This is a guest post by Petia Kostadinova (University of Illinois at Chicago) and Maria Popova (McGill University)
Bulgaria held its third legislative elections in the last four years, the tenth such elections since 1990. These elections came on the heels of the November 2016 presidential race, which pitted an ostensibly pro-European candidate from the governing GERB against an ostensibly pro-Russian candidate backed by the opposition Socialists. At the outset of the presidential campaign, Prime Minister Borisov, had promised to resign if GERB’s candidate lost the election. When that happened, Borisov kept his promise and triggered early parliamentary elections.
Eighteen parties and nine coalitions put forward candidates. A few new political formations are worth noting – Volya, United Patriots, DOST, and no less than three heirs to the defunct Reformist Bloc. Five parties are to enter parliament – GERB, BSP, United Patriots, DPS, and Volya.
Topics that came through in the campaign
Many of the parties competing at the elections published election platforms. GERB’s was among the lengthiest, at 48 pages, and detailed the party’s actions in office. For the first time (to the authors’ knowledge), a party also explicitly mentioned the sources for its election program, a process that has remained a mystery in Bulgarian politics. Emphasis was placed on a collaboration between intra-party experts with current ministerial employees, thus pointing towards a continuity in GERB’s policies, while keeping the party in line with the priorities of the European People’s Party to which it belongs. The platform starts with GERB’s pro-EU and pro-NATO priorities, highlighting Bulgaria’s upcoming presidency of the Council of the European Union. Much of the platform is externally-oriented, detailing Bulgaria’s relations with individual (neighboring) countries, while keeping in line with the EU’s priorities towards the Russian Federation, Turkey, Western Balkans, etc. Even domestic policies, such as regional priorities were framed in terms of EU funding and structures. Thus, GERB staked out its claim to being Bulgaria’s main pro-European party, even though GERB’s leader Borisov frequently talked about improving relations with Russia on the campaign trail.
In contrast, the European Union was mentioned on only two of the 15-page long platform of the Bulgarian Socialist Party. The program was framed in terms of equality and poverty reduction, through increased government spending and protectionist measures. Very little space was dedicated in the Socialists program to the foreign policy priorities of the party, although the call for removal of EU sanctions against the Russian Federation was prominent. Hence, the Socialists’ branding as the pro-Russian actor in Bulgarian politics. However, during their governing stints in 2004-2008 and 2013-2014, the Socialists had maintained Bulgaria’s unambiguously pro-European orientation, much to Russia’s chagrin, and had balked at pursuing many of the promised social welfare policies.
Similar to BSP’s, the platform of the Movement of Rights and Freedoms had a pessimistic view of the economic and political situation, calling for a plan to ‘save Bulgaria’. Emphasis was placed on spending and development of resources in education, healthcare, and agriculture. The EU and NATO were barely mentioned in the program, while Bulgaria’s relations with Russia, Turkey, or any neighboring countries were not at all discussed. Among all legislative parties, DPS’ was perhaps the most domestically-oriented election program.
Volya’s platform came close to that of the Socialists, advocating for increased social, education, and health spending, including support for families bearing more children, and for young families in general. The platform had a distinct pro-EU and pro-NATO tone, and in many areas the party emphasized adopting best practices ‘from abroad’. Volya called for a leadership role of Bulgaria in both the EU and the country’s immediate neighborhood. At the same time, the party also emphasized friendly relations with the Russian Federation. Volya’s ambiguous position on the EU-Russia foreign policy choice emphasizes that Bulgaria’s politics cannot be easily reduced to a pro-European/pro-Russian fault line.
United Patriots platform was typical of the coalition’s constituent parties combination of increased spending, protectionism, and curtailing of minority rights. Among the latter was a proposal that only those who are fluent in Bulgarian language, and have completed mandatory primary schooling would have the right to vote. Another idea put forward by the coalition was restricting the pro-Turkish parties from governing. Both ideas would most likely be struck down as unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court, but probably played well with the xenophobic and nationalist part of the electorate.
The previous parliament featured a prominent reformist, pro-European, centre-right coalition—the Reformist Bloc. The coalition fell apart over the decision by some members to withdraw support from the Borisov government over slow judicial reforms and corruption scheme allegations. In the parliamentary election, those who wished to continue cooperating with Borisov and GERB contested the election as Reformist Bloc-Voice of the People; those who opposed cooperation with GERB split into two—Yes Bulgaria (in coalition with the Greens and DEOS) and New Republic. That split may have been either leader-driven or ideological, with Yes Bulgaria wanting to straddle the left-right spectrum and present itself as a liberal party focused on anti-corruption, good governance and the environment, and New Republic staking out Christian conservative, free market, and anti-Communist positions. Whatever the drivers of the split, neither of the three heirs to the Reformist Bloc passed the 4% threshold. As a result, the roughly 10% of the electorate, which backed them in both 2014 and 2017, lost their representation in the incoming parliament.
Five parties surpassed the 4% threshold. GERB clinched first place with a third of the votes (32.65%), just as it did in 2014 and in 2013. The Socialist Party came in second with 27.20%. The traditional kingmaker in Bulgarian parliaments, the Turkish-minority-backed Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) was replaced (albeit very narrowly) as the third biggest party in parliament by the new United Patriots, a coalition of three far-right/far-left nationalist parties. United Patriots received 9.07%, which is roughly the same result as one of its members, Ataka, had received on its own in previous elections. While the far right has become the third biggest parliamentary faction and will most likely have a strong voice in the formation of the new cabinet, it did not manage to capitalize on the populist zeitgeist and expand its electoral base. DPS received 8.99%. DPS’s result was probably lowered by the entry in this election of a competitor for the minority vote—DOST, led by ousted an DPS leader. DOST received 2.86%, which leaves it out of parliament, but it likely siphoned off votes from DPS. The fifth and final party to get parliamentary representation, Volya, is another newcomer—the vehicle for a businessman-turned-politician from the city of Varna, who had already made a splash in the presidential election, by getting over 11%. It remains to be seen whether Volya will be an active populist player in parliament or will simply trade votes for policies that benefit its leader’s various business interests.