Ideas on Europe

The Bulgarian electoral roller-coaster - Ideas on Europe

The Bulgarian electoral roller-coaster - Ideas on Europe

For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Natasza Styczynska, from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Bonjour, Natasza!

In 2021 Bulgarians took part in 3 parliamentary & 1 presidential elections. Natasza, you want to put this „electoral roller coaster”, as you say, into a wider perspective for the entire region.

We have to go back to the anti-corruption protests organised, despite the pandemic, from July 2020 till April 2021 in the biggest cities and also abroad, in Brussels, Madrid, Berlin, London. Protesters pointed out endemic corruption and the illiberal policies of Boyko Borissov’s government. 

Bulgaria has consistently ranked as the most corrupt European Union member state, but also experienced a decline in media freedom – it dropped from 59th to 112th globally in the Press Freedom Index between 2008 and 2021 – it is the lowest score of any EU member state. Similarly, the democracy index is also dropping according to data provided by the Freedom House

The waves of protest, but also long-lasting dissatisfaction with domestic politics resulted in the fourth national elections in the last eight months.

How did the election roller coaster actually come about?

After the elections in April this year, Borissov’s GERB party lost the majority and no other party leader was able to form a coalition. That led to the first snap elections in July, when the political newcomers, the populist party “There Is Such a People” (ITN), led by TV showman Slavi Trifonov, narrowly won the most seats, followed by GERB, but none of them was able to form a government and cooperation was a not an option. 

Consequently, a second snap election was called for November in the two-in-one formula - together with Presidential elections. This time the majority was obtained by the new party “We continue the Change” created by Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev, ministers in the caretaker government appointed in April by President Radev. 

Last year’s corruption scandals resonated with the civil protests which brought an end to GERB rule, but Borissov’s opponents have also failed to deliver. It seems that the only clear majority in the Bulgarian parliament is the anti-Borissov one! 

The presidential elections resulted in Rumen Radev being elected for a second term on the 21st of November. He won in a runoff against a GERB-backed candidate – the Rector of Sofia University - Anastas Gerdjikov. 

All four elections were characterised by a very low turnout, starting at 50% in April, through 42% in July, and dropping to just over 30% in November. Clearly, Bulgarians are tired of their political elite, and have little hope for a positive change.The pandemic – with Bulgaria having the lowest vaccination rate in the EU with less than 25% of people fully vaccinated due to widespread anti-vaccine conspiracy theories – and corruption were the main issues of the campaign. 

But the elections also had an international dimension. They increased tensions in bilateral relations with Turkey and with Ukraine, with different accusations of reciprocal interference in domestic affairs, and they had a European dimension.

What role did the EU play in the public debate?

There is one topic that most political parties agree on: the veto on the opening of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia. This stance is backed by a vast majority: 84% of citizens think that Bulgaria should not support the accession of North Macedonia before the bilateral agreement focused on history and language is reached. 

Sofia points out that Macedonian is a Bulgarian dialect and the history of both nations has the same roots, while Skopje claims the opposite. Interestingly, the Bulgarian veto was posted in November 2020, under Borissov, in which far-right nationalists were a junior coalition partner

The elections brought high hopes that the veto would be lifted by the winners. One of the leaders of the “We continue the Change” – Harvard educated businessman Kiril Petkov – explained that he wants more pragmatism and intensive bilateral dialogue with North Macedonia. However, until the new government is constructed the main say in international affairs belongs to president Rumen Radev.

There is also a foreign pressure on Bulgaria to lift the veto, both form from the United States and some of the EU countries. Analysts point out that the issue could be solved even still this year, preferably during the EU summit on 16-17 December, but on other hand, there is not much activity from the EU institutions towards solving it. 

That sounds like a deadlock, which will be difficult to resolve. Thank you very much, Natasza, for shedding some light on this region of Europe that we would be well advised to watch more closely. I recall you work at the Jagellonian University in Krakow, Poland.

Next week, for our “Ideas on Europe” column, we’ll have the pleasure to welcome Roula Nezi, from the University of Surrey in England.