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March 8, 2021


BULGARIA: April vote will bring greater political fragmentation and volatility

BY Andrius Tursa

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( 5 mins)
  • With almost four weeks to go until the general election, the ruling GERB is a favorite to win most seats in parliament but is unlikely to succeed in forming the next government.
  • A more fragmented parliament will open multiple post-election scenarios; the most plausible one is a technocratic/minority cabinet tasked to lead the country through the pandemic.
  • The prospects of systemic changes in the judiciary or genuine efforts to tackle high-profile corruption appear limited in the near-to-medium term.

The 4 April election will see 22 parties and eight coalitions compete for 240 mandates in the unicameral parliament. The vote will be held under a closed-list proportional system in 31 multi-member constituencies. To enter parliament, both parties and coalitions will need to pass a 4% threshold at the national level. Based on the amended electoral law in 2020, votes will be cast via traditional paper-ballots in small polling stations, and machine-voting will be used in larger stations. A postponement of the vote due to the pandemic seems unlikely as there is no clear legal procedure for this.

GERB resilient in polls…

The ruling center-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) not only managed to remain in power through large anti-corruption protests in the second half of 2020 but also kept its status as the most popular party. GERB polls around 26% and is on course to achieve a fifth consecutive victory in the parliamentary elections since 2009. Its key rival, the center-left opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), comes in second with 22%. A political newcomer – the There are Such People (ITN) party established in 2020 by popular TV personality Slavi Trifonov – ranks third with 14%, followed by the Movement for the Rights and Freedoms (MRF), which represents the interests of the ethnic minorities in Bulgaria, with 11%. The center-right reform-oriented Democratic Bulgaria (DB) alliance is also expected to enter parliament with around 6% of votes. Besides the top five contenders, the newly formed coalition Stand Up! Get Out! (IS.BG) led by a former BSP politician Maya Manolova as well as the GERB’s junior coalition partner Bulgaria National Movement (VMRO) are balancing around the 4% threshold. However, the polling data should be taken with a pinch of salt as some of the polling agencies are closely linked to political parties and the Covid-19 restrictions could affect the reliability of surveys.

A resurgent pandemic, together with one of the slowest vaccination campaigns in the EU, poses notable challenges for the ruling GERB during the last weeks until the election. On 1 March, the Boyko Borisov cabinet made a popular but risky decision to reopen bars, restaurants and cafes at under 50% capacity. However, it might be forced to re-impose even tighter restrictions in the coming weeks as the epidemiological indicators are rapidly worsening. Nonetheless, the GERB’s ratings proved resilient to various crises in the past, while the lower turnout (particularly among elderly voters) due to the pandemic could potentially hurt its key rival BSP.

…but unlikely to lead next government

The new parliament is expected to be more fragmented, which could complicate the prospects of forming a stable and effective government. Even if the ruling GERB wins the largest number of seats and gets a first try at forming a new cabinet – as mandated by the constitution – it will likely struggle to find coalition partners. Besides VMRO, none of the top contenders could be expected to enter a formal coalition with the ruling party, which is associated with multiple corruption scandals.

In case the largest parliamentary group fails to form a government, the mandate will be given to the second-best performer in the election – most likely BSP. The center-left party could partner with the IS.BG alliance, but this would probably not suffice to form a majority government. The BSP’s partnership with ITN and DB is unlikely, although it cannot be completely ruled out.

In case the second largest parliamentary group fails at forming a government, the president would hand the task to a smaller party in parliament, most likely ITN. Trifonov’s party rules out cooperation with the “systemic parties” such as GERB, BSP and MRF, but could attempt to form a wide technocratic cabinet to lead the country through the pandemic. Such a coalition could include other political newcomers, such as IS.BG or DB, also potentially supported by the BSP. This appears the most realistic scenario at this point.

Finally, a grand coalition between GERB and BSP is unlikely, but could be eventually considered given the pandemic, an enticing opportunity to oversee the allocation of the EU post-pandemic recovery funds, and the threat of an early election should no government be formed through the first three rounds.

Reform outlook dim

All of the above-outlined post-election scenarios point to a wide and likely unstable coalition government. While Bulgaria is set to maintain its westward geopolitical orientation (including the eurozone accession goal), the prospects of systemic changes in the judiciary or genuine efforts to tackle high-profile corruption appear limited in the near-to-medium term. Instead, the new government is expected prioritize the pandemic and, possibly, revising the national recovery and resilience plan for investing EU funds.

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