Bulgaria’s parliamentary elections and the regional effect

Bulgaria’s parliamentary elections and the regional effect

The split between the country’s prime minister and president has been a key feature of the campaign.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

In the Bulgarian parliamentary elections on April 4, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov is expected to maintain power with the support of his nationalist coalition.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Borissov’s main opposition is the Bulgarian Socialist Party as well as President Rumen Radev, who has alleged Borissov’s government is mafia-controlled.
– Borissov has built a nationalist coalition around inter-Balkan issues, including opposing North Macedonia’s EU accession talks over a language dispute.
– COVID-19, nationalism, corruption and security concerns are likely to be the main issues for voters, but Borissov risks intensifying inter-Balkan divisions as opposed to redressing voters’ EU concerns

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov is looking to keep his party in power at parliamentary elections set for April 4. Announced in January by President Rumen Radev, the elections follow months of anti-government protests. Radev, in his campaign announcement for re-election as president later this year, cited his candidacy as an ‘honest move for citizens and political figures’ in opposition to what he describes as Borissov’s ‘mafia’ government. For his part, Borissov has sought to portray Radev as soft on corruption and human rights and has criticised him for his silence over the detention of Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny. Radev views Borissov as a corrupt, even criminal figure, but Borissov has insisted that he is a ‘European’ leader who is keen on preserving a ‘Euro-Atlantic partnership’ that adheres to the rule of law. In this politically volatile environment, the election is shaping up to be a referendum on Borissov himself — with a strong focus on his leadership, allegations of corruption and ties to wealthy oligarchs.

THE STAKES

Photo: @Zoran_Zaev/Twitter

Borissov’s ruling Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party is a populist political faction that is currently leading in the polls with 28% support. Those same polls indicate that the GERB will face off against the social-democratic Bulgarian Socialist Party, which is currently polling in second place with around 24% support. In his push to defeat the Socialist Party, Borissov has tried to shift the narrative from one of corruption within his own party to the corruption scandals of his opponents and their alleged weak stance on organised crime. Both parties have also attacked each other for their close relations with Moscow, including to Kremlin-linked oligarchs. Radev has supported the protest movement against Borissov and has even claimed his government is controlled by the “mafia” due to its links to the Kremlin. After a year of the COVID-19 pandemic and strong anti-government sentiment towards the influence of Moscow over Borissov’s government, attacking Kremlin links may prove effective to those voters seeking a dramatic improvement in their living standards. Bulgaria’s economic growth is likely to come from a reformed, liberalised economy more in line with EU standards as opposed to dovetailing with Russian interests.

Radev’s main argument for national unity and his own re-election as president stems from his calls to maintain civil discourse and empower Bulgarian citizens rather than inflame existing divisions with Bulgaria’s neighbours. His campaign announcement and support for anti-Borissov protesters form pillars of his campaign to appear aligned with the people over entrenched interests. In contrast, during his time in office, Borissov has built a nationalist coalition that confronted inter-Balkan issues with a strong focus on issues of identity and culture. One such example is the stalling of North Macedonia’s accession to the EU over a language dispute — Sofia is pressing Skopje to acknowledge that its language is in fact a regional dialect of Bulgarian. Skopje’s recent census has also drawn disagreements over the actual size of the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia and that population’s right to self-determination. Radev has called for calm in resolving the dispute, saying negotiations cannot begin in earnest until “objective historical facts are acknowledged” and the elimination of hate speech is “viable and irreversible.” However, like Borissov, Radev has raised concerns over discrimination against Bulgarians in North Macedonia, who he feels are targeted for their “national self-awareness.”

The economic effects of COVID-19 are also likely to weigh heavily on voters’ minds. While Bulgaria announced that COVID-19 vaccinations were available for all in late February, the country has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe at less than 1%. Vaccine hesitancy is high, with 52% of Bulgarians saying that they did not wish to be immediately vaccinated, according to a recent poll. Borissov also decided to suspend the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine after the death of a woman in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Vaccination delays and a prolonged recovery are likely to affect both the parliamentary election and presidential vote later this year.

THE PATH FOR BULGARIA

Photo: New Democracy/Flickr

Front and centre of the parliamentary election are likely to be COVID-19, nationalism, and regional security and corruption concerns. GERB has pledged to confront all four, but Borissov’s coalition is more likely to focus on inter-Balkan issues as opposed to addressing domestic corruption. Bulgaria currently ranks last amongst all EU and NATO members in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, leading to calls from Washington and Brussels for the rule of law and democracy to be upheld. Many commentators have remarked that Borissov’s close ties to oligarchs are a symbol of Bulgaria’s democratic deficit. However, both GERB and the Socialist Party have built relationships with Moscow that support Russian interests in the Balkans — usually in opposition to the EU and NATO. Considering the Kremlin’s influence over both major parties, it’s unlikely that a change in government will signal a major shift in the oligarchic nature of Bulgarian politics, at least in the short term.

Beyond Russian influence in Bulgaria, the battle over North Macedonia also serves Moscow’s agenda by stymying the EU’s expansion and weakening Brussels’ authority within its own sphere of influence. As North Macedonia is also on the ballot in Bulgaria, an expected GERB victory will determine the future usage of Bulgaria’s veto power and control over Skopje’s path to accession. A competitive showing from the Socialist Party could serve to weaken Borissov’s governing mandate and push Borissov to soften his approach. However, given that Borissov’s support base is largely nationalist, he is likely to play up divisions with North Macedonia in the short-term for political gain. North Macedonia’s leadership has pursued similar tactics in the past, and the two nations are likely to feed off each other for their respective domestic political futures.

Relations between North Macedonia and Bulgaria are likely to remain tense if Borissov’s nationalist coalition continues to govern. In 2017, the United Patriots, a coalition of nationalist parties, became a minority partner in Borissov’s government, which lasted until the United Patriots were disbanded in 2019. GERB does not identify as a nationalist party and is a member of the European People’s Party grouping in the European Parliament, which mainly includes centre-right parties from across Europe. However, Borissov’s coalition government has moved further right in recent years and relied on the support of nationalist parties that have embraced anti-immigrant positions. From the migrant crisis in 2014-2015 to North Macedonia’s EU accession, Borissov’s voting bloc has few qualms about taking a provocative stance towards Brussels.

As Brussels continues to determine the path forward for the bloc’s vaccine roll-out, including the use of export controls, Bulgaria’s economy will likely take time to recover from COVID-19. The pandemic hit Bulgaria at a time of economic growth. However, improvements for Bulgaria’s infrastructure, living standards, and regulatory and business climate will be needed, according to a recent OECD report. Tackling corruption and organised crime is also likely to be a critical component of Bulgaria’s economic recovery. As such, Radev’s calls to rid Bulgaria of a ‘mafia’ government may connect with voters who are dissatisfied with the degree of state capture by special interests.

The potential for corruption and government mismanagement, combined with a staggered vaccine rollout, may work against Borissov. But a win for Borissov is likely to represent a nationalist rallying cry that could bring more restrictive immigration policies as well as economic policies that favour the oligarchic elite, whilst protecting the powerful from prosecution. The long-term risk is that Borissov’s policies would rally Bulgarian voters to view relations with their neighbours through a narrow nationalist lens rather than in the broader context of the EU.