A few days before the March 26 general election, Bulgarians seem tired of voting and uncertain whether the election will bring any significant change.
The most recent opinion polls do not indicate a clear winner, with the centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) alternating in the lead. This will put two small parties - the United Patriots and Volya (“Will”) founded by businessman Vesselin Mareshki - in kingmaker position.
This will be the third consecutive early parliamentary election in the Balkan country since May 2013. Add that to the November 2016 presidential election and 2015 local elections, some Bulgarians say they have lost track of whether they are supposed to be electing a president, a parliament or a local mayor this time around.
There’s also a strong sense that with the two parties that have dominated Bulgarian political life in recent years leading in the polls, the question of whether GERB or the BSP manages to form a government won’t make much difference.
“Nothing will change now – the same parties will make the same deals between each other and none of them actually cares about us,” Peter, a 37-year-old living in Sofia, told bne IntelliNews.
“If the elections could actually change anything, they would be forbidden,” Victor, a 32-year software developer, says.
Although this expectation seems to be widespread, the polling agencies forecast that between 3.5mn and 4mn people will cast their votes on Sunday – more than half of the around 6.8mn people eligible to vote.
However, when it comes to the result, it is still uncertain which of the main parties will gain most of these votes. An express survey by Barometer Bulgaria said GERB is the leading player, whereas a study by Mediana said that it is the BSP. However, these two studies, as well as virtually all the earlier polls, have indicated that the difference between the two parties is small, and neither will have enough MPs to form a government alone.
GERB seems slightly more likely to be able to form a government given the likely composition of the next parliament, and it also has a modest edge in a poll of polls compiled by Teneo Intelligence. This could mean a third term in office for former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who stepped down in 2016 after GERB’s candidate failed to win the presidential election.
Having said that, virtually all pollsters also agree that forming a new ruling coalition will be very difficult.
Kingmakers in waiting
Aside from GERB and the BSP, the support for three other political players has been reported consistently above the 4% of votes threshold to enter the parliament. These are the United Patriots coalition, the predominantly ethnic-Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) and Volya.
Two of the three nationalist parties that constitute the United Patriots were previously the members of the Patriotic Front, which usually supported the second GERB government. This history of previous cooperation makes the nationalist coalition an acceptable partner for GERB too. It is also possible that Volya will join a ruling coalition headed by GERB.
“Smaller parties, particularly the United Patriots (UP) and Volya, will likely emerge as kingmakers. Both the UP and Volya could lean in either direction depending on the post-election negotiations,” says Teneo CEE advisor Andrius Tursa in a March 13 analyst note.
“Both the United Patriots and Mareshki’s Volya could side with either Borisov or the Socialists but they will, no doubt, exact a high price in terms of ministerial seats, resources and favours for their support,” writes Dimitar Bechev, is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center in an LSE blog post.
So far, GERB’s Borissov and BSP leader Korneliya Ninova have both ruled out entering in a coalition with the DPS.
Ninova also categorically rules out a grand coalition between BSP and GERB. On the other hand, she noted that her party’s platform is most similar to the platform of the United Patriots that appear set to be the next parliament’s kingmaker.
And while GERB has a slight edge in the polls, Bechev says the momentum could favour the BSP, after its candidate Rumen Radev won the 2016 presidential election.
“Buoyed by Radev’s win in the presidential race, the Socialists are hopeful that their time has finally come after losing pretty much each and every contest over the past decade,” he writes.
“Ninova is working hard to rally the hardcore BSP electorate and win over some of GERB’s voters, as happened back in November.”
There are also a number of small parties close to the 4% threshold that could do better than expected on election day.
The right-wing Reformist Bloc, which was a junior partner in the previous GERB government and was recently joined by the Glas Naroden party, has support of either slightly less or slightly more than 4%. One or two other parties may also surprise people and enter the next parliament as well. Most likely, these will be the left-wing Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV)-Dvizhenie 21 and Dost, a new party founded in 2016 by former DPS leader Lyutvi Mestan. The party has recently been the centre of a diplomatic spat between Sofia and Ankara over accusations that a Turkish minister has been campaigning on behalf of the party.
Despite many voters’ disillusionment with both parties, there are some substantial differences between the election programmes of the two largest parties.
In the area of taxation, GERB commits to make no changes and preserve the current direct taxation regime. The BSP, by contrast, envisages a “gradual exit” from the flat personal income tax.
With regard to the project for completing the Belene nuclear power plant, GERB’s position is that following an analysis, the project can be implemented on a commercial basis, without direct or indirect participation of the Bulgarian state, without a state guarantee, and without long-term electricity purchase contracts. On the other hand, the BSP backs state support for developing Bulgaria’s large energy infrastructure projects, including Belene.
Sofia was left with a €600mn bill for Belene after an international arbitration court ruled that Bulgaria had to pay Russia’s Atomstroyexport for the work done so far on the power plant after it was cancelled by Borissov’s former government.
In the area of foreign policy, BSP advocates undertaking concrete initiatives and steps in cooperation with other EU member states for lifting the EU sanctions against Russia. GERB takes a typically pragmatic stance, saying that in developing its relations with Russia, Bulgaria will respect its national interest, as well as the principles of common policy with the countries members of the EU and Nato.
Looking to the future
While populists like GERB and Volya and nationalists like the United Patriots seem to have gained traction among many Bulgarians ahead of this election, the country’s urban, educated population are not enthusiastic about any of the parties likely to make up the next parliament.
Instead, many are pinning their hopes on two new right-wing formations, which are seen as a possible new alternative to the status quo – the Movement Yes, Bulgaria!coalition and the Nova Republika project.
“I will vote, because I keep hoping that people with new morals will appear,” Vassil, a 34-year old IT expert and father of three young children, says.
He is part of a rising number of young people between 18 and 45 who are looking for an alternative to the current main parties. Most of these people come from the middle class and have a relatively good life but are tired of seeing the same politicians in parliament and seek new people who would eventually solve the problems related to the high-level corruption and the extreme poverty in the country.
Hristo Ivanov, the leader of Yes, Bulgaria! Party, said in a recent interview with bne IntelliNews that these problems can only be tackled by people who have already achieved something significant in other areas and enter in politics because of their despair that no one else would change the situation.
He also forecast that the next parliament would have a “short and ignoble life”, with no party able to form a stable majority.
His supporters have been even more outspoken about the political situation. “Look, dudes, I understand that we are all disgusted, bored and somewhat desperate in a princess style. Our vote seems lost anyway… Guys, do you see the s****y landscape? Do we need to go back in time and remember how much s*** I have shovelled out and what did this cost me? Look, I don’t even ask you to go into this. Just give me the damn shovel on Sunday!” Boyana Petkova, one of the most prominent candidates of Yes, Bulgaria! said in a post on her Facebook page. Petkova is also the founder of an NGO fighting for parents of prematurely born babies who have died to have the right to bury them.
She is not alone as many people who have been fighting for specific causes have now decided to join politics, hoping to make a change, even though polling agencies do not rate their chances of entering the next parliament.