In the last two years, Bulgaria has witnessed continued political instability and public discontent: mass protests toppled two governments, two early parliamentary elections failed to produce a stable majority in parliament, and four governments (two of which care-taker) have struggled to address pressing issues in the energy, banking, and social sectors, resulting in inconsistent policy and reform efforts. The current situation in the country promises more of the same than a change in a more positive direction.
The outcome of the October 2014 early elections was becoming evident with the preceding European Parliament that took place several months earlier. At the EP elections, the Citizens for European Development Party (GERB), in power 2009-2013, reestablished its supremacy with over 30% of the vote. Voters clearly expressed their dissatisfaction with the governing coalition of the Socialists (BSP) and the ethnic Turkish party (DPS): the BSP got a little over 18% of the vote, compared to over 30% just a year before. More importantly, the vote promised a much different legislature than the then current one with six parties getting more than 4% of the vote. Several newcomers first made their appearance at the EP elections: the Reformers Bloc (RB), a coalition of five parties, including the traditional center-right parties, SDS and DSB (the two formerly in Parliament as the Blue Coalition (SK), and three new parties; the populist Bulgaria without Censorship (BBTs) founded by the formerly popular journalist Nikolai Barekov; a new nationalist party, the National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), which managed to steal a good number of votes from Ataka, but, like Ataka, failed to pass the threshold; and the Alternative for the Revival of Bulgaria (ABV), a splinter from the BSP formed around former Bulgarian President Parvanov, also failing to pass the threshold.
The early elections – second in a row after the early elections of May 2013 – were held on October 5, 2014. Twenty-five parties and coalitions ran for parliament, as well as three independent candidates; almost half as many as in 2013. The elections sent eight parties to parliament, the most ever since multiparty elections were introduced in the country in 1990. Voter turnout (48.66%) set a record for the lowest ever, but at the same time, the distribution of votes ensured that most of the votes were not “wasted:” 93.4 % of those who cast a ballot, voted for a party that gained representation in parliament. With the exception of 1990, this is the highest level of representation achieved in the country, and in stark contrast with 2013, when about 24% of the votes remained without representation.
GERB emerged as the clear winner with close to 33% of votes and 35% of the seats in Parliament, while the Socialist incumbents (BSP) lost almost half of their votes (15.4%) to place a distant second with 39 MPs. DPS continued to capture most of the minority vote – with 487,134 votes (14.8%), increasing its votes in comparison to 2013 and coming close to surpassing the BSP as the second largest party in parliament. Benefiting from the lower turnout even more, it secured 38 (16%) MPs. The center right was strengthened by the return of the traditional center-right parties as the Reformers’ Bloc (RB), which increased its support since the European Parliament elections and managed to secure the fourth place in Parliament with 23 MPs. The populist BBTs entered Parliament with 11 MPs, though its support decreased since May as it lost some of its coalition partners. The other parties in parliament include the nationalist Ataka, the BSP splinter ABV, and the Patriotic Front (PF) – a new nationalist coalition between NFSB and VMRO (previously in coalition with BBTs). ABV’s success was a harsh blow to the Socialists who lost many of their supporters to ABV, marking the return of a left alternative to the BSP (the previous case being the Euroleft party in the 1997-2001 Parliament).
Such highly fragmented parliament posed a great challenge to government formation. The situation was even worse than the one following the 2013 elections when GERB won the elections, but failed to secure a majority in parliament and form a government, thus having to pass the mandate to the second largest party in Parliament, the BSP. This time, GERB was set on holding on to its mandate by exploring all reasonable options, including a minority coalition.
DPS immediately declared its support for a GERB government, without requesting any ministerial posts in return. Given the large public discontent over the past two years, GERB’s leader, Boyko Borisov, knew better than to accept such an offer that would severely harm GERB’s legitimacy and its prospects for a stable government. Instead, GERB set up a negotiation team which was to meet with all parties represented in parliament and discuss positions on specific issues, as well as coalition options. Although negotiations were not open to the public or the media, press conferences were held after each meeting between GERB and the other parliamentary groups. The proclaimed goal of this format of negotiations was to dissipate any accusations of behind-the-scenes agreements and demonstrate GERB’s impartiality and collegiality towards all political parties in parliament. In practice, this format prolonged the period of government formation and increased tensions among political actors, as well as fears of yet another round of early elections, thus strengthening GERB’s position in the negotiations and weakening that of its opponents. For example, RB viewed itself as the natural ally of GERB in a reformist center-right government and was quite surprised by GERB’s refusal to accept its conditions at the first round of negotiations, while at the same time looking favorable at the Patriotic Front. At the same time, the BSP was contemplating the possibility of a grand coalition, stating its agreement with GERB on many key issues. With the exception of Ataka, which took a radical position refusing to participate in any negotiations that are not publicly broadcasted, all other parties courted GERB in a hope of becoming coalition partners, ridiculing themselves on more than one occasion.