More instability set to follow Bulgaria’s sixth general election since 2021

More instability set to follow Bulgaria’s sixth general election since 2021
Boyko Borissov's Gerb is expected to win the largest share of the vote, but fall far short of a majority. / Gerb
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia June 6, 2024

Bulgaria will hold its sixth general election in just over three years on June 9, together with the vote for the European Parliament, but the outcome is expected to further deepen the political crisis in the country instead of offering a stable government and reforms.

The country entered in a cycle of general elections in April 2021 and all the votes have produced highly fragmented parliaments with no easy ways to form viable coalitions. Over that time, the country had just two regular governments but each lasted less than a year. Meanwhile, turnout has been falling as voters got tired of going to the polls every few months.

On June 9, Boyko Borissov’s former ruling Gerb party is expected to win but with just a quarter of the votes – not enough for stable coalition without the support of at least two more formations. 

Reformist pro-Western Change Continues-Democratic Bulgaria (CC-DB) coalition, which partnered with Gerb to back Nikolai Denkov’s government, is lagging behind by around 10 percentage points. According to Market Links, Gerb would get 24.7% of the votes versus 15.4% for CC-DB.

CC-DB has lost significant support after deciding to join forces with Gerb in the last parliament to secure support for a regular government. CC's Denkov led the last government for nine months, after which he was supposed to switch with Gerb's Mariya Gabriel. However, Gerb, backed by the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), blew up the agreement, provoking the latest snap vote.

Two parties are fighting for third place – the DPS and the far-right pro-Russian Vazrazhdane – with 12.3% and 11.1% respectively, according to Market Links. Two more parties – the populist There Are Such People (ITN) and the pro-Russian Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) – are also expected to enter parliament with 7.5% and 4% of the vote respectively.

"Please vote!"

Fed up with early elections, many Bulgarians are expected to stay at home on election day. The expected low turnout would benefit parties with a higher degree of control over their voters, such as Gerb and the DPS. 

Meanwhile, voters are expected to punish the reformers in CC-DB for working with Gerb, whose terms in power were marred by corruption scandals. CC-DB’s best hope now is to win over undecided voters. 

Prominent political analyst Prof. Evgenii Dainov warned that the low turnout could see Bulgaria getting a government headed by the Magnitsky-sanctioned leader of the DPS, Delyan Peevski.

“Malignant authoritarian bastards lie five times a day about what is happening. And [former US president Donald] Trump is like that, and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, and Kopeyka [Kostadin Kostadinov of Vazrazhdane], and [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban, and that bastard in Georgia, etc. But what they share about their personal plans is always true. Conclusion: Peevski will really arrange things so that he will be your prime minister. He will do his best to make it happen,” Dainov wrote on Facebook.

“If you don’t vote, then there will be ‘but how come Peevski is prime minister'. Well, just like that. With your complicity. With your (un)votes,” he added.

Lubomir Alamanov, a prominent PR and communications expert, appealed to those who have decided to punish CC-DB by not voting at all.

“Please tell me, do you really think that by boycotting your own, you will achieve something? What will you achieve? Are you going to make the mafia run away? Boyko will untangle his socks? Delyan will cry and give away his money? Is that what you are going to achieve? I shall tell you what will happen — the mafia will die, but of laughter,” Alamanov wrote.

He acknowledged that democratic parties have made a lot of mistakes. “But boycotting them, who did not have enough support [in the previous parliament] anyway, is the dumbest thing,” Alamanov wrote.

Public activists also called on people to go and vote, saying that no choice would be perfect but not even trying to change the country is worse.

Tough negotiations or new vote

Although Gerb is set to have a quarter of the 240 MPs in the new parliament, the party will face tough negotiations to secure a majority. The DPS is seen as Gerb’s natural partner as the two parties collaborated unofficially for years, and jointly put an end to the previous government. However, that would not be enough and the two partners need at least one more party to join.

The other pro-Western formation, CC-DB, has repeatedly said it will not negotiate with nor join a coalition with Gerb and the DPS based on its bad experience in the last government. CC-DB’s members have accused the leaders of Gerb and DPS – Borissov and Peevski – of being responsible for the collapse of the last government and for blocking judicial reforms and the appointment of managers of key state regulators. 

Despite their unhappy history in the last government, members of Gerb and CC-DB have indicated that talks are not completely excluded, but CC-DB wants guarantees that the DPS will not be included in decision-making.

Even so, neither a Gerb/DPS or a Gerb/CC-DB coalition would have enough seats for a majority. 

Theoretically, Gerb and the DPS could join forces with ITN or get the unofficial support of Vazrazhdane. However, these options have the potential to provoke a new wave of protests in the country and could cost Gerb support.

Borissov has indicated he is ready to return to power but only if Gerb gets enough seats in parliament for a stable majority. This means that the party might choose to provoke new elections in the autumn, hoping to benefit from an even lower turnout.

There is speculation that Gerb and the DPS could use the intervening months to make key appointments at state regulators that would give them access to real power over the next decade, as well as the comfort of not being pursued for involvement in corruption.

Political crisis delays eurozone entry

If Bulgaria again fails to get a regular government after the June 9 vote, that would significantly delay its entry to the eurozone and the lifting of land borders in the Schengen area.

According to experts, the country will meet the last criterion for the eurozone by the end of this year – to have low inflation – but that would not be enough to get a green light if it does not have a stable regular government.

On the other hand, longer governance by caretaker cabinets could put the country away from its pro-Western orbit and increase Russian influence in the country. President Rumen Radev has been openly pro-Russian since the start of war in Ukraine. 

There are also questions over the orientation of current caretaker Prime Minister Dimitar Glavchev, after he was revealed to have attempted to change Bulgaria’s vote for UN’s resolution on Srebrenica genocide in favour of Serbia and Russia’s demands.

Glavchev sent a last-minute instruction to Bulgaria’s representative in the UN General Assembly, Lachezara Stoeva, not to back the resolution but to abstain. However, Stoeva refused to comply with this instruction and supported the resolution. It was widely speculated that Glavchev has acted upon instructions from Borissov, and that Borissov in turn was pressured by Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic. 

An extended political crisis could also help pro-Russian parties gain more support, and Vazrazhdane has the potential to become the second-largest political formation in parliament.

If Bulgaria gets a Gerb-DPS-led coalition and a regular government, the most likely option at present, the country’s perspectives for reforms and progress towards the eurozone and full Schengen entry remain low and the country seems to be heading towards an even deeper political crisis.