Bulgarians are preparing to vote in the third general election within a year on November 14, to be held at the same time as the presidential election and amid the severe fourth wave of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, economic and political instability and a deeply divided society.
The simultaneous votes — the first two-in-one for Bulgaria — is set to secure President Rumen Radev an easy victory and second term but to produce yet another highly fragmented parliament, just like the elections in April and July did.
While yet another snap election is already seen as the most likely outcome, perhaps the best hope of forming a new government lies with the new Change Continues formation, which could bring together a range of smaller reform-minded parties, though it’s uncertain whether their combined votes would add up to a majority.
Polls are putting Change Continues, founded recently by former caretaker ministers Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev, in second place behind former prime minister Boyko Borissov’s Gerb, but the latter would have a much tougher time putting together a coalition.
Change Continues is set to be backed by between 13% and 16% of voters after stealing voters from all formations, including Gerb, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), reformist Democratic Bulgaria and Stand up.BG! We Are Coming! Most of its supporters are those who previously backed popular showman Slavi Trifonov’s vehicle There Are Such People (ITN), whose support has slumped since it won the July election.
Change Continues pledges to bring transparency, zero tolerance for corruption and reforms in key sectors. Petkov and Vassilev have said they would work with all parties and formations except Gerb and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS). The party is seen as having the potential to unite various formations in parliament that could not otherwise work together. Theoretically, it could form a majority coalition if it brings together the BSP (with around 15% of the votes), Democratic Bulgaria (around 9%) and ITN (around 12%). However, these formations would still need a few more MPs for a stable majority.
Petkov has said the formation has the potential to overtake Gerb and win the election if the turnout is high. There is speculation the huge number of new coronavirus cases — 3,853 new cases were recorded in the last 24 hours — might frighten voters and persuade them to stay at home. However, according to polls, the turnout would still be higher compared to the previous vote on July 11, at above 55%.
Few friends for Gerb
Polls put Gerb’s share of the vote considerably higher than Change Continues’ at between 23% and 25%. In the past, Borissov has picked one formation as Gerb’s junior coalition partner and also relied on informal support from outside the ruling coalition. This time around, however, Gerb’s share of the vote and those potential coalition partners is much lower.
Gerb’s partner in its last government, which ruled until the April general election, was the far-right United Patriots — an alliance that led to the adoption of policies that conflicted with the EU’s democratic rules and sparked numerous protests. Moreover, it was marred by corruption scandals during the whole mandate.
This time around, the United Patriots aren’t expected to pass the threshold to enter parliament. One option for Gerb, according to Borissov’s deputy, Daniel Mitov, would be to formalise its informal alliance with the ethnic-Turk DPS. The two parties were widely believed to have been in unofficial coalition since Borissov’s first government back in 2009. The DPS has backed Gerb many times, while Gerb has supported laws and initiatives proposed by the DPS — causing it to be criticised for serving the interests of specific businessmen and politicians. However, even with the support of the DPS, Gerb would not have a majority as the ethnic-Turk party is expected to get only around 11% of the vote.
Under these circumstances, Gerb isn’t in a position to be picky, and Mitov said in an interview with Radio Free Europe that the only party Gerb would not invite to coalition talks is the BSP. On the other hand, no party except the DPS has so far said that it would agree to enter into a coalition with scandal-hit Gerb.
A chaotic campaign
Repeated protests erupted during the campaign period. Angry people protested against all the measures imposed by the authorities, or against the insufficient support extended by the government during the coronacrisis. Fuel and electricity prices have skyrocketed, adding to the tension.
In this chaotic situation, policy debates have been rare, but corruption accusations and smear campaigns have abounded.
On top of the numerous corruption probes launched under the caretaker government into actions taken under Borissov’s last government, four days ahead of the vote an anonymous sender provided a new set of photos of Borissov sleeping in a state residence with a significant sum in euro banknotes in the drawer next to his bed and a handgun on top of his bedside table.
The photos were sent to the Euro Dikoff talk show with an email saying the move was provoked by the lack of activity by the prosecution since the first set of similar gangster-style photos were distributed in June 2020, when Borissov was still in power. The former prime minister confirmed the first photos were authentic, but claimed the cash and the handgun did not belong to him but had been put there by the photographer — allegedly a woman with whom he had an intimate relationship.
Gerb also came under attack over the revelations of large-scale corrupt schemes aimed at siphoning off hundreds of millions of euros paid by the state for the construction of Hemus motorway and for road repair works. Two former ministers from Borissov’s last government have already been interrogated over those schemes and the former prime minister has accused caretaker Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov of intentionally summoning them prior to the vote to influence the outcome of the election.
Gerb’s potential coalition partner the DPS also attracted negative attention when it decided to add Peevski to several of its lists as a lead candidate for MP. Peevski did not participate in the previous two general elections but was an MP in several previous parliaments. He has become a synonym of corrupt deals and influence on state institutions along with the DPS in general and the party’s chairman of honour Ahmed Dogan. The nomination of Peevski was seen as provocation by many, but some people also suggested it might be related to the probes launched by state institutions over the Pandora Papers. If Peevski becomes an MP, he would have immunity and cannot be tried.
Petkov under pressure
Bulgaria’s constitutional court has also become embroiled in the pre-election race, deciding to issue a key ruling concerning Change Continues’ Petkov two weeks ahead of the vote. At the end of October, the court ruled that Petkov, currently one of the country’s most popular politicians, had dual citizenship while serving as caretaker minister, which is illegal.
He says he asked Canada to terminate his citizenship in April, prior to becoming caretaker minister. However, the document approving his request was only issued on August 20.
Borissov has attacked Radev and other political rivals, claiming that manipulation of voting machines is underway. Borissov said at the end of October that four people related to Democratic Bulgaria have access to the software of the voting machines and can manipulate it. He subsequently suggested that Radev is involved in a plan to manipulate the machine vote.
Da Bulgaria, one of the parties comprising the reformist Democratic Bulgaria coalition, urged the prosecution to launch a probe into Borissov’s claims.
Meanwhile, Democratic Bulgaria faces internal conflicts. Its own candidate for president Lozan Panov, the chairman of Bulgaria’s Supreme Cassation Court, turned on the coalition, accusing it of preparing to betray its voters as it could agree on a coalition with the BSP. The attack was unexpected and was seen as potentially damaging for both Panov and Democratic Bulgaria.
A new snap vote on the horizon
Despite the theoretical chances of a majority in the next parliament, experts and voters expect a new snap general election within months unless either all the other parties unite against Gerb and the DPS, or one of them agrees to enter into a coalition with them.
“The chance of a fourth election is bigger than before. On April 4 the mandate of Bulgarians were clear. Slavi [Trifonov, the leader of ITN] came second although the polls were showing Gerb would beat it by a lot. On July 11 the mandate was even clearer — Slavi even won. And is there a clear mandate now? When we are finishing with Gerb and the DPS with 100 mandates, the parties of the change with 100 mandates and the BSP between them with 40? My hope for having a government is that Bulgarians still want a government and not because it will be easy,” Parvan Simeonov of Gallup International commented to Mediapool.
He added that pressure from voters might force political parties to form a government with a short mandate. Simeonov also said that if Change Continues ranks second, this would show a new energy for change among voters. However, even in that case a short-term government or another early election seem the most likely options, according to most analysts.
Radev heads for an easy victory
In contrast to the highly uncertain battle for the parliament, the presidential election is expected to secure an easy victory for Radev, who has remained highly popular through his first mandate.
Radev gained even more support after appointing a caretaker government following the April general election that quickly initiated investigations into possible corruption schemes by Gerb’s latest government.
However, the worsening coronavirus pandemic seems to have eroded support for Radev and victory in the first round now seems unlikely.
If Radev goes to a second round, he will most likely compete with Anastas Gerdzhikov, an independent candidate supported by Gerb. However, Gerdzhikov would get just 28.3% of the votes in the first round, well below Radev on a projected 46.4%, according to the latest poll carried out by Alpha Research.
Earlier polls, carried out by other agencies, showed similar results. Panov is expected to rank third with 8.8%, followed by the DPS leader Mustafa Karadayi with 6.9%.