Bulgarian politics

Bulgaria faces prospect of third parliamentary election as uncertainty dominates

Bulgaria appears to be heading for a third general election in a matter of months, after the second inconclusive parliamentary contest of the year, held on Sunday 11 July. The result, however, does seem to confirm the end of the Boiko Borissov era and will almost certainly see his former ruling party, GERB, relegated to the opposition benches.

The Bulgarian parliament – the Sobranje – is composed of 240 seats elected by an open list system of proportional representation across 31 multi-member constituencies, with a majority of 121 needed to govern. Support for GERB fell from 33% in the 2017 parliamentary election, to 26% in April and just over 23% this time . Each of GERB’s three former junior coalition partners (ATAKA, NFSB and VMRO) failed to reach the threshold of 4% support and will thus have no seats in the new parliament, as was the case after the April election. The turnout was just over 40% – one of the lowest ever recorded in a Bulgarian election since the end of communism.

The big winner from this election was undoubtedly the new party, There is Such a People (ITN), created by Slavi Trifonov, the popular late night TV show host, which came from nowhere in April to finish second with 18% of the vote and narrowly outpolled GERB this time to finish on 65 seats and 23.78 percent of the vote (against 63 seats and 23.12 percent of the vote for GERB, a loss of 12 seats from the April election) .

The main opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) had another disappointing result. Having come third with just over 15% of the vote in April, their support further reduced to 13.22% this time. That reduces their parliamentary representation to 36 seats, a loss of 7 compared to April. The BSP has consistently failed to take advantage of the loss of confidence in GERB’s leadership, in part because many Bulgarians believe it to be just as corrupt as Boiko Borissov’s party.

Two other anti-corruption parties made it into parliament, as was the case in April. Democratic Bulgaria (DB) improved its performance from the April poll by winning 12.5% of the vote (up from 9.5%, a gain of 7 additional seats) and the Stand Up: Thugs Out! Party, led by a former BSP legislator, Maya Manolova with just under 5%.

Finally, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) party, often referred to as the ‘Turkish’ party because of its association with Bulgaria’s ethnic Turk population, secured 10.48 % of the vote. 

The results suggest that, as was the case after April’s contest, there is no obvious coalition is in the making. The Bulgarian constitution dictates that President Radev offers the formal mandate to form a government to the leader of the largest party in parliament, ITN. That makes Slavi Trifonov the new kingmaker of Bulgarian politics. The problem for Trifonov, however, is that a coalition made up of ITN, DB and Stand Up! falls 9 seats short of the threshold of 121 seats to form a majority.

Trifonov does not want to bring the BSP into coalition, arguing that coalition formation bargaining takes place behind the scenes and involves too much potentially illicit deal-making. And so, in the wake of the 11 July contest, he made an audacious move by naming a new ‘cabinet’ to be offered to parliament without consulting the other political parties, and in a context where ITN is 56 seats short of the majority required to govern.

Whether this is the opening gambit in a protracted coalition negotiation is difficult to tell, Many suspect that Trifonov’s real preference is for new elections in the autumn, to coincide with the presidential election in October.

Trifonov rose to stardom in the early 1990s, as an actor, singer and television producer of a satirical show called ‘Ku-Ku’. For almost two decades consecutively since 2000 he was the king of Bulgarian late night television, hosting Slavi’s Show for more than 4,000 episodes. As a musician, he has toured with his popular “Ku-Ku” band and sold 20,000 seats at the O2 Arena in London, among other venues. His You Tube channel has had more than 500 million views.

ITN clearly capitalised on the wave of protest that swept Bulgaria in the summer and autumn of 2020, after a succession of corruption scandals implicating leading figures from GERB and Boiko Borissov himself. In the aftermath of the April election, the Bulgarian president, Rumen Radev, appointed a caretaker government composed mainly of technocrats. This government promptly began a slow drip release of material containing allegations of sometimes jaw-dropping corruption by leading figures associated with GERB.

A parliamentary committee investigating allegations of corruption against Boiko Borissov produced shocking testimony about racketeering and torture under his GERB administrations. 

Minister of the Economy, Kiril Petkov revealed that the Bulgarian Development Bank (BDB), a state bank charged with lending to SME’s, provided loans of 946 million BGN (around €500 million) to only eight companies. At least four of these companies are connected to the controversial media tycoon, Deylan Peevski. 

Peevski is a notorious figure in Bulgaria and was recently the target of US sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. Nicknamed locally as ‘Potbelly’, he is the scion of a well-connected family that owns Bulgaria’s largest newspaper and television group (it controls up to 80 per cent of print media in Bulgaria). In 2007 he was sacked from his post as Deputy-Minister and investigated for attempted blackmail. He was previously an MP for the ethnic Turkish party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF).

The US Magnitsky decision described him as someone “who regularly engaged in corruption, using influence peddling and bribes to protect himself from public scrutiny and exert control over key institutions and sectors in Bulgarian society”. 

The position of Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev has also become precarious and it seems very likely he will be replaced in the near future. He was as much the target of Bulgaria’s most recent phase of street protests as Boiko Borissov because of the perception of the politicisation of the judiciary during his tenure and his closeness to the Borissov network of power.

The caretaker minister of the Interior,  Boyko Rashkov, has revealed that members of the opposition, including protesting citizens, had been illegally wiretapped during the extended protest cycle in 2020. This wasn’t the first time Boiko Borissov was accused of wiretapping opponents. Last year President Rumen Radev, an opponent of Borissov, was recorded illegally with the conversations published by Geshev. Geshev’s fate now rests with the Supreme Judicial Council. 

This same Supreme Judicial Council, however, has also come under renewed suspicion. The Minister for the Interior also revealed that magistrates, including members of the Supreme Judicial Council, had acquired property and other assets abroad which they had not declared in Bulgaria. 

Anger at these and other revelations led parliament to suggest other measures including dismantling the specialised criminal court which its opponents argue had been used increasingly to attack opponents of the system, in some cases leading to the appropriation of the businesses of rivals. The Parliament also sought to reform the anti-corruption commission which has often behaved in a ruthlessly partisan manner, protecting corrupt networks while attacking their rival groups.

The sea of recent revelations came as no surprise to a weary Bulgarian public. Endemic corruption and the capture of state institutions by predatory networks of power blight Bulgaria more than 30 years after the end of communist rule, and it remains the poorest member of the European Union, with a GDP per capita of 53 % of the EU average, despite massive subvention from Brussels since joining the bloc in 2007. Transparency International ranks Bulgaria 69th in the world for corruption in 2020, the lowest ranking of the 27 EU states. 

The decline in rule of law during GERB’s decade in power has also been marked. Bulgaria has been described as the ‘black sheep’ of the EU in the World Press Freedom index by Reporters without Borders, ranked 111 in the world for press freedom in 2021 (by comparison, Hungary is ranked 92). A demographic disaster has accompanied economic stasis as the population has dwindled from 9 million to under 7 million in those three decades. The Covid crisis has also proved a difficult experience, with Bulgaria experiencing more than 18,000 deaths, one of the highest per capita figures in Europe.

The strong performance of the anti-corruption parties, ITN, DB and Stand Up!, however, gives hope to many Bulgarians that the electorate has finally had enough of bad actors in politics. And while there is still a lot of uncertainty about the capacity of the anti-system parties to forge a viable coalition, there is cautious optimism that the GERB era may have finally drawn to a close, that Bulgaria may have turned a corner, with the hope of a more ‘normal’ politics to follow in the years to come.

About John O Brennan

Professor John O’ Brennan holds the Jean Monnet Chair in European Integration at Maynooth University, Ireland. He is also the Director of the Maynooth Centre for European and Eurasian Studies: https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/people/john-obrennan

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