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Pandemic, protests and corruption: a difficult scenario after the Bulgarian elections

Bulgaria is not only the poorest country in the European Union, it also has the worst corruption rates (according to Transparency International) and the least press freedom in the bloc (according to Reporters Without Borders); this is why the emergence of a popular figure in opposition to the traditional parties and to a questioned status quo, was so promising. However, the government leader resigned twice as Prime Minister and was elected again both times. Will he be able to do it again?
By Ignacio E. Hutin

Boiko Borískov

The elections in Bulgaria mark the beginning of a turbulent and uncertain path. Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), which has been in power since 2014, took first place again, but did so with only 25%. This makes it the victorious party with the lowest percentage of votes since the fall of communism in 1990. It would be a feat for Prime Minister Boiko Borisov to succeed in forming a government with so little support. At the same time, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the main opposition and second in the last four elections, barely obtained 14%, practically half of the votes it got four years ago, and fell to third place. This kind of punishment to the traditional parties had a clear winner, a new, outsider party, which took second place, over 17% of the votes and which has a curious and untranslatable name: something like “There is Such a People” (ITN).

ITN proclaims itself anti-establishment and has only a handful of proposals, including  Director del Museo Internacional para la Democracia. integration with the European Union and the implementation of electronic voting. Its leader is Stanislav Trifonov, better known as "Slavi", musician and television host. His entertainment program The Slavi Show ran between 2000 and 2019 and was extremely popular, both in Bulgaria and with Bulgarians abroad. During the last year, he managed to transfer that popularity from show business to party politics, in a process not so different from that of the American Donald Trump or the actor’s Volodímir Zelenski, current president of Ukraine.

Trifonov began participating in politics in 2020, amid a series of protests for various causes of corruption linked to GERB and for the massive use of state resources in favor of the ruling party, as denounced by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in the framework of the electoral campaign. Bulgaria is not only the poorest country in the European Union, it also has the worst corruption rates (according to Transparency International) and the least press freedom in the bloc (according to Reporters Without Borders); this is why the emergence of a popular figure in opposition to the traditional parties and to a questioned status quo, was so promising.

Slavi appears as announced by a luminous sign: "here is Slavi, ready to break with everything that you already know". But the problem is to elucidate what this showman wants, especially now that he has the possibility of forming a government coalition. And nobody really knows because the TV host even refused to participate in debates during the campaign. Still, ITN was the most voted force among young people under 30 and also among votes cast from abroad, perhaps the latter justified by the popularity of the television show outside of Bulgaria.

Although the fall of the traditional parties cannot be explained outside the scenario of strong social discontent, it is difficult to justify the high percentage of votes that ITN received. After all, Slavi did not actively and visibly participate in the numerous protests that took place across the country since last July. Nor can reasons be found in GERB's mediocre handling of the Coronavirus pandemic, because ITN's proposals in this regard have been more skeptical than constructive. Perhaps then the only answer is the anti-vote, the anti-political vote or, better yet, the punishment vote. As if the voters were unaware of the correct path, but were certain that the current one isn’t it.

Three other forces passed the 4% threshold and managed to enter Parliament, in addition to GERB, which aspires to remain in power, the new and disruptive ITN and Socialism, successor to the Communist Party, dissolved in 1990. Two of these three parties are new. Democratic Bulgaria (DB) is a liberal and pro-European Union coalition, made up of three extra-parliamentary parties that individually averaged 3% in 2017. The second is highly related to ITN in the sense that it is ambiguous in political terms, it proclaims itself anti-corruption and it has a name, at least, curious: Stand up! Mafia out! Just like that, with exclamation marks. Better known by its acronym ISMV, this coalition is led by Maia Manolova, a former Ombudsman and ex member of socialism.

Finally, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a party that represents the Turkish minority in Bulgaria, also won seats. In recent years, the DPS consolidated itself as a third force acting as an intermediary between BSP and GERB, the two main parties. But in 2017 that role was filled by the ultra-nationalist United Patriots (OP), which included ATAKA, a particularly racist group that speaks out against immigration, refugees, Jews, Muslims and Gypsies, and claims to protect the true identity of Bulgaria. In previous elections, OP had obtained a surprising third place, perhaps justified by the 2015 migration crisis in the European Union, when close to a million refugees, especially Syrians, arrived in the region. Then Bulgaria received less than 40 thousand and built a wall on its border with Turkey. ATAKA held numerous demonstrations against the opening of borders, the teaching of the Turkish language and the construction of mosques, and called for immigrants to be “hunted”. Now, with the migration crisis over, ultranationalism lost its arguments and also its seats in the National Assembly: it barely reached 3.5%. ATAKA, which is no longer part of the coalition, did not get even half a percentage point.

United Patriots was part of the government together with GERB, which led to radicalize the ruling party from 2017. But this alliance has disappeared and Borísov has been left alone. Although forming a government will be complex for any of the forces, even in the emergency scenario of a pandemic, everything indicates that the political career of the Bulgarian boss is on the tightrope. However, the GERB leader carries a curious background: before ruling the capital Sofia and eventually the country, he was the bodyguard of the last communist leader; he was a firefighter, karate fighter and also the oldest professional footballer in the history of his country. He then resigned twice as Prime Minister and was re-elected twice. If he could do well after such chameleon career, maybe now he will too.

Ignacio E. Hutin
Ignacio E. Hutin
Advisory Councelor
Master in International Relations (University of Salvador, 2021), Graduate in Journalism (University of Salvador, 2014), specialized in Leadership in Humanitarian Emergencies (National Defense University, 2019) and studied photography (ARGRA, 2009). He is a focused in Eastern Europe, post-Soviet Eurasia and the Balkans. He received a scholarship from the Finnish State to carry out studies related to the Arctic at the University of Lapland (2012). He is the author of the books Saturn (2009), Deconstruction: Chronicles and Reflections from Post-Communist Eastern Europe (2018), Ukraine/Donbass: A Renewed Cold War (2021), and Ukraine: Chronicle from the Frontlines (2021).

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