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Friday 3 December 2021

Bulgarian elections: Third Time Lucky?

On 24 November there was a hybrid seminar at SEESOX on the recent Bulgarian elections: entitled “Third Time Lucky?” Speakers were Eli Gateva, DPIR, Oxford University: and Kyril Drezov, Keele University. Jonathan Scheele, St Antony’s College, chaired.

Eli Gateva reported the extraordinary sequence of three Parliamentary elections in the period April to November. The first produced no coalition government. Likewise, the second in July: but there was a clear picture of weakening support for GERB and Borisov and strengthened support for “There is such a people” (ITN) - which at that stage seemed to be favouring minority government rather than a coalition. The third elections in November saw another new party “Continuing the Change” (PP) emerge as surprise winners, with 25.3 % of the vote. GERB and BSP, the two previously leading parties, again failed to recover their popular support from elections in the previous decade, but GERB still won 23% and a respectable second place (BSP fared much worse with 10.2% and a fourth place). This time a coalition looks possible as the ongoing talks between ‘Continuing the Change’ (PP), ‘There is such a people’ (ITN), Democratic Bulgaria (DB) and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP)’ are focusing on what they have in common.

Drezov asked the question: why the proliferation of new parties? In 2009 Borisov had seemed “new”: 12 years down the line he was seen by many as worn out, narcissistic and corrupt. His GERB had failed to become a normal party, retaining a reputation as a rent-seeking clientele. The Bulgarian Socialists were equally seen as а fossilised part of the status-quo. The leaders of ‘Continuing the Change’ (PP) had gained a reputation by being in power as Ministers rather than as politicians; their winning formula was the promotion of right-wing economic policies to achieve left-wing social objectives. They relied heavily on social media, but also toured the country and actively campaigned in the traditional manner.Gateva added that much of this had been unforeseeable even months ago. COVID had had an enormous impact in Bulgaria. There was a heavy death toll, and the vaccination campaign had not gone well. Other urgent issues for a new government were: fight against corruption, freedom of the media, inequality, and green issues- the target for net zero was currently 2040.

Drezov looked at the foreign policy dimension, and the parallel Presidential election. The former did not play a big role in the Parliamentary elections but did in the latter. The incumbent, Radev, won just over 49% in the first round, and ended up a comfortable winner with 2/3 of the vote in the second. So, it was a vote for continuity. Radev was not challenged by his GERB opponent on Bulgaria’s firm opposition to North Macedonia opening accession negotiations with the EU (a position resolutely supported by most parliamentary parties, with only PP and DB arguing for greater pragmatism). There were strong words between Bulgaria and Turkey during the election period. But both had stepped back.

The Q&A session focussed on many aspects of the extraordinary (3+2 rounds of) elections inside a year: low turnout (down to 38% and 30% respectively in the November Parliamentary and Presidential elections) as a result of voter fatigue, COVID, and the failure (so far) of the protest parties to build on their success by creating a coalition; the surprising survival of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms: the complex relationships of the Bulgarian parties with the main coalitions in the European Parliament; the parallels with the creation of new parties elsewhere in Eastern Europe - though Bulgaria was an extreme example; electoral integrity and the problem of money in politics and vote-buying; the anti-vax movement, disinformation and conspiracy theorists; and postal votes.

Drezov ended by saying that on balance he was a touch more optimistic about the latest elections producing a government: but of course, the question was whether reaching the necessary compromises would drag any new government down into the mud. Gateva was also cautiously optimistic. There were some grounds for hope that the new parties had learned lessons from their previous failures to achieve the necessary compromises: the debate this time round seemed to be more about priorities and not just about ministerial positions.

David Madden (Senior Member, St Antony's College, Oxford)

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