Former Prime Minister Boïko Borissov is in the lead following the legislative elections held on Sunday, October 2nd, in Bulgaria. This apparent ‘back on top’ of the leader ousted in the previous elections reveals, above all, the depth of the political crisis in this former Soviet Republic, which is struggling to find a balance.
While a legislature is supposed to be elected for four years, Bulgarians were called to vote for the fourth time in the space of a year and a half—a frequency of legislative elections that can easily explain the weariness of the population, which largely shunned the vote with only 39% participation.
The analysis of the Bulgarian political landscape highlights the structural fragility of the country, which, unlike its Eastern European neighbours, has not yet fully succeeded in its transition to a serene, democratic-functioning state since the fall of the communist regime in 1990. The political staff in place, of which Boïko Borissov is the emblem, is still largely the heir of the old system under Soviet influence.
In the previous elections in November 2021, a newcomer to the arena surprised many by winning the elections: the centrist coalition Continuing the Change (Продължаваме промяната, known as PP), launched by two former ministers, Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev, who have chosen to make the fight against the regime’s corruption their main focus. Entrepreneurs and businessmen, trained at Harvard, they are both representative of a wealthy and urban fringe willing to experiment with Western-style management methods and assume a Europhile position. But the experiment was short-lived. It was quite a challenge on their side—not to say a utopia—to consider that a political culture and a system that had been entrenched for several decades could be renewed in depth in so short a time.
The Petkov government was toppled in June of 2022 following the defection of one of the coalition parties, There is Such a People (Има такъв народ, known as ITN), led by TV host Slavi Trifonov. The official reason for Trifonov’s disavowal relates to the issue of Macedonia and the distribution of the state budget. Trifonov blamed the government for encouraging the lifting of the Bulgarian veto on the accession of North Macedonia to the European Union; he also criticised Petkov’s refusal to grant funds to the Ministry of Regional Development. But the real reason for the coalition’s break-up is to be found elsewhere. The tug-of-war between the government and its ally over the budget is said to be masking yet another corruption scandal, a cycle Bulgaria has become accustomed to, involving Trifonov’s party and denounced by Petkov.
After the Petkov parenthesis, the elections of 2022 on October 2nd, brought Boïko Borissov back to the top of the polls, with 25% of the votes. Petkov’s party came second with 20% of the vote. In a context of international tension, Bulgarians give the impression of having chosen to turn back to a known and familiar figure. Petkov is paying for the increase in energy prices, and for not having been able to convince about his time in power to Bulgarian opinion.
The centrist coalition led by Petkov and Vasilev thus seems to have failed. However, it would be wrong to overestimate Borissov’s victory. Given the very low turnout, he only really convinced a little less than 10% of the electorate. His electoral base simply renewed its confidence in him.
Bulgaria today suffers globally from a lack of political culture that pushes a large part of the population towards abstention—seen as a way to ‘punish’ leaders who are judged unsatisfactory—without considering that its first and main effect is to renew the political staff that it would tend to disavow.
Following the October elections, seven parties will be represented in the Parliament in Sofia and will share the 240 seats in the Bulgarian National Assembly, the only representative body in the absence of an upper house. Although Borissov came out on top in the elections, the question now is how to form a viable government based on a coherent coalition.
The process does not seem to be going well. He needs 121 deputies to obtain a majority, but his party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (Граждани за европейско развитие на България, known as GERB), has only 67 seats. His first competitor, the coalition led by Petkov, obtained 53 seats. But for the time being, there is no question of forming a ‘grand coalition’ type of government. Petkov’s party, in a press conference held on Friday, October 8th, bowed out and acknowledged Borissov’s victory. It thus accepts to play the role of the first opponent to the former prime minister—this being the raison d’être of his political formation. He considers that he has everything to lose by playing the coalition card with GERB, of which he risks being only a deputy without long-term political credibility.
By closing the door to a coalition with GERB, Petkov puts Borissov in a difficult situation, as the prospects for an alliance are not so numerous. Borissov claims to want a deliberately ‘Euro-Atlantic’ project, not without opportunism, from a leader who has long played both sides of the fence, looking to Europe while maintaining good relations with Russia. But without Petkov’s PP (‘Continuing the Change’), Borissov cannot hope to obtain a Euro-Atlanticist majority with the small formations that defend this line. He is left with an alternative combination, namely to seek support from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), representing the Turkish minority, and Renaissance (Възраждане), a fast-growing pro-Russian nationalist party. A difficult option to support in the current context of the Russian-Ukrainian war. To date, negotiations are at a standstill, and the horizon does not seem to be clearing.
Once the deadline for the formation of a majority and a government has passed, if the party that came first in the elections fails, the constitution provides that the president will call on the party that came second to try to form a government, or even, in case this one fails too, a third one of his own choice. The game is therefore still open. All the parties are nevertheless aware of the political impasse in which Bulgaria will certainly remain for many months. By way of hope, we can consider that the instability reveals, above all, the exhaustion of the Bulgarian political system which needs to make way for a new generation better able to find its path amidst the rubble left by the fall of The Wall.