Is political collapse in Bulgaria ending Boyko Borisov Era?
The latest such uprising may have finally forced the departure from high-level politics of Boyko Borissov, who has served three nonconsecutive terms as prime minister since 2009 and was a mainstay of the Bulgarian political scene before that.
As a European Union and NATO member that borders Turkey, hugs the Black Sea coast, and maintains cordial relations with Russia, Bulgaria is a strategically significant country. Yet in recent years, it has rarely made international news—except for the occasional domestic clash over Russian influence and periodic mass protests over corruption and state capture.
The latest such uprising may have finally forced the departure from high-level politics of Boyko Borissov, who has served three nonconsecutive terms as prime minister since 2009 and was a mainstay of the Bulgarian political scene before that. His center-right populist Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria party, known as GERB, won the most votes in elections in early April, as it has in every one of the nine parliamentary and European Parliament votes Bulgaria has held since 2007.
Yet the recent polls also produced one of the more fragmented parliaments in recent memory, as traditional parties lost ground to political newcomers. GERB took just over 26 percent of the vote, giving it only 75 of the 240 seats in the unicameral National Assembly—its worst parliamentary election performance in the party’s history. The runner-up was a pop singer and TV host Slavi Trifonov’s newly established ITN party, which campaigned on an anti-corruption, anti-establishment platform, taking 17.7 percent of the vote. GERB’s rival, the once-powerful Bulgarian Socialist Party, or BSP, finished third with just 15 percent, losing almost half its seats.
The fallout from the protests had caused all other parties in parliament to turn their backs on the pugnacious Borissov, who announced his resignation on April 14. With the top three finishers in the elections unable or unwilling to create a workable coalition government, the country will now go to fresh elections, likely in July. In the interim, President Rumen Radev—who has become a staunch opponent of Borissov—will organize a technocratic caretaker government with the backing of parliament.
The future looks uncertain, with a series of fragmented coalition governments likely to appear in the coming years as the Borissov era comes to a close. The country might now turn the page on a period which, to many Bulgarians, was marred by cronyism and shady dealings from Borissov on down. Opponents say his clique included influential opposition lawmakers, oligarchs, and even the chief prosecutor, Ivan Geshev.
The latest wave of anti-establishment protests was triggered last year by revelations that Ahmed Dogan—a former head of the perennially powerful Movement for Rights and Freedoms party, or DPS, which draws its support largely from Bulgaria’s Turkish and Slavic Muslim minorities—had a lavish mansion on the Black Sea coast, guarded by state security officials who effectively kept outsiders away from the public beach in front of the property. Another Borissov ally, DPS lawmaker Delyan Peevski, was also found to be enjoying state protection on questionable grounds.
“The main takeaway is that the Borissov model contained in itself the seeds of instability,” Dimitar Bechev, an expert on southeastern Europe at the Atlantic Council, told WPR. “The cartel he built around GERB—with the DPS and Geshev plus oligarchs as stakeholders—was a workable mechanism to retain power over the short term but eventually alienated a sufficiently large bloc of voters across different social strata. The Borissov brand is becoming toxic.”
Bechev says that the snap election will prove a test for whether GERB can regroup and survive, or whether it will see its vote share slide further as its political base shifts elsewhere now that the party is out of power and unable to dispense jobs and contracts. With turnout from last month’s polls at just over 50 percent, GERB effectively commands the support of less than 15 percent of the electorate.
“For over a year, there has been a societal consensus in support of the removal of GERB from power and the start of the dismantling of their regime,” says Vladimir Shopov, a political analyst and consultant based in the capital, Sofia. “This was reflected in the [election] results, even if a coherent anti-GERB political coalition has not materialized. In any case, we are seeing the beginning of a transition away from the personalistic regime of Borissov, which could last a few years and require a few electoral iterations.”
Bulgaria might now turn the page on a period which, to many, was marred by cronyism and shady dealings from Borissov on down.
On foreign policy, Borissov has maintained a delicate balancing act between Russia and the West. His opponents were often frustrated that, despite his governments’ issues with graft allegations and state capture, Borissov was apparently given a free hand domestically by his Western allies, mainly due to his cordial relations with the U.S. and his loyalty to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Unlike Poland, Hungary, and even Romania, Bulgaria has rarely created a stir at the EU level.
Some of Borissov’s Western support has leaked away in the past year or so. The outgoing prime minister sparked an uproar in the U.S. when his government agreed to allow the construction of an extension to the Russian TurkStream natural gas pipeline on Bulgarian territory. Borissov’s successors will likely try to patch things up with Washington, although Russia-friendly parties like the BSP will still retain influence.
Ruslan Stefanov, Director of the Economics Program at the Center for the Study of Democracy, a Sofia-based think tank, says that the Kremlin may struggle to find a partner in the new government. But if it succeeds in doing so, it may push more strongly for its interests, including a binding commitment for Russian companies’ involvement in Bulgaria’s long-running on-and-off nuclear power plant expansion program—a pet project for the BSP, and at times GERB too. Ultimately, though, radical changes in Bulgaria’s foreign policy seem unlikely, given that the next government is likely to be technocratic, and the one following it a fractious coalition.
On the key issue of corruption, Stefanov is pessimistic that there will be any meaningful progress soon. He notes that any non-GERB government would need the support of at least two “status quo parties”—the BSP and DPS—which “do not have a track record on anti-corruption.” ITN appears to be ill-prepared for the government, despite its popularity, and has few practical ideas for tackling corruption.
Bechev sees more cause for optimism from Democratic Bulgaria, a reformist anti-corruption bloc encompassing center-right, green and liberal elements. Led by Hristo Ivanov, a former justice minister who was instrumental in bringing the Dogan scandal to the public eye, the party took 9.5 percent of the vote in the April elections.
“Democratic Bulgaria has a golden opportunity to be an agenda-setter in this parliament and hopefully in the next one, too,” Bechev says.
Any short-term caretaker government is likely to have its hands full with managing the COVID-19 pandemic. But following a snap election, a coalition government that does not include GERB may be able to address a few key issues on which the major opposition parties agree, including reforms to the electoral system and the need to rapidly deploy the substantial recovery and resilience funds that Bulgaria received in the latest EU budget. Trickier priorities include bolstering the independence of the judiciary and creating new accountability mechanisms for the prosecutor general.
The reality, though, is that any new government after the next election is likely to be short-lived. With GERB and the BSP now seemingly reduced to their core voters, unstable multiparty coalitions of mid-sized electoral blocs may become the norm, as they have been in Slovakia and Slovenia, among other countries.
GERB may well continue to play a role. If its hard-right former allies can regroup and get back into parliament after failing to meet the required threshold in the April polls, GERB might even be able to form the government after the next election. But at this stage, its rapid return might not be welcome—in Brussels or in Sofia.