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Bulgarian Elections: The Importance of Coalitions

Next week, Bulgarians will take to the polls in parliamentary elections expected to shake up the ruling party’s long-held control. After a decade of dominating the political space, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party are under new and deepening threat. Capitalizing on last year’s protests and Bulgaria’s mismanagement of COVID-19, the opposition has mobilized supporters and left many Bulgarians to wonder if GERB’s grip on the country is at last slipping. 

Bulgaria is among the poorest and most corrupt countries in the European Union (EU) – generating persistent dissatisfaction under the surface of society. After years of stifling it, the public’s frustration erupted in last summer’s protests, which lasted over 100 days and saw protesters demanding the resignation of Borisov’s government. The primary grievances focused on the government’s lukewarm efforts to address corruption, mismanagement of natural resources, backsliding of media freedoms and increasing politicization of the judiciary. The wide range of issues reflects a broad and highly fragmented opposition, which despite favorable poll results, has so far been unable to consolidate into a united campaign that could dethrone the ruling coalition.

Here are some of the issues that could make or break the country and region’s democratic progress:

New kids on the block

Opinion polls suggest the populist GERB party could once again win the most seats, but it is doubtful they will have enough of a stronghold in parliament to form a governing coalition. Instead, the party will face opposition from a diverse array of political actors, including some new ones, all eager to remove the GERB from power. Last summer’s protests gave rise to several emerging parties including There is Such a Nation, the Stand UP.bg party and Yes, Bulgaria. Moreover, COVID-19 resulted in several parties placing medical professionals, such as pulmonologist Dr. Alexander Simitchiev and immunologist Dr. Andrey Chorbanov, high on their candidate lists. The emergence of these new parties and candidates has the power to both strengthen and weaken Bulgaria’s democracy. With an expanded electorate, come more first time voters, but a widened ideological spectrum also makes Bulgaria’s government prone to fragmentation.

Rise of Far-Right Extremism

The general frustration, particularly among youth, has both fueled anti-government protests and increased radical, far-right tendencies which are likely to grow if GERB remains in power. The current government is led by a coalition between the center-right GERB and a group of far-right nationalist parties. According to Freedom House, this coalition has repeatedly turned a blind eye to incidents of hate-speech directed towards minority groups, including Roma, Jews, Muslims and others by its more extreme members. With President Rumen Radev – who strongly supported the protests – likely winning re-election in the fall, a GERB government is projected to consolidate its influence with nationalist policies for its own gain. While the party itself is not clearly inclined to the far-right, its efforts to remain in power could open the door to more radical elements.

EU enlargement

The current government is an obstacle to neighboring North Macedonia’s EU aspirations. Bulgaria vetoed the opening of accession talks on the grounds that the country failed to acknowledge their shared history and language similarities in violation of a 2017 agreement. As Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zakharieva told Reuters, “If the Republic of North Macedonia acknowledges the Bulgarian roots of its nation and language, this would put an end to the tension in our relationship.” Because North Macedonia has already made key concessions, blocking negotiations can severely damage the EU’s image among its Western Balkan partners. The more stridently Bulgaria insists on extending accession conditions to questions of history, language and identity, the more it threatens the stability of the Western Balkans.

Time for change?

Support for the opposition may bring to power a fragile government at a moment when stability is crucial. However, votes for the incumbent are also not a guarantor of stability and will likely cause more division and frustration in Bulgarian society. Irrespective of the election result, Bulgarian society is increasingly showing that it is not indifferent to the misuse of power.

To track these developments, IRI’s Beacon Project prepared a publicly available Social Media Stream and  Daily Dash, providing live information about trending topics, polls and media engagements ahead of elections – and we encourage you to follow along too.