Bulgaria’s Latest Election results leave Eastern Europe in Disarray

by Alexander Kucherina

What you can do:

Figure 1- Protesters marching in front of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria right before the parliamentary elections.

Bulgaria is a former Soviet satellite state that exists just off the western coast of the Black Sea. Inside its borders is the beautiful city of Sofia, which contains relics and architecture reflecting Byzantine influence and serving as a melting pot with Greek, Slavic, and Ottoman heritage. Outside of this central city lie smaller towns and villages that embody the image of traditional countryside Bulgaria with cultures of dance, music, religiosity, and costumes.

However, in recent times, Bulgaria has been struggling. The COVID-19 pandemic was not a time to remember for the people of Bulgaria, as its administration struggled to contain the virus in an organized manner. The government for some time ignored the severity of the pandemic, and continued to increase spending on its military in addition to conducting racist campaigns against refugees and the Roma people minority. A recent report by the Federation of Independent Trade Unions revealed that over 65 percent of Bulgaria’s population is currently not able to support themselves financially, with over 22 percent of households earning less than what is considered to be the official poverty line [1].

The pandemic had further exacerbated this economic hardship, with unemployment rates rising and the average hourly wage falling to just €2.40 [1]. Additionally, the impact of COVID-19 on health for Bulgarians has been abysmal – the number of new daily infections exceeded over 5,000 towards the end of March, bringing the total number of cases to over 350,000 with close to 14,000 deaths [2]. The poorly coordinated vaccine rollout process has also added more chaos to the country, as Bulgaria has administered fewer than 500,000 vaccine doses so far within its population of over 7 million [2].

Amidst this pandemic, Bulgaria was set to hold its parliamentary elections in early April. These elections would determine the extent of party representation within its national assembly. The party with the majority of seats taken up in the national assembly also elects its own prime minister. These elections were preceded by months of intense protests where thousands took to the streets to protest against the incumbent Prime Minister (PM), Boyko Borisov, for refusing to fight corruption, protecting oligarchs, suppressing freedom of speech, and supporting policies that create structural barriers for economic opportunities for lower socioeconomic classes [2].

Nevertheless, the elections went onward. Polls and politicians predicted a very low voter turnout given the constraints of the pandemic, and lackluster campaigning efforts by politicians affected by the extent of corruption and protests. Additionally, it was expected for there to be a very swift and straightforward victory for long-time Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s right-wing conservative GERB party.

Although polls predicted very low voter turnout, it was actually over 49 percent. Additionally, Borissov’s GERB party emerged victorious, gaining the most number of seats in the national assembly, but only by a slim margin. It achieved around 24 percent of the vote, which was less than the 34 percent it achieved in 2017 [3]. Although the GERB party won more votes than any other, these numbers revealed that it was its worst performance in over a decade. There are 240 seats in the national assembly, and at least 121 are needed to be declared as a majority party. Borissov’s GERB party was able to attain only 75 of those seats. Furthermore, as it has not been able to cultivate a majority of the votes, it will likely not be able to form a coalition government pushing its own agenda.

Borissov will have to surrender his efforts in maintaining complacency and an agenda that he was able to get away with for so many years. Rather, he will have to work with the other parties that have this time around, received much more votes. This will not be easy, given these parties have made clear that they will likely not join a coalition that includes him or his agenda. These additional frontrunners included Slavi Trifonov and his ITN (There is such a nation) party, which attained over 51 seats and 17.7 percent of the popular vote [3].

Bulgarians, frustrated with the country’s handling of both the pandemic and internal corruption, showed up and casted votes for Trifonov and his anti-establishment party. Trifonov was able to capture over 1 in 5 domestic Bulgarian votes leading his party to second place against the increasingly unpopular status quo known as Borissov [3]. 

Figure 2 –  Bulgarian parliamentary election results.

Trifonov is a fascinating figure, as he is known as a famous singer, entertainer, and TV talk show host that outperformed nearly every prediction that political experts and polls made for his future in Bulgaria. Naming the ITN party after one of his own musical albums, Trifonov instilled additional policy goals that would try to get Bulgaria out of its economic and public health gridlock. The party advocates for halving the number of members in the national assembly, which would reduce the chances of gridlock and having multiple parties all cancelling each other out. Additionally, the party aims to combat voter suppression by introducing remote electronic voting, and instituting compulsory voting mandates. Lastly, Trifonov wants Bulgaria to further westernize and integrate more aspects of direct democracy across all levels of its political system including direct elections for regional leaders and department directors. This would help with Bulgaria’s further integration within the European Union [4].

Another winner of the night was the party of Democratic Bulgaria (DB) which was able to capture almost 10 percent of the popular vote with over 27 seats in the national assembly [3]. This is another up and coming party which aims to combat corruption and tend to the needs of lower class families in Bulgaria’s inner cities.

These results are exciting, but show that Bulgaria still has a lot of work to do. Borissov’s support remains relatively high among many loyal supporters and many of his policies over his previous terms still see their effects leak through. As a result, Bulgaria has come under intense scrutiny by Western nations due to its long-standing problems with corruption and deficiencies in the rule of law and media freedom. Last October, the European Parliament formed a declaration  which openly criticized the nation for failing to uphold basic democratic principles [2]. Recently, the U.S. Department of State claimed that Bulgarian government’s actions in the fight against human rights abuses were insufficient, highlighting the violent treatment by Bulgarian police that took place including random arrests and issues with judicial independence. The U.S. Department of State also mentioned that Bulgaria’s government recently supported many serious restrictions on free expression, “including media censorship, violence and threats against journalists and political pressure on the media” [2].

In addition to having all of these problems domestically, Bulgaria must realize that it holds an important role as the middleman between the United States, the European Union and Russia. Located comfortably within Eastern Europe, Bulgaria also happens to be a member of NATO and the EU. Thus, in western eyes, Bulgaria is seen as a strategic military-style outpost close to Russia that may offer intelligence, insight, and a position of defense against any potential advancement made by Putin. However, in recent weeks, there has been increased tension in Ukraine. Putin had recently sent over 80,000 troops to the border of Ukraine and Russia, which resulted in NATO conducting large military drills across Eastern Europe in fear of a potential conflict. Borissov’s foreign policy with both the west and Russia has been very complicated. On one hand, he maintained Bulgaria’s membership within NATO and the EU, whilst on the other, he held up economic ties to Russia [5].

Figure 3 – Bulgaria’s lax demeanor towards Russia is worrisome for the west.

Although Borissov has been able to walk this tightrope and prevent the top of the boiling pot from flying off, these recent elections have instituted further political instability within Bulgaria that may threaten its relations with the two sides. Also, the president of Bulgaria, Rumen Radev, had recently displayed acts of allyship to Putin and Russia, which is worrying for the west [5].

The freshly rising political party of ITN along with others like DB must do their best to coordinate a coalition that will look to restore Bulgaria’s economy by creating job opportunities and raising the minimum wage. Additionally, they must work together to try to reform the Bulgarian constitution such that these kinds of gridlocks and periods of inaction during Borissov’s tenure no longer happen. Doing so would make federally run programs like healthcare accessibility during COVID-19 and vaccine rollout much more efficient and uniform. The EU and the United States must also realize the role that Bulgaria plays in avoiding a potential conflict with Russia. Therefore, they must be at its aid and provide financial and economic support as much as possible during this period of instability for Bulgaria. It is a short term investment for a long term commitment to battling issues like corruption, COVID-19, and voter suppression in Bulgaria all while ensuring peace across Europe.

Finally, Slavi Trifonov has a chance to unite the people of Bulgaria during these next few months. Trifonov can try to model his actions after the current president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky was a comedian and was elected to challenge the status quo as a politician with no prior political experience, and was able to appease tensions by Russia and the United States for some time while bringing back stability to Ukraine following internal issues of war and corruption. Similarly, it may just be Trifonov’s time to shine and provide hope for the future of Bulgaria.

Works Cited:

[1] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2021/04/08/bulg-a08.html

[2] https://abcnews.go.com/Health/wireStory/virus-pandemic-overshadows-bulgarian-parliamentary-election-76830591

[3] https://balkaninsight.com/2021/04/06/election-surprises-end-bulgarias-political-stability/

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2021_Bulgarian_parliamentary_election

[5] https://www.ekathimerini.com/opinion/1159025/bulgarian-election-result-alarms-west/

[Figure 1] https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c2018r74

[Figure 2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2021_Bulgarian_parliamentary_election

[Figure 3] https://www.dw.com/en/bulgaria-torn-between-russia-and-the-west/a-44027331