Election preview: Bulgaria

Bulgaria goes to the polls on Sunday in a parliamentary election that, like pretty much everything else these days, is being seen as a test for the far right.

Although it remains the poorest country in the European Union (which it joined in 2007), Bulgaria’s transition to democracy has been very successful. There have been regular corruption scandals and outbursts of public anger, but they have not led to either a breakdown in the party system or to a retreat from liberalism, as in some neighboring countries.

Since the last election, in 2014, attention has shifted from financial problems to immigration, with Bulgaria on the front line of the refugee crisis. As in other countries of the region, the government has tacked to the right in an attempt to forestall support for populist anti-immigrant parties. If the polls are right, that attempt has been reasonably successful.

The last election saw eight parties pass the 4% threshold for representation in parliament. (Voting is D’Hondt proportional within each of 31 multi-member electorates.) Almost half the vote went to the two major parties: the centre-right GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) with 32.7% and 84 of the 240 seats, and the centre-left Bulgarian Socialist Party with 15.3% and 39 seats.

Another 38 seats went to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a liberal party that also represents the interests of the country’s Turkish minority and has typically been available as a coalition partner for the Socialists. Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV), another centrist party, won 11 seats.

The remaining 68 seats were shared among four right-of-centre parties. Arranged from moderate to far right, they were the Reformist Bloc (23), Bulgaria Without Censorship (15), the Patriotic Front (19) and Attack (11). GERB was able to form government in coalition with the Reformist Bloc and ABV and with support from the Patriotic Front, and its leader Boyko Borisov returned as prime minister – he had previously served in the job from 2009 to 2013.

The second Borisov government brought some needed stability to Bulgaria after its second successive early election. But trouble arose last year; first ABV walked out of the coalition, then in November the government’s candidate was defeated in presidential elections by the Socialist-supported Rumen Radev. Borisov resigned, and since no-one else could form a government, another early election has been the result.

Expectations are that the new parliament will be a bit simpler than the old one. The Patriotic Front and Attack have joined forces with other populist and far-right groups as the United Patriots; ABV and Bulgaria Without Censorship (now running as “Reload Bulgaria”) both look like falling below the 4% threshold, and it’s possible the Reformist Bloc may join them.

Polls show GERB and the Socialists again winning a majority of seats between them, with GERB probably holding a slight lead. Neither wants to link up with the United Patriots, who are tracking around 10% in the polls – which, despite the controversy over immigration and relations with Turkey (always a sensitive point in Bulgaria), is no more than their component parties won last time.

Instead the possible coalition partners will be DPS, the Reformist Bloc (assuming they make it back), and a new populist centre party, Volya (“Will”), led by prominent businessman Veselin Mareshki. Also attempting to reach the threshold will be the Greens (known as “Yes, Bulgaria”) and a new pro-Turkish party, DOST.

As I said after the 2013 election, “every country’s politics looks dysfunctional if you look closely enough.” For all of the difficulties that its history and geography have thrown at it, what seems most striking about Bulgaria is the way that its major parties have retained most of their support base and have done so without turning their back on liberal democracy. Let’s hope that Sunday doesn’t break with that trend.

Polls close at 8pm local time, which since Bulgaria goes onto daylight saving the previous night is 4am Monday in eastern Australia. Results should be reasonably complete by breakfast time.

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