Bulgaria goes to the polls on Sunday for its fifth general election in a little under two years, a record that seems to be without parallel. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a sign that its democracy was never as robust as the optimists (of whom I was one) suggested, or that its democracy is actually in rather good shape, since in most places an autocrat would have seized power before things got to this point.
The basic problem is that Bulgarian politics is divided between establishment and reformist forces, and each side is further divided ideologically. With the outbreak of war in Ukraine the ideological divide has become more salient, leading to the breakup of the reformist government that was formed after the November 2021 election (number three in the series).
At the following election (number four), held last October, the establishment parties won a majority between them. But no government could be formed because they were divided between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces, and the reformists refused to work with the main establishment party, GERB. So the voters are again being asked to try to sort out the mess.
There’s a 4% threshold for representation. Seven parties cleared it last time; since then the two main reformist parties have merged into a single ticket, and the polls say that Bulgarian Rise (pro-Russian nationalists), which just made it last time with 4.6%, will struggle to get back. That leaves five parties seemingly assured of seats: three establishment (centre-right, centrist and centre-left), the merged reformist list PP-DB, and the far-right Revival.
Also within reach of the threshold are Bulgarian Rise, the reformist-populist ITN, which dropped out last time with 3.8%, and a new left-wing ticket, called simply The Left!, which is reformist but pro-Russian. If the polls are right, PP-DB and GERB will fight out first place, well clear of the others, and will almost certainly have a majority between them. The question is whether this time they will find a way to co-operate.
Both are broadly centre-to-centre-right and pro-Ukrainian. But GERB, led by oligarch and three-time prime minister Boyko Borisov, is the classic establishment party, while the reformists are determined to clean up establishment corruption. For them to work together, one or both are going to have to make some huge compromises.
Yet if they don’t, it’s hard to see any alternative. The pro-Russians are not going to win a majority, and their internal politics would be just as fractious even if they did. There’s an outside chance that PP-DB and the centrist establishment party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), could win a majority between them, but DPS by reputation is even more steeped in corruption and mafia politics than GERB.
For more background, you can study my previous reports on this remarkable series here, although I fear it does get a bit repetitive:
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