Snap elections in Bulgaria as a result of political stalemate

06 May 2021

It is far from clear whether the upcoming elections will produce a stable government.

By Rumen Dobrinsky

  • After a decade dominated by Boyko Borisov and his GERB party, Bulgarian voters turned to new political formations embodying recent protests against GERB.
  • However, the elections held in April produced a hung parliament that could not agree on a new government; consequently, snap elections are to be held presumably in July.
  • Given the deep societal cleavages, it is not clear whether new elections will  resolve the political stalemate.

On 5 May, only a month after the regular parliamentary elections, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev announced that early elections would be held in July. This followed a brief period of unsuccessful horse trading between the political parties elected to parliament in April. In the interim period, a caretaker government appointed by President Radev will take over. This government will also be in charge of organising the new elections.

These outcomes signal the likely demise of the shrewd populist Boyko Borisov and his GERB party, which have been in power for most of the last ten years. The decade of GERB has been marked by a continuous degradation of Bulgaria’s social and political fabric. This was largely because Boyko Borisov and his party undermined the constitutional separation of powers and established a de facto authoritarian regime. In the second half of 2020, the public frustration over the state of affairs triggered lasting street protest by representatives of all segments of society. However, the protest did not succeed in bringing down the government because protest fatigue scattered the core of dissenters. In the lead-up to the April parliamentary elections, those who took part in the protests turned to different opposition parties.

As a consequence, the April elections produced a split parliament. Thanks to some inertia and the de facto command of key administrative positions at regional and local levels, GERB still managed to take the first place with 26.2% of the popular vote. The second place went to a new political formation called “There Are Such People” led by the popular talk show anchor Slavi Trifonov, with 17.7% of the vote. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which had declared itself as the main opposition force, only scored third with 15.0% of the votes. The BSP had been torn apart by infighting which undermined its popular appeal. Moreover, it was seen by many voters as part of the previous status quo. The “Movement for Rights and Freedoms” (MRF, still mostly a Turkish minority party), which in the past used to play an important balancing role in the political centre, received 10.5%. Furthermore, two other new political formations representing the protests managed to surpass the 4% threshold for entering parliament.

As it turned out, the results for these parties were not enough to produce a parliamentary majority. Even though GERB got the most votes and came out on the first place, none of the other parties were inclined to form a coalition with it. The other parties’ reluctance to enter into a government with GERB was no surprise given their official position long before the elections. The position for the parties behind GERB was clear. None of the three “protest parties” would form a coalition with either the BSP or the MRF. And finally, the three “protest parties” taken together could not assemble a parliamentary majority of their own either. As a result, even without any serious attempts at post-election negotiations, it became clear that the composition of the National Assembly could not produce a parliamentary majority for a new government. Under these circumstances, holding snap early elections became the only remaining option.

It is far from clear whether the upcoming elections will produce a different outcome and provide a stable government. One could speculate about two possible scenarios that would allow that. Scenario number one would be if the “protest parties” were to mobilise a larger constituency of voters (possibly, by diverting another part of GERB’s electorate) in their favour, allowing them to assemble a parliamentary majority. Scenario number two would be Boyko Borisov succeeding in engineering a new parliamentary majority around GERB. Such a reversal of the current situation could occur if some of those who voted for the protest parties in April, disillusioned with their inability to form a government, turn back to a more “reliable” option. The worst possible outcome would be, if the new elections produce another hung parliament, thus prolonging the current political uncertainty.

Unfortunately, there are no clear indications yet, which scenario is likely to prevail.