It’s still “hurricane season” in European party politics. In Bulgaria’s April 4 parliamentary elections, a quarter of voters backed Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, the center-right party of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov that is commonly known as GERB. But new parties that campaigned with an anti-corruption message did unexpectedly well, which means Borissov has no clear pathway to form a governing coalition. Two scenarios seem likely — a coalition of the newcomers or a caretaker government and early elections.
Here are four main takeaways.
Even a strong political record doesn’t mean a candidate is unassailable
Borissov has won every single election since 2007 and has served as prime minister for much of the past decade. GERB’s campaign focused on Borissov’s experience and his record of delivering the goods. His Facebook feed was full of posts showing the Bulgarian premier traveling around the country in his Jeep visiting roads, schools and churches — all built during GERB’s time in government.
But the infrastructure projects were not enough to repeat the success of four years ago. Many of the tenders associated with the projects seemed to benefit GERB friends and associates more than the Bulgarian population. The graft and cronyism provoked the rebuke of the European Anti-Fraud Office, and widespread demonstrations last fall fueled the fires of new parties.
Anti-corruption and celebrity appeals work
New parties using an anti-corruption or celebrity platform to achieve electoral success in Central and Eastern Europe is nothing new. That very recipe helped the former czar of Bulgaria, Simeon II, win the 2001 election and Borissov himself storm to victory in 2009. In 2021, nearly 1 in 5 voters cast their ballots for an anti-corruption party formed just last year, There is Such a People, led by media star Slavi Trifonov.
Trifonov, a talk-show host and popular TV personality, played a major role in garnering the votes from the rural parts of the country. But his appeal also owed much to his pop-folk music, which struck a chord with voters attracted by its homeland undertones. In a campaign in which the pandemic meant online campaigning became even more important, Trifonov used his media appearances, including his own TV station, and virtual concerts to spread his anti-corruption and anti-status quo message to voters at home and abroad alike.
The anti-corruption message was also central to two new parties that secured seats in parliament: Democratic Bulgaria and Maya Manolova’s Stand Up! Thugs Out!, which won nearly 10 percent and 5 percent of the vote, respectively. Democratic Bulgaria’s co-chair, Hristo Ivanov, and Manolova both were skilled at staging initiatives that exposed corrupt practices. This highlighted both the power of the anti-corruption message, but also the increasingly fragmented party scene in Bulgaria as many politicians attempted to ride the wave of the protest vote.
Personality politics tend to create fragmented party systems
With Borissov’s center-right GERB under pressure, we might have expected the left or the far right to have benefited. But the Bulgarian Socialist Party, once the country’s dominant political machine on the left, failed to capitalize. Party leader Korneliya Ninova seemed to have spent more time in the past few months fighting and alienating other factions of her party than laying gloves on Borissov.
The far right also suffered from personality feuds and splits, abandoning the brief unity that gained it a slice of power in 2017. In Sunday’s election, these parties lost more than a third of the pro-nationalist vote registered in the previous elections.
Of all the long-standing parties, only the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which draws most of its support from ethnic Turkish voters, held up well.
Where does this leave Bulgaria’s next government?
Bulgaria’s new parliament will have six parties. Since no one party has a majority of the seats, some combination of parties will need to agree to collaborate to create a government.
It is doubtful Borissov will be able to hang onto power, as that would mean striking some difficult deals. It is also hard to imagine some of the other parties agreeing to collaborate with Borissov to form a government, given their anti-corruption appeals and pre-election promises not to work with GERB’s leader.
Trifonov and his anti-corruption party may hold the key. If he were to work with Borissov, it would disappoint many of his voters. If Borissov fails to form a government, he must hand off his mandate to Trifonov. Finding consensus with other anti-corruption parties and beyond would be important to Trifonov’s success in forming a governing coalition. In the meantime, the prospects of a caretaker government and another election in fall 2021 are already dominating discussions.
To Bulgarians, corruption was a bigger concern than covid-19
The pandemic is affecting elections around the world — but the Bulgarian elections suggest its impact may be more indirect than some commentators indicate. The pandemic changed campaigning, accelerating a trend toward greater use of online tools and social media.
Covid-19 also changed voting behavior. Part of the Socialists’ disappointing result may reflect the choice of some older voters not to go out to cast their ballots. But overall turnout was comparable to four years ago, which suggests the theme of corruption was a powerful driver, not just to persuade Bulgarians to turn out, but to cast their ballots for the parties challenging the status quo.
Emilia Zankina is dean of Temple University Rome. Yuxiang Lin is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham. Tim Haughton is associate professor of European politics at the University of Birmingham. Find him on Twitter @HaughtonTim.