The 2017 Bulgarian Elections: A Dead-end Street?




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The recent elections in Bulgaria mark Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s fourth consecutive victory. In order to continue his tenure, Borisov must form a new coalition: is a partnership with a right-wing populist party the inevitable solution, and is Bulgaria destined to have yet another unstable government?

The March 26th parliamentary elections in Bulgaria are the third early elections in the country in four years. Three elections and six governments later, Boyko Borisov and his GERB party (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) took victory for the fourth consecutive time with 32.65% of the votes and expected 96 seats in the 240-seat parliament. Borisov’s centre-right party received 75,000 more votes in this election than the previous. This victory is partly due to Borisov’s use of clever tactics: he effectively called the early elections by resigning from government, just as he did in 2013 to preserve his support when faced with a wave of protests. This time, Borisov resigned following his promise to hand back his mandate if his GERB party lost the 2016 presidential elections. He therefore nominated the rather uncharismatic former Chair of Parliament Tsetska Tsacheva for President, which had the expected effect as she lost by a large margin of over 20%. Thus, Borisov is about to form his third government. Yet he can only do this if he manages to find a coalition partner/s, and maintain a stable partnership in government.

What options does Borisov have when forming a stable coalition?

One potential option for Borisov would be to form a grand coalition with the Bulgarian Socialists (BSP). They can claim the biggest success in this election as they effectively doubled their votes compared to their 2014 results. Given this success, however, the socialists are disappointed to come in second. A potential grand coalition between Borisov’s GERB and the socialist BSP has been encouraged by European partners, as they believe it would offer much-needed stability for Bulgaria’s 2018 EU presidency and perhaps even a full-term government. Needless to say, neither side is interested in such an option, especially after seeing the election results. Yet if Borissov fails to negotiate a coalition government or forms an unstable coalition which quickly collapses, the BSP may get its chance at power, as it did in 2013 with the short-lived Oresharksi government.

A grand coalition between GERB and BSP has been encouraged by European partners

The Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), the ethnic Turkish party which registered a big loss both in terms of votes and seats in parliament in this election, is a priori excluded as a potential coalition partner both by GERB and the BSP. Blame for the decline in support can fall on the former MRF leader, Lyutvi Mestan, who was ousted from the party and went on to form his own party, DOST (Democrats for Responsibility, Freedom and Tolerance), which has gone on to pose a serious threat to MRF’s monopoly over the ethnic vote in Bulgaria. In addition, the nationalists further contributed to the lower number of MRF votes by blocking the border with Turkey in an attempt to prevent “voting tourism” and to stop ethnic Turks with dual Turkish / Bulgarian citizenship from coming into the country and exercising their constitutional right to vote. This succeeded in damaging MRF.

Decrease in support for nationalist parties does not rule them out as coalition partners

Perhaps the best news of the election is that the nationalist vote did not increase. On the contrary, it decreased by 70,000 votes. The nationalist United Patriots received 9.07% of the vote and 26 corresponding seats: much less than had been predicted. Yet the nationalist United Patriots are ready to play a major part in the next government, be it in a GERB or а BSP-led coalition.

The nationalists are ready to play a major part in the next government

Borisov has had a taste of working with the nationalist Patriotic Front as a coalition partner in the previous government, and it was a bitter taste. Now that the Patriotic Front has joined forces with ATAKA and their clear anti-EU and pro-Russia rhetoric, Borisov would find it even harder to reconcile GERB’s program and priorities with those of the nationalist coalition. Furthermore, the welfare chauvinism permeating through the United Patriots’ 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 Borisov parliamentary majority. Lacking other viable options, Borisov is forming a coalition with the United Patriots. Despite being the junior partners, the Patriots are likely to be a tough coalition partner, aggressively pushing their agenda and frequently threatening to leave the coalition if their demands are not met. If dealing with them was hard in his previous government, Borisov is likely to find this task even harder now.

Support for traditional right declines

The biggest tragedy of the election is the fate of the “traditional” right in all of its reincarnations. The Reformist Bloc played a significant part in Borisov’s second government (2014-2017), yet disagreement within the coalition deepened even more once they got into power making a split imminent.

GERB, with its populist genesis, has effectively monopolized the center-right

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). Despite support from Sofia and other big cities, not all parties in the Reformist Bloc did received enough votes to get into government. 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, and his party “Volia”, will enter parliament with 12 MPs, despite Mareshki’s higher expectations. Mareshki was hoping to be invited by GERB into an oversized coalition to counter-balance the nationalist United Patriots, but Borisov decided that such an option would bring further complications.

The radical right in government again

It appears Borisov has some difficult decisions to make, not without significant compromise. His only option seems to be a coalition with the United Patriots, which would have a clear populist and nationalist character. Depending on how hard the United Patriots play to get, such a coalition may quickly collapse and Borisov, similarly to 2013, may have to pass on the mandate to the socialist BSP.

The only option seems to be a coalition with the United Patriots, which would have a clear populist and nationalist character

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.

This article builds on the following analysis, published on whogoverns.eu.