Although they were scheduled for 2018, parliamentary elections were held in Bulgaria on 26 March 2017. It was the third election in four years, prompted after Boyko Borisov, leader of the centre-right GERB, resigned as premier following the surprise victory of Rumen Radev of the Socialist Party as president. Although the president is a mostly ceremonial and advisory role, with real executive power vested with the prime minister, Borisov had promised that he would resign in case his party faced defeat in the presidential election.
Located in the heart of Eastern Europe, Bulgaria is the EU’s poorest country and its most corrupt, with average monthly wages at around $540. A former communist country, it has maintained a close relationship with Russia. However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria has become a member of the EU, joined the Eurozone, and is even a member of NATO. In the past, Bulgaria was strictly in the Soviet sphere of influence, but today, both pro-Russian and pro-European elements compete in the public space.
This was evident in the election, where leading parties were at odds with each other on their preference for relations with Russia. A former fire fighter and bodyguard, Borisov’s GERB ran a more pro-European stance than its main rival, the Socialist Party (BSP), led by Kornelia Ninova, a former lawyer and business executive. The BSP is the successor to the country’s Communist Party, and naturally, it held a more pro-Russia stance. Ninova had said that she would veto renewal of EU sanctions on Russia, while Borisov held that EU sanctions should remain. Nevertheless, neither candidate professed a strong leaning for either side. While Ninova and the socialists were tied to the Russians, she argued that it was her party that ‘ushered Bulgaria into the European Union and NATO.’ Similarly, Borisov most notably gifted Vladimir Putin a puppy in 2010, and argued for ‘pragmatic’ ties with Russia.
The election results meant that Bulgaria will maintain its tilt towards the European Union. It is an important outcome, coming days after voters in the Netherlands kept anti-EU candidates at bay, and around the same time as the beginning of Britain’s formal withdrawal from the Union. It is premature to presume that given this result, the populist, anti-EU sentiment that has gripped the continent may be receding, especially with France’s presidential election around the corner. Moreover, Bulgaria’s relationship with Russia and the EU is more complex than other western European nations. The differences in opinion on engagement with Russia and the EU are more reflective of cultural trends in Bulgaria that have spanned decades, rather than a recent, populist uprising.
In the final election result, GERB received a plurality of the vote, securing a 32.6 per cent vote share and 95 seats in Parliament. The Socialists came second with 27.20 per cent of the vote and 80 seats. After winning a presidential election, the second place finish may seem underwhelming. However, compared to the 2014 parliamentary election, where the Socialists only received 15.4 per cent of the vote, the 2017 elections are significant step forward. The politics of a presidential election, which essentially involves one candidate, are different from a parliamentary election, where the entire party campaigns to secure seats. While the Socialists may not have had a stronghold like the GERB, they made significant inroads. Their prospects had many European observers worried, as they favoured a more pro-European party at the helm.
Nevertheless, no single party obtained a majority, meaning that a coalition government will take hold in Sofia. The key to GERB forming a government would be the United Patriots, led Krasimir Karkachanov. Like other nationalist groups rising in Europe, the Patriots have spewed rhetoric against migrants, Muslims, and homosexuals. Karkachanov finished third in the presidential election, and his party carried that performance to finish in the same position in these parliamentary elections. Another party in coalition talks will be Volya, led by businessman Vesselin Mareshki, who secured 4.1 per cent of the vote. Mareshki’s slogan was a familiar retort: ‘Make Bulgaria Great Again.’
In a country infamous for its corruption, two anti-corruption parties, Yes, Bulgaria, and New Republic, together won only 6 per cent of the vote. Their base was middle-class urban voters, and Yes, Bulgaria was formed only in January, explaining the lack of political mobilisation across the country.
Borisov and his centre-right party are expected to include the Patriots in their coalition, and perhaps Volya as well. If that is the case, the rhetoric of the two parties is expected to be reigned in, as the GERB has maintained a strong pro-EU stance. Certainly, the Patriots will contend for positions in the Cabinet, and along with Volya will threaten to join the Socialists. Nevertheless, a third Borisov government is expected to be sworn in.
In Europe, the political tide seems to be tilting towards populist and nationalist rhetoric, and a growing threat from Russia. A low-income country strife with corruption, with historic ties to Russia, seems like the ideal breeding ground for the growth of such political parties. However, this election has shown that policies hovering around the centre, with nuanced positions on relations with Europe and Russia is a winning formula on the ballot. Conversely, the threat of political instability remains. Bulgaria just held its third election in four years, and the winning party did not secure a majority. It will require the help of far-right parties to form a government. Coalition politics is fraught with uncertainty, and ineffective governance may tilt voters towards populist, shortsighted rhetoric that will appeal to their grievances.
The upcoming presidential election in France is being seen as a barometer of nationalist parties in Europe. It would be wise to refrain from interpreting the Bulgarian result as such.