Bulgaria goes to the polls for the third time in 2021

23 September 2021

Efforts to form a new government in Bulgaria failed. Whether a snap election in November will resolve the political stalemate remains unclear.

By Rumen Dobrinsky

image credit: iStock.com

  • The snap election held in July produced another hung parliament that could not agree on a new government.
  • Consequently, new snap elections are to be held in November, the third vote in 2021.
  • The novelty is that these will be “two-in-one” elections combining a parliamentary and a presidential vote.
  • It is not certain whether the new snap elections will resolve the political stalemate by producing a regular government.

The snap election held on 11 July did not bring about any dramatic changes in the seating of the newly elected parliament. The main difference from the regular election held in April was that one of the new political formations, called There Are Such People and led by the popular talk show anchor Slavi Trifonov, came first in the polls with 24.1% of the vote. The GERB party led by the former Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, which had been in power for most of the previous decade, came second with 23.5%. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) came third again, but with a lower share (13.4%) of the vote than in the regular election. In addition, three other parties, including the Turkish minority party Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), passed the 4% threshold for entering parliament.

Despite certain shifts in the scores, these results did not change the main outcome of the election: the three self-declared ‘protest parties’ (those that led the 2020 protests against the GERB government) failed to gain a parliamentary majority. At the same time, they continued to reject adamantly any form of coalition government with either GERB, the BSP or the MFR. In turn, the BSP also reaffirmed its position that it would not enter into a coalition with GERB and the MRF. On top of that, the There Are Such People party, having won the election, displayed unprecedented arrogance in its parliamentary behaviour by issuing an ultimatum that it would only form a minority government, a stance that was immediately rejected by all the other parties in parliament.

After two months of futile – and often hostile – negotiations the three possible attempts to form a government (as stipulated by the Bulgarian constitution) had failed, and on 14 September President Rumen Radev issued a decree dissolving parliament and announced  new elections, to be held on 14 November. The novelty is that these will be ‘two-in-one’ elections, combining a parliamentary and a presidential vote, as Mr Radev’s constitutional term in office ends in January 2022. This is unlike anything that has happened in the past 30 years and may affect the electoral behaviour in an unpredictable way. While Mr Radev’s re-election is taken for granted by most observers thanks to his high popularity ratings, the simultaneous parliamentary election may affect voters’ preferences for the political parties.

As a consequence, the political uncertainty – and paralysis – in Bulgaria continues. This is the second time that the political elites have proved to be incapable of negotiating a workable solution for a new government, and this is taking a heavy toll on the Bulgarian economy and on society. The legislative process in 2021 was completely stalled and important draft laws kept piling up. A hastily prepared budgetary revision was the only piece of legislation that the July parliament managed to adopt. The caretaker administration kept amending the draft National Recovery and Resilience Plan but postponed its submission to the European Commission, as this was considered to be the prerogative of a regular government. Now there is a new delay of uncertain duration. The caretaker government will probably be in charge of submitting the draft plan, but given the necessary review time, it is not certain that it will win the approval of the Commission in the remaining months of 2021.

The irony of the current situation is that it is not at all certain whether the November snap elections will help to resolve Bulgaria’s political stalemate. The parties that could potentially form a coalition have been entirely preoccupied with their own political agendas and demonstrated their complete disregard for the national interest by failing to form a regular government. The ugly political infighting and horse trading among the parties have resulted in a considerable deterioration of the relations between them. Consequently, these new political players may be punished for such behaviour at the polls, as the public is obviously losing patience with them. Another factor adding to the uncertainties is the possible appearance of yet more new political players, who may attract some disillusioned voters. If this were to happen, the third 2021 elections could produce a very different new parliament.