Low expectations from Bulgaria’s fifth general election in two years

Low expectations from Bulgaria’s fifth general election in two years
Former prime minister Kiril Petkov (centre) campaigning for CC-DB, which currently leads the polls but will face tough coalition talks post-election. / Change Continues
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia March 30, 2023

Voters are simply tired as they wait for Bulgaria’s fifth general election in two years on April 2. Few see any perspective for an end to the country’s deepest political crisis in decades, and most would settle for any regular government that could at least carry out basic reforms. 

Polls show voters’ low expectations are justified. The vote is set to produce yet another highly-fragmented parliament with between five and seven parties and coalitions passing the threshold. Forming a coalition that could produce a stable majority will again be difficult.

The Change Continues-Democratic Bulgaria (CC-DB) coalition seems to be heading for a slim victory, but will have nowhere near enough seats in parliament to form a government alone. According to the most recent poll, the coalition will get around 24% of the votes.

The Gerb-SDS coalition is projected to come second with around 22% or 23% of the vote, followed by the ethnic-Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) with around 14%, far-right pro-Russian Vazrazhdane with 11-12% and the pro-Russian Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) with around 7%.

Among the other candidates, two or three formations might get the chance to pass the 4% threshold if turnout is higher than expected – The Left coalition, There Are Such People (ITN) and Bulgarian Ascend.

However, polls indicate the turnout will be at a record low of under 40%, as many people see no reason to go to the polling stations for a fifth time and get more of the same.

Unpopular decisions

If they are to resolve this impasse, politicians will have to take tough decisions after the election. 

None of the players seems willing to enter into an official coalition with anyone else, as this would cost them votes, so the most likely scenario is the appointment of a technocratic government for a limited term. This would put an end to nearly two years of caretaker governments appointed by Kremlin-friendly President Rumen Radev, in the absence of a functioning parliament.

The pressure thus is on politicians to make the compromises needed to get a government in place, and stop Bulgarians feeling they are living in a country on a road to nowhere.

If political leaders fail to do that, the country will hold a sixth vote in the autumn. In that case, the turnout could be even lower and disappointed supporters of the main political players could simply stay at home and not bother to vote. 

As the frontrunner in the polls, supporters of CC-DB in particular think the leaders of political parties must set aside their principles and red lines and take responsibility for the country amid the ongoing crisis.

“If they fail to form a government now, I will never again vote for them,” Svetoslava, a therapist and CC-DB supporter, told bne IntelliNews.

This time at least, voters seem ready to give the formation a chance. “OK, we all know “our” guys are not perfect but that is the best we have now. Not voting is giving an advantage to the others,” Dimitar, an IT expert, said.

Possible configurations 

Three pro-Western formations — CC-DB, Gerb-SDS and the DPS — together are set to have a majority in parliament. 

However, CC-DB has repeatedly said it cannot enter in coalition with the other two formations as they have been involved in several major corruption scandals. Gerb-SDS is seen as possible partner to CC-DB only if its leader, the three-times prime minister Boyko Borissov, resigns and the party rids itself off of all members involved in corruption scandals or blacklisted by the US. However, Gerb, whose campaign has been focused on Borissov, does not seem ready to replace its leader. 

Borissov has indicated that his party might back a CC-DB-led government without signing a coalition agreement. CC’s co-leader, former prime minister Kiril Petkov, has also said several times the coalition would try to form a minority government seeking support for a programme of specific reforms for a specific timeframe.

DB’s co-leader Hristo Ivanov went even further, saying that some sort of agreement with Gerb-SDS and with the DPS might be necessary to have a regular government. However, this has sparked anger among the party’s supporters, who say that would force them to give up on the formation. Others, however, believe that any government that agrees on a pro-Western path would be better than the current caretaker government led by Prime Minister Gulub Donev, who seems to be trying hard to bring Bulgaria back into the Kremlin’s orbit.

If CC-DB fails to find a compromise and form a government, Gerb-SDS would also face tough decisions. Gerb is trying to present itself as the party that can bring back stability. Its supporters are readily closing their eyes to the corruption scandals involving the party’s leader and key members in the hope of getting a regular government.

A failed agreement with CC-DB would leave the formation only two choices: to give up on being part of a government, or to formalise a coalition with the DPS and the BSP. In the previous parliament, the three formations joined forces to bring back paper ballots and change the electoral law — controversial changes that were widely seen as reopening the door to electoral fraud and which gained them the nickname “the paper coalition”. They have also indicated they might form an official coalition in the next parliament.

The DPS, on the other hand, is aiming to secure enough votes from Bulgarians living in Turkey to make a two-party ruling coalition with Gerb possible. It is still unclear whether the party will succeed, or if it will be pushed into fourth place by Vazrazhdane.

Whichever scenario happens, the situation for Bulgarian politicians can be summed up as lose-lose — unless they find a way to carry out tough and long-delayed key reforms and take the country out of the swamp of political and economic crises it has been bogged down in for two long years.