On April 2, Bulgarians will go to the polls for the fifth time since 2021 as their country holds yet again parliamentary snap elections amid an ongoing political deadlock. This weakens its stability as a key NATO and EU member state in Southeastern Europe. It also benefits the radical right, which is gaining support and seeking to push Bulgaria back into Russia’s orbit.
March 23, 2023
In April 2021, Boyko Borisov’s tenure as Bulgaria’s prime minister ended after almost a year of protests over systemic corruption, nepotism, and institutional capture. His Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party came to power for the first time in 2009 and has dominated politics since. Under Borisov, Bulgaria moved in the direction of authoritarianism. The country is now a defective democracy but in 2010 it was a democracy in consolidation, according to the Bertelsmann Transformation Index.
The protests in 2020–2021 were not only against Borisov; they also sought to change the perceived long-standing corrupt status quo dating back to the early 1990s. Ever since communist authoritarian rule ended in 1989, Bulgaria has struggled with various problems, most notably extreme corruption implicating major parties like the center-right GERB, the centrist Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), and the center-left Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). Although all three still have hardcore supporters, their reputation has been damaged by numerous scandals. These have led to the United States introducing sanctions under its Magnitsky Act against members of these parties for corruption.
The protests shifted the political scene and gave rise to a new major player with the union of the We Continue the Change (PP) and Democratic Bulgaria (DB) centrist parties. As a result, a new cleavage has emerged between the mainstream parties of the old status quo—GERB, DPS, BSP—and their PP-DB challenger. All of them are unwilling to cooperate and compromise to end the political deadlock for fear of losing their voters.
This has created opportunities for the rise of another actor in the form of the radical-right Vazrazhdane (Revival) party. At the last parliamentary elections in October 2022, it achieved the best result for a party with such an ideological orientation in Bulgarian electoral history. Capturing 10.18 percent of the votes, from just 2.45 percent in April 2021, catapulted it to the position of fourth political party in the country.
What Does the Radical Right Want?
A key element of radical-right ideology is finding an enemy to blame for a country’s problems. In the region, this can be minorities (ethnic, religious, sexual), the European Union and pro-EU parties, or NATO and the United States. Since the start of the Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the Bulgarian radical right has focused on the latter. It thus differentiates itself from the fundamentally pro-EU and pro-NATO old corrupt status quo parties as well as from the newer anti-status quo ones. As such, it tries to make Bulgaria deviate from its chosen EU and NATO path and back into Russia’s orbit. In its rhetoric, the EU and NATO are portrayed as harmful economically, politically, and militarily; for example, as trying to impose foreign values that would somehow destroy Bulgarian culture, history, and society.
Vazrazhdane has raised the question of leaving both institutions and has started gathering signatures for a referendum against the introduction of the euro. It also depicts the EU and NATO as trying to involve Bulgaria in a war against Russia. And there are many pro-Russia Bulgarians who are receptive to this rhetoric. The roots of this orientation dates back primarily to the massive propaganda during communist rule, which relied on manipulating historical facts in favor of Moscow.
One recent initiative of Vazrazhdane has been the introduction of a Russian-style draft law that aims to register as “foreign agents” actors that receive funding from abroad. This is widely seen as an attempt to silence civil society organizations, particularly Western-oriented ones. “Foreign agents” would be prohibited from conducting various educational and political activities, would have to indicate publicly that they are “foreign agents,” and would be subject to financial sanctions.
In a defective democracy like Bulgaria, civil society actors such as journalists, media outlets, and human rights activists are crucial for defending citizens’ rights, uncovering corruption, and raising awareness about bad governance and societal issues. The demonization of organizations and people as “foreign agents” would reduce the impact of their activities almost to zero and leave their credibility practically destroyed. Although the bill is unlikely to pass now, it may do so at some point in the future if Vazrazhdane improves its standing and becomes an inescapable element in Bulgarian politics. In such a scenario, other parties might need to include the party in coalition negotiations and accept some of its ideas.
A vote for the radical right in Bulgaria is inevitably also a vote for Russian-style authoritarianism and an anti-EU and anti-NATO agenda.
What Is a Possible Outcome of the April Elections?
According to a recent poll, it looks like no party will win enough votes in April to form a government on its own. PP-DB is expected to come first, followed by GERB, DPS, Vazrazhdane, and BSP. Vazrazhdane could even come third. So, the likelihood of a continued deadlock and new elections in a few months remains high.
If there is a political stalemate as the mainstream parties try to form a government after the elections, which is likely, the radical right will benefit. For Vazrazhdane, the longer political deadlock and instability continue, the more chances it will have to convince more Bulgarians to give it their vote. In light of the party’s rapid rise and people’s growing dissatisfaction with the prolonged political crisis, many more might be inclined to do so.
Although it may be an expression of protest at the political situation, a vote for the radical right in Bulgaria is inevitably also a vote for Russian-style authoritarianism and an anti-EU and anti-NATO agenda. The spread of radical-right ideas is a development not to be underestimated; it may cause further democratic decline and strengthening of pro-Russian influence in a vital NATO and EU country in Southeastern Europe.
Dimitar Keranov is a program assistant with the Engaging Central Europe program of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin.
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