Local elections bring tectonic changes to Bulgarian political landscape

Local elections bring tectonic changes to Bulgarian political landscape
Sofia's new mayor and municipal councillors are sworn in. / Change Continues
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia November 13, 2023

Bulgaria’s latest local elections ended Gerb’s decades of domination, as the party lost several big cities, including the capital Sofia, beaten by its partner at state level, Change Continues-Democratic Bulgaria (CC-DB).

Gerb and CC-DB are not natural allies, but as the two main pro-Western formations in parliament, they agreed earlier this year to support Bulgaria’s new government to end years of political instability. The government has a rotating prime minister, a position held for the first nine months by CC’s Nikolai Denkov, while Gerb’s Mariya Gabriel is deputy prime minister.

Despite their agreement, tensions between the partners have been evident, and were exacerbated by the results of the local elections. 

In Sofia, where one-third of Bulgarians live, CC-DB won mayoral seats in 19 out of 24 districts. Its candidate for Sofia mayor – the IT millionaire Vassil Terziev – also won, although with a slim majority, putting an end to nearly 20 years of Gerb’s control of the capital.

Terziev narrowly beat Vanya Grigorova, the nominee of several pro-Russian parties and a new face in Bulgarian politics. Grigorova has the potential to shake up the left, just as Change Continues and Democratic Bulgaria have done to the centre-right. 

Gerb leads but loses seats

Gerb won mayoral seats in half of Bulgaria’s big cities, making it the winner nationwide, but this result was far from the widespread victories of Gerb’s candidates in the past. Where it lost cities, it was ousted by CC-DB and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP).

That gives CC-DB more strength ahead of future elections and is a clear signal that the pro-Western formation has the potential to become a dominant political player in the coming years.

The other main player at state level – the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) — did not lose positions in the local vote, but the party is going through significant changes in leadership, which might further reshape the political scene in the coming period.

In a rather angry mood after the losses, Gerb’s leader Boyko Borissov said his party will reconsider its support for Denkov’s government. 

On November 8, Borissov called a meeting of Gerb’s parliamentary group that will be followed by sessions of the party’s leadership to decide on its further steps.

In a speech broadcasted live on Facebook on November 8, Borissov said the agreement with CC-DB must be either renegotiated or implemented as originally agreed. Gerb and CC-DB do not have a coalition agreement but have signed a procedure on communicating and taking important decisions. So far, Borissov has demanded several times the signing of a formal agreement but backed off after that, saying that CC-DB and Gerb remain opponents.

Borissov also suggested that the ministers hold meetings every Tuesday with the respective parliamentary committees to coordinate their work. Borissov said this would allow Gerb to bear equal responsibility with CC-DB for ruling the country.

Borissov criticised Finance Minister Assen Vassilev, CC-DB’s co-founder, for missing the chance to secure EU funds to compensate SMEs for the high electricity prices and for not taking measures to cut the budget deficit to between 0% and 3% of GDP.

Energy Minister Rumen Radev was accused of not doing his job to draft a detailed plan for regions where the coal industry is located. The health and education ministers were also criticised for not doing their jobs.

Borissov has indicated several times that he will the seek replacement of four or five ministers once Gabriel takes office.

However, CC-DB’s leaders have repeatedly said they will not accept blackmail attempts by Gerb or DPS – the latter two formations seem openly coordinated in their political activities over the past months.

Hristo Ivanov, co-leader of DB, called on Gerb to return to the jointly agreed agenda at state level once the local elections are over. CC’s co-leader Kiril Petkov also indicated that his formation will not tolerate blackmail.

Political analysts warn that if Gerb withdraws its support for the government, it will lose out as voters are tired after five consecutive snap general elections, and want a longer-lasting and stable government that would implement delayed reforms and stabilise the economy.

DPS with appetite for more power

The DPS, which is not officially part of the ruling agreement, supported Gerb and CC-DB in many of their legislative initiatives. Its informal leader, the Magnitsky-sanctioned Delyan Peevski, has been increasingly active in parliament in speaking on behalf of both Gerb and the DPS. 

Previously, Peevski was notorious for not attending parliamentary sessions despite being an MP for over a decade. His unusual activity was seen as part of efforts to change his image and possibly persuade the US to lift the sanctions.

Meanwhile, on November 7, the DPS’ official leader, Mustafa Karadayi, resigned without explanation. Before that, Peevski was promoted to co-leader of DPS’ parliamentary group along with Karadayi. Now Peevski remains the sole head of the party’s MPs.

The chairman of honour of the DPS, Ahmed Dogan, seen as the actual leader of the party, will take over that function again until the party holds a meeting to elect a new leader. It is expected that Peevski will be the new leader.

Experts suggested that Dogan and Peevski are acting together and the reshuffle aims to secure the party significantly higher support in the next general election and official participation in the government and ruling coalition. The DPS has several times proposed supporting a government led by Gerb or CC-DB, but CC-DB refused.

It is unclear whether and how the changes of leadership in the DPS will affect the party’s image. Dogan is notorious for his claim that he created a business circle financing the party in exchange for favours. He also said several years ago he was the one distributing the portions of power in Bulgaria. After his comments became public, Dogan chose to withdraw from active political life and continue leading the party quietly.

New left alternative on the horizon

The local elections brought to the scene Grigorova, a new leftwing face with the potential to unite all left formations or to launch her own project. She was nominated by several left pro-Russian parties, including the BSP, far-right Vazrazhdane and several other small formations. Grigorova lost the mayor seat in Sofia to Terziev by less than 5,000 votes and intends to appeal the result.

During her last public statements ahead of the second round of the local vote, Grigorova gave a clear signal of her pro-Russian position. She has done that also in the past, fiercely defending the country’s dependence on Russian natural gas. She has also become notorious for her threats ahead of last winter that Bulgarians would hardly survive after Gazprom halted supplies to Bulgaria.

Grigorova is seen as a fresh face that could either oust BSP leader Kornelia Ninova or launch a new left formation that could steal votes from all pro-Russian formations in the country and become a significant factor in politics in the future.

Moreover, Grigorova seems to have the unofficial support of pro-Russian President Rumen Radev who is expected to stay in politics with his own party after the expiry of his current mandate. The two politicians could theoretically join forces.

Grigorova’s positions include nationalisation of companies and populist promises for more care for poor people at the expense of those who are wealthier.

Despite the significant changes on the Bulgarian political scene, most experts do not expect a new early parliamentary election any time soon. Rather, Gerb would keep supporting the current government until the end of Gabriel’s term as prime minister, or even longer. However, this could cost CC-DB support and help Gerb and the DPS to strengthen their positions in future elections.

CC-DB’s policy is to openly speak of the negatives it is experiencing from working together with Gerb and DPS – until recently its fiercest opponents. However, the leaders of the formation say the current government is the most viable option for the country at the moment and hope that Bulgaria will integrate better in Nato and the EU in the coming months.


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