Can Europe Make It?

The 2014 Bulgarian parliamentary elections aftermath: descent into the unknown?

This has been the most interesting and unpredictable Bulgarian election since the country's transition to democracy. So what happens now?

Philip Dandolov
10 October 2014
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Boyko Borisov, leader of Bulgaria's GERB party. Flickr/EPP. Some rights reserved.

The official results of the early Parliamentary elections in Bulgaria that took place on 5 October are still to be announced, but it is clear that GERB has confirmed its dominance as the leading party in Bulgaria by gaining a plurality, though the 32.7% garnered by the faction means that it will be unable to obtain the necessary 121 seats in order to form a government of its own.

It remains to be seen whether the party’s victory will have the markings of a pyrrhic one for its leader Boyko Borisov, who may be unable to draw on his electoral success by assuming the position of Prime Minister, or if an eventual Borisov cabinet will collapse at an early stage due to the uphill battle it will likely face in terms of successfully resolving the legitimacy issues surrounding the Bulgarian political system as a whole.

Both Boyko Borisov, the GERB party leader, and the vast majority of political scientists have been cautious regarding their assessments of the post-election situation and their future predictions, with one of the underlying sentiments among scholars and politicians being the need to create a grand coalition - with potentially at least three parties, most likely on the centre-right of the political spectrum, becoming members of it - by taking a page out of the German politicians’ notebook, which could guarantee political stability for the implementation of essential reforms in the spheres of energy and health care.

Borisov has himself acknowledged that at this stage the prospects for him forming a new government are not necessarily optimistic. In many respects, the configurations within the National Parliament, where in a notable post-communism first, eight parties managed to cross the electoral threshold of 4%, are likely to cause a degree of unpredictability with regard to the dynamics of coalition-making. On the plus side, it is not out of the question that the wide array of different ideologies represented in the National Assembly as well as the fact that only 10% of the votes cast would be “wasted” and not translate into actual seats for parties, could contribute to an enhanced legitimacy of the National Parliament in the eyes of the general public.

At a first glance, the elections could be seen as confirming certain trends – the capacity of GERB to draw on a loyal electorate that is beginning to rival that of established parties such as the Bulgarian Socialist Party  (though it is far from its glory days in 2009, when it was able to amass over 60% popular support), the lack of a serious Eurosceptic challenger (while the main proponent of anti-EU sentiments, Ataka, has been able to bounce back from the negative stigma it had acquired among nationalists due to its controversial role as a “hidden coalition partner” of the Oresharski government between May 2013 and June 2014, its electoral support remains less than 5%), the exhaustion of the credit of confidence of technocratic parties, and the inability of civil society members to propose a viable alternative to the traditional parties. The latter point is especially significant and could be regarded as evidence that the changes to the status quo in Bulgaria have been mainly cosmetic.

In fact, the only political party, which is sometimes associated with the anti-establishment protest waves that gripped Bulgaria between 2013 and 2014, is Nikolay Barekov’s Bulgaria without Censorship, because a substantial proportion of the informal leading figures in the February 2013 demonstrations against high electricity bills and the Borisov government, have become part of its rank and file. Ironically, Barekov (despite a long career in journalism and being a newcomer in politics) is widely perceived as staunchly opportunistic in his motives and very far from a proper representative of the idealism typifying the civil society spirit.

While the newly emerging protest culture in Bulgaria has been credited with bringing about an increased interest in political issues, it is not likely to become a panacea with regard to fixing problem areas in politics – for instance, despite the “politicization of everyday discourses” due to the 2013 anti-Borisov and 2013-2014 anti-Oresharski protests, the demonstrations did not encourage a substantial proportion of the population to go to the voting booths.  In fact, the voter turnout of approximately 49% is the lowest for a national election since the collapse of the totalitarian system of governance in 1989.

In addition, it could be argued that both protests had the curious effect of actually increasing popular support for the party, against which they had been directed – GERB gained in percentage points between January and March 2013, while most polls indicated a slight lead for BSP over GERB (despite the latter winning the 2013 Parliamentary elections a few weeks before) during the most intensive phase of the anti-Oresharski protests that lasted from June to September 2013. Despite the prevailing cynicism when it comes to political figures, most Bulgarian citizens are not yet prepared to reward civil society actors with a high level of trust.

The emphasis on the continuation of preexisting trends notwithstanding, novel developments of potential relevance for the country’s future political course have also been a feature of these elections – two nationalist parties (the Patriotic Front electoral alliance and Ataka) and a populist one (Bulgaria without Censorship) have managed to find representation in the National Parliament.

This has certainly caused unease for mainstream parties in Bulgarian politics. BSP leader Mihail Mikov, in his post-election press conference, stressed that the renewed appeal of nationalism could be bad news for the country and needs to be watched with a wary eye, while the chairman of the MRF party (mainly representing the interests of the Turkish minority in the country), Lyutvi Mestan, reiterated the importance of Bulgaria’s continued commitment to “Euroatlantic values”.

There have also been allegations in the media that the MRF’s projected election result of 14.8% which is close to matching that of BSP, may in reality even be higher, but has been artificially reduced with the tacit approval of MRF political figures in order not to stoke the fears of ethnic Bulgarians, who are not yet prepared to face the prospect of the MRF being the second most supported party.

One of the main reasons behind the pessimism-riddled mindsets of ordinary citizens is the belief that Bulgaria has been lacking a coherent vision with regard to its future policy orientation in the aftermath of the attainment of NATO and European Union membership and been unable to capitalize on the inertia of achieving these milestones.

This has led to calls for the elevation of its internationalist profile - in order to escape from its internal political dead end - by taking an active role as a mediator between Russia and the EU (due to its special relationship - from a historical standpoint - with the former) and increasing the prominence of its “nation-branding” efforts by publicizing its successful ethnic model in light of the geopolitical challenges in the Middle East. If the increase in nationalist sentiments in the country results in inter-ethnic suspicions and tensions, this would certainly compromise such aims.

What is evident is that any new government would need to be extra attentive to the mood of ordinary citizens and formulate a clear program for the governance of the country in cooperation with the rest of the parties, if it is to fulfill its full mandate. Some promising signs such as the moderation displayed by the politicians in their post-election reactions and the willingness to cooperate in the name of national priorities, suggest that finding an acceptable formula for the cabinet that is to succeed the caretaker government of Georgi Bliznashki (who has expressed a reluctance to have its original two month mandate prolonged) may not be as elusive as it currently seems.

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