Earlier this year, Israel held its fourth election in the space of just under two years, a record apparently without precedent. Now Bulgaria has set an equally unenviable mark: it goes to the polls on Sunday for its third election in the calendar year, something that as far as I can tell, no democratic country has done before.
Among the various ingredients people point to in the apparent decline of faith in democracy, one that’s rarely mentioned is early elections. Pundits and political professionals love early elections; they don’t want to say anything that might discourage them. But the reality is that an early election is a confession of political failure. If they become routine, voters conclude, not unreasonably, that the system just isn’t working.
And that’s certainly how Bulgaria looks. You can read my report on the last election, in July, and on the subsequent failure to form a government. Basically the parliament is divided between the old parties – widely seen as corrupt, but still commanding a majority between them – and newer anti-system parties. The latter won’t work with any of the old parties, and the historic rivals among the old parties won’t co-operate. So there’s a deadlock, which voters are again being asked to sort out.
But the novelty with this third election is that there’s a presidential election being held at the same time. Incumbent Rumen Radev is seeking a second term in office; nominally independent, he is backed by the Socialists, the traditional centre-left party, as well as two of the anti-system parties, ITN and Stand Up!, plus the new liberal group We Continue the Change (PP).
Radev has a big lead in the polls. There are 23 candidates running against him (nomination rules are apparently very liberal), but the main challenger is Anastas Gerdjikov, a professor of literature who is backed by GERB, the traditional centre-right party. If neither wins an outright majority, they will go to a runoff a week later.
Although the president is a Westminster-style figurehead, it’s possible that with a renewed mandate Radev will feel able to impose some order on the party situation. It’s not clear that the parliamentary election on its own will help much. ITN, which narrowly led the field last time, has dropped back in the polls, leaving GERB set to be the largest party. GERB, the Socialists and the Turkish/centrist DPS are attracting about half the vote in aggregate, so will probably again have a majority.
Arrayed against them will be PP, ITN, Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up!, although Stand Up! is at risk of falling below the 4% threshold. On the other hand it’s possible that either or both of the far-right tickets (Patriotic Front and Revival), which just fell short last time, will make it into parliament.
There’s movement elsewhere in eastern Europe as well. In Romania, where last month the government of centre-right prime minister Florin Cîțu fell on a no-confidence vote, two unsuccessful attempts have now been made to replace him. First Dacian Cioloș, leader of the centrist USR (which had provoked the crisis by leaving the government), was nominated, but he was rejected by a large margin in parliament.
President Klaus Iohannis then turned to defence minister Nicolae Ciucă, but he gave up the attempt last week, saying that a minority centre-right government was doomed by the “mathematical reality”. Iohannis will now consult with other parties in the hope of being able to avoid a fresh election.
North Macedonia has also lost a prime minister, with Zoran Zaev resigning last week as both prime minister and leader of the centre-left Social Democrats after his party did poorly in local elections. It’s not expected, however, that an immediate election will be required; the existing governing coalition should be able to carry on under a new leader.
Meanwhile in Czechia, a new government is finally on the point of being formed following last month’s election. As I tipped last week, president Miloš Zeman, who is still in hospital but no longer in intensive care, has formally invited Civic Democrat leader Petr Fiala to be the new prime minister. Fiala has already signed a coalition agreement between his Spolu group and the Pirates-STAN group, and between them they have a clear majority in the new parliament.
And finally on Bosnia & Herzegovina: further to my post earlier this week, there’s now a very good report by Una Hajdari at Politico that clearly explains what’s at stake. She quotes a Croatian expert saying (I fear all too accurately) that “the lack of understanding of the situation in Bosnia — by the EU, in particular — is huge, and that unfortunately, the EU will pay the highest price for this lack of understanding and lack of timely reactions.”