SOFIA -- Bulgarians head to the polls on April 4 for parliamentary elections that come after nearly a year of mass protests against Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's government.
Borisov's party, Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), is seeking to hang on to power after a decade as the ruling party. First results are expected by April 5. Opinion polls project GERB will finish on top with about 23 percent of the vote. That would be a 10-point decline compared with the last election in 2017 and the party's worst performance since it first competed in a parliamentary election in 2009. It also would force GERB to build a coalition with other disparate parties to achieve the parliamentary majority needed for Borisov to continue as prime minister. The 61-year-old Borisov has dominated Bulgarian politics since GERB won the 2009 elections. But the party's support base has eroded in recent years amid allegations of widespread corruption within the GERB-led government and Borisov's handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Bulgaria is ranked last among European Union countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, and it has one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the EU. Members of GERB have been involved in a series of recent corruption scandals, sparking the country's largest anti-government demonstrations in years. Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets across the country last summer to protest corruption and the alleged use of the judiciary to target GERB's political rivals.
Analysts say GERB could struggle to patch together a majority coalition in the 240-seat National Assembly because a more diverse group of parties is expected to enter parliament. Such a new dynamic in parliament would leave GERB weakened and vulnerable. Opinion polls suggest as many as seven of the 30 parties and alliances on the ballot could win the minimum 4 percent of the national vote required to enter parliament. Only five parties managed to do so in 2017. Emilia Zankina, a Bulgaria expert and dean of Temple University’s Rome campus, told RFE/RL Borisov would likely form a “floating majority” among an “ideologically incongruent” cast of parties leading to constant bargaining on every issue. “Forming a stable government will be almost possible," Zankina said. "I don’t see this government lasting too long." Still, analysts say it is too early to write off Borisov’s future because of the absence of other political figures on the national stage who can challenge him.
Three other parties are seen as sure bets to enter parliament. They include the former communists in the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP); popular Bulgarian TV star Stanislav "Slavi" Trifonov's anti-establishment party There Is Such A People; and a mostly ethnic Turkish party called Movement for Rights and Freedom (DPS).
Other groups with a strong chance of entering parliament include Stand Up! Get Out, a new party set up by former ombudsman Maya Manolova; an alliance of liberal parties called Democratic Bulgaria; and the far-right Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO). Tsvetan Tsvetanov, the former deputy leader of GERB who stepped down in 2019 to form Republicans for Bulgaria, says he expects his new party to win parliamentary seats. That's despite opinion polls suggesting it will only win about 1 percent of the vote. Its party platform calls for closer relations with the United States, full integration of the Balkans into Western institutions, and fighting corruption in Bulgaria.
Indeed, some analysts say the vote results could differ sharply from preelection public opinion surveys. That's because many voters may choose to avoid crowded polling stations due to coronavirus concerns. Parvan Simeonov, a Sofia-based political analyst for Gallup International, told RFE/RL that the Bulgarian Socialist Party is most at risk of faring worse than opinion surveys suggest because its base consists of elderly pensioners -- one of the groups most at risk from COVID-19. Bulgaria does not allow mail-in voting. Some analysts also question whether Trifonov's There Is Such A People will finish in third as suggested by preelection opinion polls. Trifonov's core support base is young adults who historically turn out in lower numbers than other age groups. The 13 percent result predicted for There Is Such A People has been one of the biggest surprises of the election campaign and speaks to the growing anti-government sentiment in Bulgaria.
Trifonov, known to millions of Bulgarians simply as "Slavi," has gained fame and admiration over the decades in part by lampooning authorities on his popular television shows.
A third-place finish could make Trifonov's party the kingmaker in Bulgarian politics, a position traditionally held by the DPS since the collapse of communism in 1989.
“Borisov would not be able to rule without at least the tacit consent of Trifonov and DPS,” Zankina told RFE/RL. Trifonov has barely campaigned in the traditional sense, running largely on the popularity he built up from his politically astute comedy. He did not give any interviews during the election campaign or hold any debates with opponents. Trifonov's biggest political event was a concert on April 2 that closed out the party's monthlong campaign. However, Trifonov’s strategy was more the rule than the exception in what analysts said was a strange and unusual campaign season largely devoid of debate on key issues. Borisov hasn’t appeared in a major news media interview since last summer. His campaign strategy consisted largely of Facebook livestreaming during his visits to various construction sites across the country. “It is tragic how little debate there is about policy," said Zankina, adding that the main question has been whether or not Borisov will be able to stay in power as prime minister.