This is a guest post by Petia Kostadinova, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, at the University of Illinois at Chicago
Background and participants
With its new democratic constitution passed in 1991, Bulgaria established for the first time in its history the institution of the President of the Republic. Direct elections, with the winner requiring to gather the majority of votes cast, started taking place in 1992. The sixth such elections were held in November 2016 over two rounds, Nov. 6 and Nov. 13. A national referendum on three questions was also took place on Nov. 6. The referendum asked voters to weigh in on (1) introduction of a run-off single member district electoral system for legislative elections, requiring winning candidates to gather the majority of votes cast on the second round; (2) introduction of mandatory voting; (3) state financing of political parties equal to 1 BG Lev (= 0.51 Euro) for each vote received at legislative elections. The presidential elections were also the first under rules stipulating that non-participation in two consecutive elections would lead to voters losing their automatic voter registration. This stipulation was one of the questions addressed in the referendum.
Voter turnout was relatively high, approaching 58% of the electorate at the first round, and over 40% at the run off. The elections were preceded by an active controversy surrounding the diaspora vote. Initially the Electoral Code, guiding the procedures of these elections stipulated that there would be no more than 35 polling locations in countries that are not members of the European Union (EU). Most Bulgarians living outside the EU reside in Turkey and the United States. The upper limit of polling locations was eventually removed from the Electoral Code, in time for the first round of elections.
Twenty-two sets of candidates were put forward, and for the first time voters had the option to cast a ballot for no candidate, expressing their dissatisfaction with the choices. Five and a half percent of voters marked “I do not support any candidate” at the first round, and 4.71% made such a choice at the second round. The governing party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), was among the last to nominate a presidential candidate, after the current President Plevneliev supported by GERB, chose not to run for re-elections. Eventually, GERB nominated the Chairperson of the National Assembly, Tsetska Tsacheva, as their candidate. GERB’s main coalition partner, Reform Bloc (RB), put forward a separate nomination, that of Traicho Traikov, who had been a member of the first GERB government, 2009-2012.
The two main opposition parties, Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), did not directly nominate presidential candidates, instead pledging their respective party’s vote for presidential hopefuls supported through personal ‘initiative committees’. As an effort to increase direct citizen participation in democratic governance, initiative committees allow for at least twenty-one citizens to sign a petition nominating (presumably politically) independent candidates for President and Vice President (VP). Ten of the 22 sets of candidates were put forward through such initiative committees. The Socialists supported Roumen Radev and Illiana Iotova’s candidacies. Radev is a general without political experience and the former head of the Bulgarian Air Force. Iotova is a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from the Group of Socialists and Democrats. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms supported the nomination of former Finance Minister, and later Prime Minister, Plamen Oresharski, with Danail Papazov as VP candidate.
Issues in the campaign
While some parties nominated candidates as early as May 2016, the election campaign did not intensify until October, after GERB finally settled on a nominee. Debates among presidential hopefuls have become a norm in Bulgaria, and at least a dozen such events, sponsored by different media outlets, took place among different sets of candidates. The two leading candidates, Radev and Tsacheva, hesitated to participate in debates with multiple participants, and instead debated among themselves. The President of the Republic does not have extensive executive and legislative functions, although s/he can initiate changes in the Constitution, and can use veto power over certain legislation. In addition to ceremonial functions related to foreign affairs, the office of Head of State in Bulgaria has prerogatives focusing on national security. Fittingly, among the main issues that emerged in presidential debates were the country’s communist legacy, foreign policy especially with respect to Russia, and Turkey, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the EU’s handling of the refugee crisis, and domestically – the stalled reform of the legal system. Radev is widely considered a pro-Russian politician, and has called for the lifting of the EU sanctions on Russia. Tsacheva also called for warming up relations with the Russian Federation, and indicated that if elected, she’d invite President Putin to visit Bulgaria. Due to the limited constitutional powers of the President in Bulgaria though, s/he does not participate in European Union decision-making processes. It is unlikely that the election of a pro-Russia President alone would lead to a change in the country’s foreign policy direction.
Outcome and implications
At the first round of elections, Radev, supported by the Socialist Party, won the plurality of votes (25.44%), followed by GERB’s Tsacheva with 21.96%. The candidate of three nationalist parties under the label of United Patriots Karakatchanov gathered 14.97% of the vote. A regional businessman, owner of a pharmacy chain, Mareshki, nominated by one of the nearly dozen initiative committees received 11.17% of the vote. The candidate supported by the Movement of Rights and Freedoms came in fourth with 6.63% of the vote.
Sunday’s run-off between the first and second ranked at the first round was decisively won by Radev with 59.37% of the votes cast. Tsacheva gathered 36.16% of the vote. Exit polls suggest that at the second round of elections, Radev attracted votes from DPS, as well as the majority of those who voted for the candidate of the nationalist parties. Tsacheva was supported by half of those who voted for the candidate of the Reform Bloc.
At the start of the election campaign, Prime Minister Borisov made it explicit that if the GERB candidate did not win the presidency, he would resign, turning the presidential elections into a proxy vote of no confidence for his government. When Tsacheva came in second after the first round, Borisov hesitated to step down but reiterated that GERB would not participate in government if she lost the final vote. Radev’s win in the second round led to Borisov’s resignation. The composition of any future government as well as the timing of new elections remain unclear at the time when this report was written. The outgoing President can approach the second largest party in the National Assembly – BSP – to form a (coalition) government in the current legislature. But the Socialists have already announced that they are not interested, and that they would seek to win the forthcoming legislative vote. The timing of the latter is yet to be determined. The outgoing President does not have the right to dissolve the legislature within three months of his term ending in January 2017. Thus, it would have to be the incoming President Radev who would call for new elections that can take place in April 2017 at the earliest. In the meantime, with GERB out of office, current President Plevneliev and president-elect Radev have agreed to work together on appointing a caretaker government until the next elections take place. Leading politicians have also indicated that despite the referendum failing to gather the minimum number of votes to be binding, there is interest in introducing a majoritarian single member district electoral system before the next elections, thus significantly changing the country’s political landscape.
 As of the writing of this piece, the Central Election Committee had not reported the final numbers on voter turnout.