By Emilia Zankina (American University in Bulgaria)

Sunday (March 26th) parliamentary elections in Bulgaria mark the third early elections in the country in four years. Three elections and six governments (three of which care-taker) later, Boyko Borissov and his GERB party (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, with the symbolic acronym meaning “coat of arms”) carry the day again with 32.65% of the votes and expected 96 seats in the 240-seat parliament. Borissov is about to form his third government, following his first victory in 2009, provided he manages to find a coalition partner/s. This is the fourth consecutive victory for Borissov and his party in parliamentary elections and an increase of 75,000 votes compared to the previous election. Borissov himself effectively called the early elections, just as he did in 2013, by resigning from government. Faced with a wave of protests in 2013, Borissov resigned as a tactical move to preserve his support. He did win the 2013 elections, but failed to form a government for lack of support by any of the other three parliamentary parties. This time, Borissov resigned following his promise to hand back his mandate if GERB lost the 2016 presidential elections. Nominating the rather uncharismatic former Chair of Parliament Tsetska Tsacheva for president certainly did the job, as she lost by a large margin of over 20% in the run off to the socialist-supported candidate, Rumen Radev – an army pilot who attracted votes from across the political spectrum, including the nationalists. Would this second resignation play out better for Borissov? Although GERB increased its seats in parliament, it would all depend on Borissov’s ability to form and maintain a stable coalition. What are his options?
The Bulgarian socialists (BSP) can claim the biggest success in this election as they effectively doubled their votes compared to their 2014 results. The BSP attracted close to a million votes or 27.20% and expects 80 seats in the new parliament. Given their big success at the 2016 presidential elections, however, the socialists are disappointed to come in second. Yet, if Borisov fails to negotiate a coalition government, the BSP may get its chance at power as it did in 2013 with the short-lived Oresharksi government (2013-2014). BSP’s success is coupled with a pitiful performance of its splinter party ABV, led by former socialist president Parvanov. The ABV had 11 seats in the previous parliament and participated in the second Borissov cabinet with one deputy prime minister. Since Parvanov’s negotiations with BSP before the elections led nowhere, ABV formed a coalition with another small splinter party – Tatyana Doncheva’s Movement 21. The coalition received a mere 1.55% of the vote which is slightly higher than what Movement 21 received on its own in the previous elections. In other words, it appears ABV’s votes all went back to BSP and ABV, no longer eligible for state subsidies, is likely to disappear altogether. This speaks rather well of BSP’s new leader Kornelia Ninova and her ability to resolve conflicts within the party and mobilize voters to an extent not seen since 2005. Despite Ninova’s unquestionable success, BSP fell short of victory by over 5% and still remains the party of the pensioners with roughly a quarter it its supporters aged over 60.
Two large parties, one center-left and one center-right, one member of the PES family, the other of EPP’s, both carrying 60% of the vote and over 2/3 of the seats in parliament – such picture is not different from what we remember from the past as orderly politics in West European multi-party systems. European partners have even encouraged GERB and BSP to consider a grand coalition that would offer much needed stability and perhaps even a full-term government. Needless to say, neither side is interested in such an option, especially after seeing the election results. Bulgarian scholars, on the other hand, have started talking about a return to the bi-polar political model known from the 1990s as the regular alternation of power between BSP and the United Democratic Forces (UDF, also referred to today as the “traditional” right in Bulgaria). The last element in this model had been the ethnic Turkish party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), serving as a “balancing” and permanent factor in Bulgarian politics. Though Bulgarian politics is anything but orderly or and there are changes for MRF as well.
The elections proved a big disappointment to MRF who registered a big loss both in terms of votes and seats in parliament. Holding 38 seats in the previous parliament, MRF’s support has now dropped to 8.99% and 26 seats. Most of the blame goes to former MRF leader, Lyutvi Mestan who was ousted from the MRF and who proceeded to form his own party – DOST (Democrats for Responsibility, Freedom and Tolerance – a creative abbreviation which means “friend” in Turkish). Although DOST scored under 3% overall, in some areas populated by ethnic Turks its support reached as high as 20%. In other words, DOST has posed a serious threat to MRF’s monopoly over the ethnic vote in Bulgaria. The nationalists have further contributed to the lower number of MRF votes. During the election weekend, the united nationalists blocked the border with Turkey in an attempt to prevent “voting” tourism and stop ethnic Turks with dual citizenship (Turkish and Bulgarian) from coming into the country and exercising their constitutional right to vote. The incident was but the peak of the debate on voting tourism and voting rights of Bulgarians abroad which constituted a major part of the electoral campaign of most parties. In fact, the incident might have even hurt rather than helped the electoral performance of the nationalists. The damage to MRF has been done however. MRF is not only receiving less seats in parliament, but it is also a priori excluded as a potential coalition partner both by GERB and the BSP. As BSP leader Kornelia Ninova stated, “we are not about to make the same mistake for a third time”.
Following a split nationalist vote in the last two elections, Volen Siderov’s ATAKA and the Patriotic Front (a coalition between Valeri Simeonov’s National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria and the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization) agreed to join forces. The United Patriots received 9.07% of the vote with expected 26 seats – a big disappointment given their much higher expectations and the predictions of analysists for an increase in the nationalist vote. Perhaps the best news of the election is that the nationalist vote did not increase. On the contrary, it decreased by 70,000 votes. In the previous parliament, the Patriotic Front and ATAKA held 19 and 11 seats respectively – 4 more than they expect now. Yet, the United Patriots are ready to play a major part in the next government, be it a GERB or а BSP-led coalition. Borissov had a taste of working with Patriotic Front as a coalition partner in the previous government and it was a bitter taste. He would find it even harder to reconcile GERB’s program and priorities with the clear anti-EU and pro-Russia rhetoric of ATAKA, now part of the nationalist coalition. Furthermore, the welfare chauvinism permeating through the United Patriot’s program fits a lot better with BSP’s agenda than with that of GERB and the xenophobic and racist rhetoric is a hard pill to swallow. The United Patriots, on the other hand, are well-aware of their favorable strategic position and are likely to be tough negotiators. Their votes alone would be enough to give Borissov parliamentary majority.
The biggest tragedy of the election is the fate of the “traditional” right in all of its reincarnations. The Reformist Bloc got a very good deal in Borissov’s second government (2014-2017), receiving seven ministerial seats in return for the support of its 23 MPs. Disagreement within the coalition deepened even more once they got into power making a split imminent. Consequently, two new formations emerged from the Reformist Bloc – “Yes, Bulgaria”, a project by former justice minister Hristo Ivanov and “New Republic” headed by Radan Kanev, leader of Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB). The Reformist Bloc in turn formed a coalition with a formation led by a popular punk-rocker with political ambitions. Despite support from Sofia and other big cities, the Reformist Bloc came short of passing the 4% threshold with 3.06%, whereas “Yes, Bulgaria” and “New Republic” received 2.88% and 2.48% respectively. In other words, the 8.89% that the Reformist Bloc gained in the previous election are now split among three entities, none of each entering parliament or receiving enough votes to be eligible for state subsidies. A united coalition of the “traditional” right would have made a lot more sense. Yet, for the past twenty some years the “traditional” right has proven only capable of dividing, not uniting. The complete disappearance of the “traditional” right parties tracing their origin to the romantic years of the early UDF means that GERB has effectively monopolized the center-right space. Given GERB’s populist genesis, this cannot be a positive development.
Keeping up with established patterns and traditions, the new parliament would have its brand-new leader-centered populist party, just like all previous parliaments in the last 15 years. The controversial Varna businessman, Veselin Markeshki, first appeared in local politics in 2005. Owner of chains of pharmacies and gas stations, he gained popularity by selling at much lower than his competitors’ prices. His major breakthrough was at the 2016 presidential election when he received 427,660 votes or 11.17%. His political formation “Volia” (translates “will”) got 4.15% and will enter parliament with 12 MPs. Mareshki’s expectations, however, were much bigger, particularly when it comes to his home city Varna. Instead, he received but a fraction of the support he got at the presidential election and can hardly hide his disappointment. Mareshki may prove a suitable partner for an oversized GERB coalition, however, where he may play a role as a counter-balance to the United Patriots.
It appears Borissov has some difficult decisions to make, not without significant compromise. His only option seems to be a coalition to the right of two or three parties and with a clear populist and nationalist character. Depending on how hard the United Patriots play to get, Borissov may find himself in a similar to 2013 situation, having to pass on the mandate to the BSP. The BSP does not have any options either. It cannot get a majority by coalescing with its old partner the MRF, and the nationalist parties will not participate in a government with the MRF. Even if a delicate balance is found, the prospects for policy-making are shaky at best. What we are likely to see is more of the same, namely a coalition of unlikely partners and of short duration and another round of early elections not far down the road. With the Bulgarian presidency of the EU just around the corner, the implications of such dead-end street are much wider than usual.

References:
Central Electoral Commission (CIC). www.cik.bg
Boyadjiev, Yasen. „България ще продължи да тъпче на място, но може и да потегли назад“ [Bulgaria will stay in one place, but it may also backslide], mediapool.bg, March 27, 2017. Available at: http://www.mediapool.bg/bulgaria-shte-prodalzhi-da-tapche-na-myasto-no-mozhe-i-da-potegli-nazad-news261901.html
Ivanov, Diyan. „Задава се най-компромисната и безпринципна управленска коалиция“ [The most compromise-based and unprincipled coalitions is on the horizon], Sega, March 28, 2017. Available at: http://www.segabg.com/article.php?id=848217
„Боряна Димитрова: Освен ГЕРБ и БСП, никой не получи толкова, колкото очакваше“ [Interview with Boryana Dimitrova: Except for GERB and BSP, no one received as much as they excpected]. Offnews, March 27, 2017. Available at: https://offnews.bg/news/Politika_8/Boriana-Dimitrova-Osven-GERB-i-BSP-nikoj-ne-poluchi-tolkova-kolkoto_651262.html

Photo source: http://sofiaglobe.com/2017/03/27/bulgarias-march-2017-parliamentary-elections-the-winners-and-losers/