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Challenges Build for the Next Government as Bulgaria Heads Toward New Elections

Can street protests against corruption develop into meaningful electoral changes? Like other countries with political corruption but political party fragmentation, Bulgaria faced this question heading into national parliamentary elections held on April 4. In a positive sign for opposition parties elsewhere, widespread protests against government corruption last summer did translate into significant electoral losses for the lead governing party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and its traditional foe the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), and electoral gains for political newcomers There is Such a People (ITN), Democratic Bulgaria (DB), and Stand Up! Thugs Out! (ISMV). In fact, 32% of the national vote went to new parties in parliament, the highest since 2009.

Following the failures of GERB, ITN and BSP to form coalition governments, an interim government will be put in place until new elections occur on July 11. When a government does finally form, it will face Bulgaria’s immense challenges, and its ability to solve these challenges could impact the public’s perception  across the country and in the Balkans that protests can translate not only into real political change.

Here are the three main challenges facing Bulgaria’s next government:

Defeating the COVID-19 Pandemic

Bulgaria’s next government must have defeating the pandemic as their top priority. A look at Bulgaria’s COVID metrics in comparison with its neighboring countries and the EU average tell a grave story:

As you can see, Bulgaria’s COVID-19 deaths standardized for population far exceed the EU average and three-of-four of its neighbors. Moreover, Bulgarians are still dying from COVID-19 at an alarming rate. It remains much higher than the EU average. The vaccination campaign also lags behind most of the EU and three-of-four neighbors:

The country has failed to protect itself from the economic fallout of the pandemic as well. As Ivaylo Dinev and Petar Bankov wrote in their recent LSE blog , the Bulgarian government has failed to implement and spend available EU COVID-19 response funding, including 12.3 billion euros from the European Recovery Fund and the Support to Mitigate Unemployment Risks in Emergency (SURE). Additionally, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria found that Bulgaria ranks last in percentage of GDP spent on anti-crisis measures. As a result, the economy contracted by 4.2% in 2020 according to the IMF.

Bulgaria’s next government will need to offset lockdown measures with economic protections, rally public support for mask wearing and social distancing, and ramp up the country’s vaccination campaign. It should also reassemble a central coordinating body for the pandemic response after outgoing Prime Minister Borissov disbanded the country’s COVID-19 response team on April 15.

Combatting Corruption

Much as Bulgaria lags behind the rest of the EU in its pandemic response, it also is the worst performer in metrics of corruption. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), Bulgaria ties Romania and Hungary for the worst score in the European Union, with of 44/100 points. Comparatively, the average Western Europe and EU score is 66. Behind these numbers are shocking revelations of corruption, including the "apartmentgate" scandal, in which senior members of the ruling GERB party bought luxury apartments for a fraction of their market value, the implication of the head of Bulgaria’s Anticorruption Commission in the same scandal, and politicians’ misuse of EU funds for the building or renovation of their own private homes.

With massive protests last summer and strong gains made by parties running on anticorruption platforms, it is clear that Bulgarian voters have given the next government a mandate to fight corruption. To do so, the next government should look at increasing the political independence of the Anticorruption Commission, who’s leadership is currently elected by a simple majority in the National Assembly. Lessons could be drawn from IRI’s work with North Macedonia’s Ministry of Justice to reform the selection of that country’s anticorruption commission. Next, focus must be on improving the implementation and functioning of pre-existing anticorruption institutions, frameworks and laws, and should include both the EU and local civil society organizations (CSOs) in planning reforms. At the municipal level, IRI will begin assisting governments and CSOs fight corruption this June, and look to partner with the national government in this effort.

Stopping Brain Drain

The third challenge for Bulgaria’s next government will be stopping emigration of the country’s educated youth, also known as brain drain. As reported in a 2019 BBC article, Bulgaria is the world’s fastest-shrinking country in terms of population, citing the UN Population Division’s projection that the country will lose 23% of its population by 2050. Aside from low birth rates, emigration is a leading contributor to this trend. As a member of the EU, Bulgarians enjoy relative ease to move elsewhere in the EU for better opportunities. A 2018 poll conducted by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a German political foundation, sheds light on why Bulgarian youth choose to emigrate. Thirty-six percent of respondents said, “to improve standard of living,” while another 25 percent said “higher salary,” showing the dominance of economic motivations.

Action needs to be taken to improve standards of living and economic opportunities for recent college graduates in order to combat brain drain. Tackling the second priority of corruption may also help to stifle emigration, as youth begin to see a government working for its people and giving everyone a fair shot at success. If the government fails to stop Bulgaria’s brain drain, scarcities of educated professionals in healthcare, business, information technology, education and other sectors will further diminish the country’s standard of living and economic prospects.  

Conclusion

In what is arguably Bulgaria’s biggest electoral shift in more than a decade, the 2021 election results present the country with an opportunity to solve both longer-term challenges as corruption and brain drain, as well as the immediate challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, if the next government fails to meet this moment, it could signal to Bulgarians and the region that democracy has failed to deliver.