In Bulgaria’s recent parliamentary elections, no party won enough votes to form a government on its own. Whether the country will experience continued political deadlock and new snap elections in a few months will depend on the result of the upcoming negotiations between the political parties.
April 20, 2023
The center-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) of former prime minister Boyko Borisov’s emerged first from the April 2 parliamentary elections, garnering 26.49% of the votes, followed by the centrist We Continue the Change–Democratic Bulgaria (PP-DB) with 24.56%. The radical right Revival (Vazrazhdane) party rose to third place with 14.16% of the vote (up from 10.18% in the elections of October 2022), its best result. As noted in a previous AUTHLIB blog post, Revival has benefited from the political deadlock that has been ongoing since 2021. Three other parties passed the 4% threshold to be represented in the parliament: the centrist Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) (13.75%), the center-left Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) (8.93%) and the populist There Is Such a People (ITN) (4.11%).
Establishing a government majority requires 121 deputies out of the total 240. Under Bulgaria’s electoral system, based on open-list proportional representation in multi-seat constituencies, these vote shares translate into the following number of seats in the parliament: 69 for GERB, 64 for PP-DB, 37 for Revival, 36 for DPS, 23 for BSP, and 11 for ITN.
The party that finishes first in the elections obtains a mandate for forming a government. If it fails to do so, the mandate goes to the second party. Should that also fail, the opportunity to attempt to form a governing coalition may go to any of the political parties represented in the parliament, chosen by the president. If such a third attempt is unsuccessful too, the president appoints a caretaker government and new elections follow.
Given the fact that none of the parties gained even close to enough seats to form a government on its own, there will now be negotiations among them. Two scenarios are most likely.
The first one entails the establishment of a coalition among the “old status quo” parties with 128 deputies. These parties are widely believed to have been responsible for an overwhelming part of the political corruption in the country over the past 10–15 years. Such a coalition, dubbed the “Magnitsky coalition” by one politician, would likely provoke controversy. Since the United States imposed sanctions over corruption on several members of these parties under its Global Magnitsky Act, this scenario would likely see Bulgaria continue down the path of corruption and democratic decline as under previous GERB-led governments between 2009 and 2021.
Another scenario would be the formation of a coalition between GERB, Revival, and the BSP with 129 deputies. Borisov has entered coalitions with radical right parties like Revival before. Such a coalition would also presage further democratic decline and could allow for some of Revival’s radical ideas to materialize. One example from Revival’s illiberal playbook would be the introduction of a Russian-like “foreign agent law” targeting civil society organizations, especially pro-West ones. The likelihood of such a coalition is increased by the BSP’s illiberal shift of late—for example, the party has recently adopted clear anti-LGBT positions—which might make an alliance with Revival more possible. The BSP is also pro-Russian like Revival.
Looking beyond GERB-led coalition scenarios, the possibilities are limited. The PP-DB does not have any viable options. Although the party came second in the elections and is the main challenger of the old status quo, it is in a difficult situation. It is fundamentally against GERB, but even if it wanted to it could not enter a coalition with Borisov, because this might lead to the dissolution of the party—such a move would be difficult to justify to its electorate. The PP-DB’s best strategy is therefore to wait for new elections. The DPS, which is mostly supported by Muslim Bulgarians from the Turkish minority, is highly unlikely to enter into a coalition with the radical right Revival. The populist ITN has only a small number of seats, but it could still be invited into government under the first or second scenario to consolidate either coalition.
Since many Bulgarians feel that the prolonged political deadlock must come to an end, either of these two scenarios, however controversial, might be accepted as the lesser evil. The parties could argue that a compromise is necessary to put an end to the deadlock. At the same time, they are also aware of the negative effects and the controversy surrounding these coalition options, so they might decide to go for new elections rather than risk alienating their voters and damaging their public image. If the latter consideration wins out, the holding of new parliamentary elections in a few months is a very possible outcome. What would be the sixth elections since 2021 could probably take place in July at the earliest.
Prolonged negotiations and further deadlock would once again give President Rumen Radev influence on the governance of the country by appointing a caretaker government. The retired army major general holds pro-Russia positions and is a former member of the totalitarian Bulgarian Communist Party. He has been strongly against Bulgaria providing military assistance to Ukraine. He has also expressed pro-Russia views on Crimea, remarking that the peninsula is Russian. Radev is against sanctions on Russian nuclear fuel and in favor of Bulgaria’s continued energy dependence on Russia. He uses pro-Russia narratives to increase his popularity, similarly to Revival and the BSP, appealing to the part of the population that is traditionally sympathetic toward Russia for cultural and historical reasons.
Due to the prolonged political deadlock, Radev has appointed five caretaker governments so far. This has allowed him to incrementally expand his political influence and to exert significant leverage over the country’s governance. For him, just like for the pro-Russia Revival, the deadlock is especially beneficial. An extension of de facto rule by a pro-Russia president could be a direct path to authoritarianism.
Bulgaria is a keystone of maritime and energy security in the Black Sea region, making it an important EU and NATO member. Its partners in both institutions should be concerned by the abovementioned scenarios, which all point in the direction of further democratic decline, potential autocratization, and further rapprochement with Russia.
Dimitar Keranov is a program assistant with the Engaging Central Europe program of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin.
The AUTHLIB consortium does not take collective positions. Publications only represent the views of their individual authors.
Photo credit: Nadejda Bostanova via Pexels