Bulgaria’s elections: change we disbelieve in

A mixed result offers some satisfaction to all of Bulgaria's largest parties. But signs of escape from the country's political and economic troubles are elusive, says Dimitar Bechev.

“If elections changed anything they would have them banned”.  So read a well-known piece of Sofia graffiti some years ago. Bulgaria’s parliamentary polls on 12 May 2013 seem to confirm the unknown author’s bitter cynicism. The chances are he or she was among the almost half of Bulgaria's electorate that did not turn up at the voting booths. The low turnout is striking, given that as recently as February, economic hardship and widespread resentment of the political class propelled thousands onto the streets of Sofia, Varna and other big cities voicing demands for a complete overhaul of “the system”.

Three months on, it is apathy that prevails, not the will to install fresh faces in parliament. More than one grouping claimed to represent the protesters, but none made it past the 4% threshold. As I wrote in March, Bulgaria isn’t getting its own Beppe Grillo or Alexis Tsipras (see "Bulgaria's anger, the real source", 14 March 2013)

Everyone's a winner

On 14 May, Bulgaria's central electoral commission made it official: only four parties will adorn Bulgaria’s legislature. Each has a special reason to be jubilant. The former prime minister Boyko Borisov caught his centre-right party GERB by surprise when he suddenly resigned in February. The gambit paid off: GERB (the acronym of "Citizens for European Development for Bulgaria", but also means “coat of arms”) became the first governing party since 1989 to obtain the highest share of the vote (30.5%). This despite an endless stream of scandals surrounding Borisov and GERB, up to the very eve of the vote (when its alleged printing of fake ballots grabbed the headlines).

Despite this record, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) could only come second with 26.6%. Yet the other two parties who will be represented in parliament, the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (MRF) and Ataka, the former leading party is a much more attractive coalition partner than GERB. They too have much to be happy about. The MRF, representing chiefly Bulgaria’s Turks and Muslims, came third with 11.2%; this makes it the chief kingmaker, as it was in the coalition administrations in 2001-09. But to form a government the BSP and MRF will need support from the populist xenophobes of Ataka, which won 7%.

To put together sworn adversaries, including ultranationalists and a minority party, is a tall order - though, as cynics would hasten to say, also perfectly possible in Bulgarian politics. Already, talks are underway in which the socialists are trying to soften Ataka. The prospects are not that bad. There is no love lost between Ataka and GERB, especially since Borisov singlehandedly destroyed the extremists' caucus in the previous parliament by co-opting several of their MPs. Ataka’s firebrand leader Volen Siderov, riding high on the wave of popular discontent, has enjoyed pillorying foreign businesses over the “colonial yoke” they have imposed on downtrodden Bulgarians. Ataka's advance means he now has few reasons to see this parliament dissolved and face new elections. No doubt he is also tempted by the glimmer of power. That makes weeks of haggling likely.

It's cold outside

But if all four parties have reason to celebrate, not everyone is happy with the election outcome, beginning with the 24% who voted for parties that finished under the threshold. The most eminent casualties are the heirs of the anti-communist opposition of the 1990s, whose two formations - Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB), led by ex-prime minister Ivan Kostov, and the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), the traditional centre-right - are not in parliament for the first time. The Citizens' Movement headed by Meglena Kuneva, former  negotiator of Bulgaria's accession to the European Union and Brussels commissioner - who won a respectable 14% in the 2011 presidential elections - also failed to qualify for the legislature.

The failure of these political currents legitimises Borisov’s argument that he stands for the "respectable", pro-EU right. After four years of rule by his GERB party, with their recurrent corruption-linked scandals, overly cozy ties with oligarchs, and pandering to special interests, a good many urban, well-educated, middle-class Bulgarians will strongly disagree. At the same timer, few of them are convinced that the post-communist BSP is the lesser evil. They are even unimpressed by the party’s nominee for prime minister, Plamen Oresharski, a respected ex-finance minister who switched from the centre-right to the socialist side. 

Whoever manages to form a government won’t have an easy time in power. An unwieldy coalition, a sluggish economy amidst the crisis paralysing the whole of the EU - all this is a daunting prospect. After all, the next administration might have a rather short lifespan and Bulgarians could be heading to the polls once more before the end of 2013. In such circumstances, Borisov and GERB might simply decide to bide their time in opposition until the wind starts blowing in the right direction.

Yet losing power doesn’t feel good. Bulgaria's prosecutor-general Sotir Tsatsarov, seen during his appointment as a puppet of GERB, has sought to assert his independence and press charges against former interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, Borisov’s right-hand man, over alleged abuse of power and eavesdropping on leading politicians and other public figures. And the previously pro-GERB New Bulgaria Media Group, a dominant player in the market, has overnight turned against the ex-prime minister and his entourage. Life in opposition is certainly no fun.

The waiting game

Anyone anticipating that Bulgaria would be a different place after this vote turns out to have been terribly mistaken. There is, though, at least a word to be said in favour of continuity. For, contrary to the alarmist tone of some western media reports, Bulgaria is not on the verge of collapse. A virulent campaign hasn’t quite climaxed in mutual accusation that the election was rigged. Volen Siderov’s strong performance doesn’t quite mean a backlash against the minorities he is so fond of scapegoating. (So British prime minister David Cameron needn't lose sleep in fear of thousands of Bulgarian Roma arriving at the white cliffs of Dover with the sole intention of milking public services.) The street-protests have subsided, and Eurobarometer polls show that the EU remains as popular as it was in 2007 when Bulgaria joined.

Yet in the final analysis, “same old” is Bulgaria’s bane. Any chance that the upcoming coalition can or will do much to improve Bulgaria’s standing on critical issues - rule of law, quality of governance, healthcare, education, pensions, and not to forget, jobs and growth - is slim. If this is change, it is change to disbelieve in. But let’s hope I - and that anonymous graffiti-writer - will be proven wrong.

About the author

Dimitar Bechev is senior research fellow and head of the Sofia office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He is editor of What Does Turkey Think (ECFR, June 2011), a collection of essays by Turkish analysts, policymakers and academics exploring the country’s rapid domestic transformation and dynamic foreign policy