Election preview: Bulgaria

The weekend’s second major election takes place tomorrow, when Bulgarians vote in what looks as if it might be a real cliffhanger.

The election is being held a couple of months early, following the resignation in February of the centre-right government of Boiko Borisov (there has been a caretaker government in place since then). Borisov had been in power since 2009 and under him Bulgaria had navigated the European financial crisis about as well as anyone.

As in other parts of the continent, however, austerity measures are the subject of increasing unpopularity, and when mass demonstrations earlier this year turned violent, Borisov took responsibility by resigning. According to the BBC, he said “I will not participate in a government under which police are beating people.”

For a while, this gesture of decency looked like paying off. At the time, Borisov’s party, GERB, was almost neck-and-neck in the opinion polls with the opposition social democrats, but in the ensuing weeks it opened up a substantial lead – not enough for an absolute majority, but enough to be confident of being able to govern in conjunction with smaller parties (more about them shortly).

In the last week or so, however, the polls have swung against the centre-right, and the two main parties are back to being basically level. The swing has been helped by a wiretapping scandal centred on former interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, who also happens to be GERB’s campaign manager. More worryingly, the polls also show a surge in support for the far-right nationalist party, Attack.

The good news is that the other minor parties likely to be represented in the new parliament are basically centrist and able to work with either side: the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a liberal party based in the Turkish community that has been in coalition with both centre-right and centre-left in the past, and the “Bulgaria of the Citizens” movement, a new pro-European party that would probably be more at home with the centre-right.

There are also smaller conservative and liberal groups, but neither at present looks like reaching the 4% threshold for representation.

Voting is by proportional representation (D’Hondt) of party lists, but with an additional 31 seats (of a total of 240) elected as single members by first-past-the-post, one from each province plus the two major cities. GERB did particularly well out of those additional seats in 2009, winning 26 of them; without that, it would have had to rely on other parties to form a majority.

Unless the late swing against it has further to run, GERB seems likely to be better placed to put together a new government. The social democrats, having been in government at the time the financial crisis first hit, are still widely blamed for it (an oddly parochial attitude that is certainly not confined to Bulgaria). But it is also possible that the far-right will do well enough to force the two major parties to co-operate, at least tacitly.

(Results should be available here on Monday morning, Australian time; Bulgarian isn’t as hard to read as it looks, but it’s still not easy.)

Among the formerly communist states of central and eastern Europe, Bulgaria is in some ways the most striking success story. It is still poorer and less stable than, say, Slovenia, Czechia, Poland or the Baltic states, but it started without any of the supposed advantages of those countries. It was never part of the “westernised” world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – never ruled from Vienna, Berlin or Stockholm; for centuries it was part of the Ottoman empire, and to a large extent it still looks more to Russia than to the west (the Cyrillic alphabet helps to shield it from western influence).

Yet seven orderly elections in a row, with several peaceful transfers of power, have shown Bulgaria becoming increasingly comfortable with democracy. Tomorrow will give it another opportunity to demonstrate that commitment.

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