As Bulgaria’s March 26 general election approaches, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), has a wafer-thin lead in the polls. The party’s leader Boyko Borissov could be on the brink of a historic third term as prime minister.
However, after two terms Borissov can no longer sell himself or his party to voters as anti-establishment outsiders, and a coalition with the resurgent nationalist parties will most likely be his only option to form a new government.
Borissov entered politics on the coat tails of Simeon Borisov Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Bulgaria’s last tsar before the communist era, who served as prime minister between 2001 and 2005. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, along with former communist leader Todor Zhivkov, had been one of the clients of Borissov’s private security firm. On becoming prime minister, he appointed his former bodyguard as chief secretary of the interior ministry, an influential position that Borissov held until he ran successfully for Sofia mayor in 2005.
He founded GERB the following year and the party shot to prominence by becoming the largest Bulgarian party represented in the European parliament just five months later. GERB went on to win the parliamentary elections in 2009, and Borissov’s first term as prime minister lasted until February 2013 - a long period by modern Bulgarian standards - when he was forced to step down amid mass protests over high energy prices, low living standards and corruption.
Yet after a tumultuous 18 months under the Socialist-backed technocratic government of Plamen Oresharski, Bulgarians backed GERB again - albeit with a smaller share of the vote than in 2009. This meant Borissov was able to form a new minority government, with support from a mixed bag of rightwing, leftwing and nationalist parties.
The coalition was already starting to splinter when Borissov badly misjudged the 2016 presidential elections, pledging to step down if GERB’s candidate Tsetska Tsacheva did not emerge as the winner. This meant his government had little choice but to resign when Rumen Radev, the candidate backed by the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), scored a convincing victory.
Six weeks ahead of the snap election, polls show GERB and the BSP neck and neck. Most indicate a tiny lead for GERB, though this tends to be well within the margin of error. Observers do not expect a clear winner, with either of Bulgaria’s two main parties having to put together a coalition with two or more smaller parties. Support for both has fallen in recent years, with the main beneficiaries being the nationalist parties - the Patriotic Front coalition and Ataka.
Emilia Zankina, provost and associate professor in political science at the American University in Bulgaria, points to the “extreme fragmentation" of the vote in Bulgaria, leading to another inconclusive result. “I do expect GERB to attract a lot of votes but not enough to give them a majority or anything close to that,” she forecasts.
Teneo analyst Andrius Tursa also forecasts a “tight race” between GERB and the BSP. “The former retains a slim lead in the polls, but the victory of the BSP-backed Radev in the November presidential election signals shifting public support towards the left,” he believes. “None of the parties is expected to win an outright majority, which will result in a fragmented parliament and another fragile coalition government.”
Disillusioned with their political class and official corruption, Bulgarians have shown a fondness for political outsiders. This initially benefitted Borissov, who successfully portrayed himself as a macho “man of the people” taking on the political establishment. At 57, he is still listed among the squad for second division football club FC Vitosha Bistritsa, famously missing a critical debate on judicial reform in 2015 because he was playing a match for the club.
As well as frequent appearances in traditional media, he takes his message directly to the people over social media, with Facebook - where he has over 178,000 followers - being his preferred platform.
But as time passes, and Borissov is no longer the charismatic outsider, GERB has struggled to hold onto its popularity. The party’s first term in office lasted nearly twice as long as its second, and there is a glaring contrast between its secure government in 2009-2013 and its position at the head of a hotchpotch of smaller parties in its second term.
Zankina argues that despite Borissov’s efforts “his party has not evolved beyond him”. “GERB is a typical leader-centred populist party even though Borissov has made great attempts to bring other people in, to have collective leadership and to create a genuine party organisation.”
Like most populist parties “they are better when the faces are new,” she tells bne IntelliNews. “It’s really hard for them to take the anti-establishment position any more so their options now are to criticise their opponents - negative campaigning dominates Bulgarian elections anyway - or to campaign based on competence.”
Having said that, GERB can point to some past achievements, a record which contrast favourably with many recent Bulgarian governments.
Borissov stresses the government’s investments into roads and other infrastructure during his premierships. His first government successfully unlocked EU funding and has consistently cultivated warm relations with the EU and Nato, in contrast to the more ambivalent position of the BSP, given its closer ties to Moscow. More recently, his government dealt with the refugee and migrant crisis to the satisfaction of many Bulgarians, despite criticism from abroad over suspected human rights abuses.
Borissov has also tried to present himself as an anti-corruption champion. High-profile operations targeting organised crime were carried out during his first term in office, followed by attempts to launch a new anti-corruption strategy and overhaul the justice system during his second term, although both faced political resistance.
The European Commission’s latest report on Bulgaria under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), which monitors progress in fighting corruption and organised crime, noted “significant progress” in the last year, but added that “implementation of the anti-corruption strategy still remains in an early stage. In the past 10 years, overall progress has not been as fast as hoped for.” In contrast to neighbouring Romania, Bulgaria still has a dismal record on bringing top-level officials to justice for corruption.
All this will make it difficult, or perhaps impossible, for GERB to recapture the public’s imagination the way it did back in 2009.
“GERB did not fail dramatically in any way but I don’t think competence will be enough for them to win the election because of the great disillusionment, corruption scandals and fear of what is going on in Europe and around the world,” says Zankina. “The other problem the party faces is that like many populist parties it has made unrealistic promises that exceed its ability - perhaps the ability of any party - to deliver, resulting in disappointment.”
Moreover, now that GERB has moved into the mainstream, the party has to fight off challenges from new outsiders. In the recent presidential election, this strategy was successfully used by the BSP, which picked former air force commander Radev as its candidate rather than a party hack.
“The clear victory for Radev, a political novice from outside the political establishment, has revealed the scale of the Bulgarian public’s disappointment at its political class,” wrote Tomasz Dąborowski of the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) shortly after the election.
Concerning GERB’s candidate, “the uncharismatic Tsacheva failed to emerge from Borissov’s shadow, giving the impression of being a weak candidate”, Dąborowski writes. By contrast, “Radev was effectively able to present himself as a candidate above parties, from outside current politics, who would strengthen the security of the state”.
By that token, extrapolating a major surge in support for the BSP from their candidate’s victory in the presidential election would be a mistake.
On the far right, the expected increase in support for Bulgaria’s nationalist parties is in line with their resurgence across Europe. Politicians have played on the arrival of refugees and migrants, since Bulgaria neighbours Turkey and is therefore on one of the main routes to Western Europe. However, nationalist parties have also lured voters away from the BSP as they combine far right nationalism with bits of far left ideology.
Meanwhile, the traditional right is in disarray, with neither GERB’s former coalition partner the Reformist Bloc nor splinter parties such as Yes Bulgaria and New Republic, likely to pass the 4% threshold to enter the parliament, according to the latest polls.
As one populist star wanes, another could be about to rise. Another political outsider, TV host Slavi Trifonov, surprised many by not making a bid for the presidency or registering a party in time to stand in the parliamentary elections. Trifonov has merged politics with showmanship since the fall of communism when his show “Cuckoo” lampooned Bulgaria’s leaders.
Today, he is increasingly making political waves, with his TV show initiating a 2016 referendum on electoral reform. Trifonov is believed to be biding his time before making a leap from showbiz into politics - possibly in time for the next election after this one.
This article was previously published on February 16.