By Mila Moshelova (Sofia University
While Europeans were holding their breath for the Euro finals on 11 July Bulgaria was playing its second electoral match for 2021. Will there be more?
The nine days wonder
The regular parliamentary elections on 4 April gave life to the shortest and perhaps the rowdiest parliament but one that also offset important changes.
With its nine days of work it officially ended the parliamentary domination of centre-right GERB since 2009, it seated 92 new members of parliament from what are often referred to as the three ‘parties of change’ or the ‘protest parties’, and it introduced machine voting as the primary mechanism for casting a vote. It then fell apart as no clear governing majority was possible within its ranks. It gave way to a care-taker government appointed by the President Rumen Radev who has emerged as the natural antagonist to three times Prime Minister and leader of GERB, Boyko Borissov.
July’s snap elections did not deliver anything more certain than another hung parliament. The electoral campaign in the build up to 11 July was inseparable from the work of the interim government. Numerous inquiries into the previous governing majority of GERB and United Patriots (2017 – 2021) revealed details of non-transparent spending of state finances, fraudulent selection of contractors for public tenders, state loans to private companies in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis at the expense of small and medium sized businesses. In addition, information emerged of intercepted communication of opposition leaders prior to the April elections. In the whirlwind of pre-election scandals came the whip of anti-corruption sanctions against influential kingpins under the Magnitsky Act. All the turbulence further clarified just how reckless the decline in parliament’s sanctioning power over the executive branch has become.
Choose or snooze
While the interim government’s work by definition served as a contra campaign to the previous governing elite,
electoral attitudes following the 4 April elections showed the readiness to cast a vote gravitating around 60 percent. By the end of the campaign in early July the number of those firmly stating they will cast a vote had fallen within the range of 47-50 percent. The snap election saw a turnout of just above 40 percent. It is hard to tell what is at the bottom of this reflux of nearly 10 percent compared to April. Voting idleness could be down to expectations for a repetition of an unstable parliament, the coinciding leisure season, pure apathy or the possible repercussions of machine voting. Replacing the paper ballot with a touchscreen has the potential to at least decrease the share of vote buying but also carries ‘technological fear’ and doubts for electoral fraud. The lower turnout could also be a perceived comfort with an active interim government resulting in partial abdication from the need to walk to the polling station. And perhaps a pinch of all these made the difference.
Either way, the important story to tell is that the debutant in the April elections ‘There Is Such a People’ (ITN) overtook GERB albeit by a tiny margin of 0.2 percent.
Led by a famous long-standing TV show man Slavi Trifonov, ITN added a further 6 percent to its no less surprising 17.7 vote share in April and got 23.9 percent support to 23.7 for GERB. Analyst expectations for a further more drastic collapse of GERB weren’t fulfilled – they lost two percentage points from their April result which was already a blow from 33.5 in 2017. Yet, the key is beyond the simple arithmetic as their political bankruptcy is undeniable. After 11 years in power GERB are out of any governing equation and will remain isolated however long the upcoming parliament lives for. Further, they are widely associated by the public with everything Bulgaria no longer wants to be – corrupt, unlawful and non-transparent.
The centre-right coalition Democratic Bulgaria (established in 2018) grew with 3 points to 12.55 on an established platform of anti-corruption and a strong vouch for rule of law reforms. The small third new contender Rise Up! got 5.04 percent, scoring marginal 0.5 growth. Overall, support for the parties associated with opposition to the status quo rose – amidst lower turnout, indeed, yet a clear sign that at least for now the popular demand for change and new actors remains. The Bulgarian Socialist Party got 13.63 (-2 %) came out as the second biggest loser, while the controversial for its balancing role in a number of parliaments Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) expectedly remained the same at 10.66 (to 10.51 in April). In other no less important news, the nationalist-patriotic forces and previous coalition partners to GERB in the 2017 – 2021 mandate did not cross the 4 percent threshold. This is despite attempts to run separately in April and in coalition configurations in July. It is also despite near desperate campaign efforts of some of them to attract attention, including by harassment against LGBTI community events and activists.
No minority, no majority: just us.
In a rare interview prior to the 11 July vote Trifonov revealed before the French ‘Le Monde’ that restructuring the State Prosecutor’s Office is of highest priority if the party wins elections. The issue has been at the heart of anti-government protests around the country which began in July 2020. It was also among the key overlaps in the agenda of the so-called ‘parties of change’. Yet, genuine debates and communication between them was effectively non-existent during the campaign due to ITN’s stillness. Traditionally, Trifonov and ITN did not enter any form of conversation with journalists, any other media but their own or in this sense, the general public.
On the morning of 12 July, even before the final results were announced officially, the front man of ITN finally brought clarity to the party’s plans. In a direct announcement from the party’s own TV channel he stated ITN will accept a mandate to form a government – this would be ‘no minority government, no majority government but a government of Bulgaria’. With an ambition for ‘a change from within’ [the system] ITN takes an independent responsibility for initiating a government with its own structure and composition, with experts and concrete priorities to be achieved within an undefined ‘short spam’.
Not touching upon any concrete policies, the priorities of the provisional government lineup skipped a key stroke – the figure of the State Prosecutor and the deep rule of law reforms. Openly dismissing any coalition potential or collaborations with other parties in forming a cabinet, he presented a list of cabinet ministers – well educated in top Western universities with many of them within the age group 30 to 40 and little experienced in governance. Yet, a few of the nominations are well known faces from previous governments, including the Prime Minister nominee Nikolay Vasilev. He is a politician from the party National Movement for Simeon II (NDSV) led by the former Bulgarian king Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha which led a coalition government between 2001 and 2004. It is a party and subsequent government widely associated with populist modus operandi and corruption. This inevitably raises concerns how genuine is the anti-establishment and anti-status quo claim of ITN.
The main takeaway is that ITN will continue to insist on its calls for a change in the political system, more direct democracy, and a majoritarian electoral system in two rounds – all propagated by ITN as universal cures for the replication of injustice and immorality in the corrupted status quo, as they see it.
To compromise or to not compromise
While the 4 April elections took place largely with the remnant energy of months of anti-government protests and demands for the resignation of the State Prosecutor, 11 July was marked by the spirit of changes that have already begun. Yet, it isn’t getting any easier. ITN stated they will not coalition with the other ‘parties of change’ and their non-communicate policy toward the status-quo parties GERB, BSP and DPS remains unchanged. Compromises will be inevitable and costly making potential trade-offs disturbingly dubious while ad-hoc support on particular issues and policies opens the door to contradictory arithmetic of party support.
The choice between a continued political crisis or the slippery road of introducing a majoritarian electoral system and replacing judicial reform with yet another superficial makeover will certainly keep all parties on their toes. Although it is better to have a government than to keep turning the election wheel, this certainly shouldn’t be at any price and the Democratic Bulgaria and Rise up! know it. With 24 percent of the vote from 40 odd percent turnout and about a third of parliamentary seats, the self-confidence to be the architect of a new political system appears unfounded, illegitimate and even arrogant.
It is next to impossible to imagine consensus and stability of any sort at this stage. Trifonov’s flamboyant offer has brought even more uncertainty. Yet, so far uncertainty is the strongest indicator that the transformation of the political landscape in Bulgaria is profound.