supported by the former, largely to answer the call of avoiding yet another political crisis. However, such ill-assorted parliamentary coalitions will perhaps not augur well with the voters, especially with PP-DB’s supporters, as this would be seen as a betrayal of their promise to cut ties with past corruption practices in the country, not to mention the fact that it will further curtail the reformists’ future competitiveness.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin and Bulgarian PM Kiril Petkov answer questions during a joint press conference in Sofia, March 19, 2022
U.S. Secretary of Defense, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
War and its division lines
For Petkov, bad news hardly ends here. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), formerly an ally within PP’s government and crucial for sustaining his cabinet, has been striking unsatisfactory results with every new election cycle and has fallen from its decade-long undisputed runner-up position to a fifth-place outsider in the current polls. Though, what is most concerning is perhaps the political baggage the party carries now. Throughout the 7 months of Petkov’s government, BSP’s official position on Russia’s war in Ukraine was that Bulgaria will not provide military support to Kyiv – neither directly nor via third parties, even though munition factories had been working at full capacity all over the country. Those promises were being made precisely to accommodate the socialists’ electorate (that largely demonstrates pro-Russia tendencies), as there were concerns that if weapons were being sent to Ukraine BSP voters would put pressure on the coalition. It was only after the cabinet collapsed in June when news broke out that not only was Bulgaria providing fuel and military aid to Ukraine but was also one of the largest donors in terms of GDP percentage to Zelensky’s government, albeit all under the radar.
However, it all comes with a cost. BSP has ever since lost a large proportion of its voters, who have now rushed to the right-wing Revival - a party that runs on the ‘anti-war’ platform with the promise of not sending a single piece of military equipment to either side of the conflict should they find themselves in government. Looking at the recent polls, this to an extent means that there is little chance a stable government could be formed without at least one pro-Russian party participating, which would make political bargaining for either GERB or PP-DB even more complex. The foreseeable standoff produces only one winner.
Rumen Radev attends the European Council Summit October 2021, Source: Presidency of Bulgaria.
President.bg, CC BY 2.5 BG, via Wikimedia Commons
A kingmaker on the move
For years now, President Rumen Radev has claimed to stand in the vanguard of the battle against Bulgaria’s notorious political past. For better or worse, since 2020 he has found himself behind the wheel more often than any Bulgarian president before him, as his carefully selected caretaker governments have been practically ruling the country. In fact, the main figures in PP – former PM Petkov and former Minister of Finance Vassilev emerged on the political stage precisely through Radev’s first deputy cabinet. Two years later, there seems to be no love lost between the president and his former ministers, as ever since the fall of Petkov’s government they have been pointing fingers at each other on issues such as the economic crisis, the nation’s response to the war in Ukraine or the uneasy relationship with North Macedonia.
However, the parties’ unwillingness to seek reconciliation and eventually offer the country a way out of the election loop seems to have sowed the seeds of discontent with the entire political system, which has added to the already audible calls for switching to a presidential republic model. For many, this would not only amount to a perilous extension of executive power in Radev’s favor but would also offer a form of governance simply unsuitable for Bulgaria’s political environment. It hardly seems the antidote to the country’s institutional problems. Though, should the vote this Sunday produce nothing short of the usual, namely insufferably vain attempts on behalf of the political players to form a government only to eventually throw in the towel, the voices offering unorthodox decisions will only grow louder.
Undoubtedly, the potential solution will cost significant concessions for most of the political parties that will eventually make the 49th National Assembly. Reaching a consensus with one’s adversaries is never easy, yet it remains the only way to restore trust in the current system, and even more so – to rebuild bridges between some seriously polarized segments of Bulgarian society. The latter remains a scenario hard to imagine given that compromise has lately become a dirty word in the Bulgarian political dictionary. However, the specter of yet another parliamentary crisis looms large in Sofia, and it should be met with decisive and productive actions so to sustain the country’s democratic path. It is indeed a crunch time for Bulgaria’s sense of direction and political future. It should not be gambled away.