Election preview: Bulgaria

Electoral activity mostly takes a break for Easter, but there’s one important election on at the weekend. Bulgaria votes on Sunday, with its autocratic prime minister Boyko Borisov facing a difficult task to hold on to power.

At the last election, four years ago, five parties made it into parliament (there’s a 4% threshold; otherwise the system is mostly proportional). Borisov’s centre-right party, GERB, topped the poll with 32.7% and 95 of the 240 seats. The opposition Socialists had 27.2% and 80 seats; the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which is centrist but also represents the Turkish minority, had 9.0% and 26 seats; and two right-wing groups, the United Patriots (nationalist) and Volya (Eurosceptic populists), had 13.2% and 39 seats between them.

Borisov formed a coalition with the United Patriots (the latter has since split and its main component, IMRO, is running alone). It has served a full term, but not without incident: last year Bulgaria was rocked by massive anti-government protests over the government’s politicisation of the justice system and its apparent links with organised crime. Leading figures in DPS were also badly compromised.

But the prime minister hung on, and although GERB took a hit in the opinion polls it is still polling in the mid- to high 20s, level with or slightly ahead of the Socialists. DPS has also maintained its support. The far right, however, has dropped off and may disappear from parliament altogether: IMRO is averaging around 4% and Volya about half that.

With those numbers, it seems unlikely that either GERB or the Socialists will be able to put together a majority, even with the support of DPS. Instead, the balance of power will be held by the various reformist and anti-corruption movements that want a much more thorough clean-out of the system. Three of them look like winning seats: There Are Such People, which is polling in the mid-teens, and Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up.BG, each polling in the mid single figures.

The reformists have all vowed that under no circumstances will they support another GERB government. They are clearly not keen on the Socialists either, whom they regard – not unreasonably – as part of the same corrupt system. But unless GERB and the Socialists are willing to work together, it looks as if there will be no alternative to some sort of co-operation between the various anti-Borisov forces.

Last time around, in line with the then-prevailing zeitgeist, I expressed concern about the likely influence of the far right in government, and while its electoral support has declined, many of its policies do seem to have seeped into the mainstream. Peter Bankov, writing for the London School of Economics, remarks that “most of its competitors have co-opted its views in their manifestos,” a phenomenon by no means confined to Eastern Europe.

But the bigger threat turned out to be not far-right populism but old-fashioned corruption and mafia politics. Last year saw major blows struck against similar regimes in Slovakia and Montenegro; Sunday will be an opportunity for Bulgaria to join them and to start making some repairs to its faltering democracy.

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