Bulgarians will go to the polls on Sunday for a parliamentary election amid a surge in coronavirus cases and after months of anti-government protests.
The center-right GERB party of current Prime Minister Boyko Borissov leads most opinion polls, despite allegations of endemic corruption.
According to national surveys, averages compiled by Europe chooses On March 21, the three-time prime minister would get a 28.4% share of the vote.
The socialist opposition (BSP), led by Korneliya Ninova, was voting at 22.9%, according to the same source, even if a new poll published on Wednesday placed his party ahead of the GERB, in contrast to other polls.
Several smaller parties were also projected to enter parliament for the first time.
Opinion polls suggest an uncertain outcome, with several possible coalition options and even another election in the fall in the event of a prolonged political deadlock.
Bulgaria, a small Balkan nation of 7 million people that is the poorest country in the European Union, rarely makes international headlines.
However, there are a number of reasons why Europeans should be concerned about the choice of Bulgaria, from upholding the rule of law to opening accession talks with North Macedonia to containing the pandemic in the Balkans.
This is what’s at play.
Anti-corruption push: from protests to elections?
The anti-corruption NGO Transparency International ranks Bulgaria as the most corrupt of the 27 EU nations.
Last summer, thousands of Bulgarians demonstrated daily for several months, denouncing widespread and deep-rooted corruption and the degradation of the rule of law.
They called on the Borisov government and chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev to resign on accusations that they allowed an oligarchic mafia to take control of the Balkan country.
The protesters also said they were fed up with the governing style of Borissov, who has been in power since 2009.
But Borissov refused to resign, saying he couldn’t give in to the chaos amid an economic and health crisis.
Therefore, Sunday’s elections are regularly scheduled elections as the protests failed to trigger snap elections.
While protests have subsided in recent months due to the impending election and the pandemic, three parties are campaigning in response to protesters’ demands:
- One of them is the center-right alliance Democratic Bulgaria, which currently gets around 7%, according to a recent Market LINKS survey for Bulgaria’s largest private TV network, bTV.
- Get up! Out with the mafia!, a center-left coalition that was formed in the wake of the protests, currently gets around 5-6%.
- Populist party There are such people (ITN) He did not take to the streets, but he also sympathized with the protest movement, which received wide coverage on the television network owned by party leader and media mogul Slavi Trifonov. There are such people currently surveying about 16%, according to Market LINKS.
But according to Petar Bankov, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow, “we should not overestimate the effects of the protest movement” in the polls.
The Bulgarian political expert told Euronews that support for these three parties was stagnating or declining.
“The effects of the protests are fading due to the lack of a unifying political figure or entity,” Bankov said.
Speaking to Euronews before the elections, Maria Mateva, a Justice for All activist, who joined the protests from day one, said that the stakes were high in the elections.
“We have been in a status quo for a long time (…), a status quo that maintains very high levels of corruption.
“So I think it is very important that we break this model,” Mateva continued, adding that he was not optimistic about the outcome of these elections.
“I believe that our arrogant and unconditional government will do its best to sabotage the vote and stay in power,” he said.
“The electoral protocols are more complicated than ever. The commissions will lack some experienced members due to the pandemic and the replacements will be from the parties in power,” Mateva added.
Distrustful of electoral fraud, the activist has volunteered as an observer of the vote count.
‘European funding is providing a lifeline to the government’
MEPs sided with the protesters in a resolution voted in October last year that sought to defend the bloc’s democratic principles.
“The European Parliament deeply regrets that events in Bulgaria have led to a significant deterioration in respect for the principles of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights, including the independence of the judiciary, the separation of powers, the fight against corruption and freedom of the media, “said the resolution.
But Borissov is well connected in EU circles and a longtime member of the powerful European People’s Party (EPP), so it is sensitive for Brussels to lash out at him.
Mateva told Euronews that he wanted the EU to have stricter binding mechanisms to ensure respect for the rule of law in his country.
“I am very happy with all the recommendations, all the reports, but to be honest, in our case, they do not have the expected results,” she said.
“The perception of many Bulgarians is that European funding is providing a lifeline for the government,” Bankov told Euronews.
The expert welcomed the bloc’s new rule of law mechanism linking respect for fundamental democratic values of the EU with EU funding.
“This would be something that could work for Bulgaria,” he said, even though the conditionality of EU funds has drawn strong pushback from eastern EU countries.
Contains COVID-19 in heavily affected Balkan region
Bulgaria has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and infection and death rates have skyrocketed in recent weeks.
The Balkan country now has one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the EU, behind Hungary and almost equal to the Czech Republic.
The deteriorating health situation led the government to impose new restrictions on March 18, including closing schools, universities, shopping centers, culture and sports venues.
Borissov had been reluctant to impose an unpopular blockade before the elections despite rising infection numbers.
During the past week, Bulgaria reported an average of 3,670 news cases per day, according to John Hopkins University. That’s a three-fold increase in one month.
The WHO said the situation in the Balkans and Central Europe was “particularly worrying”.
The country’s vaccination campaign has been slow and the country is lagging behind other EU nations. Only 5% of the population has received at least one injection, compared to an average 11% for the block.
Bankov said that the main impact of the pandemic on the elections will likely be low turnout, in the absence of vote by mail or proxy.
“We see parties that are indulging the anti-closure sentiment,” Bankov noted, “especially the populist party. There are such people.”
“We also see that the government is currently using the pandemic for its own political gain,” the academic continued, noting, for example, that the government announced a reduction in the blockade for Thursday, just before election day and despite the increasing numbers of infection.
Other experts believe that COVID anxiety may benefit the government.
Dimitar Ganev, an analyst at research firm Trend, told AFP that voters generally favored the status quo in times of uncertainty.
Accession talks to North Macedonia
Bulgaria’s choice may influence the outcome of North Macedonia’s EU membership talks.
The Bulgarian authorities vetoed in November last year the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia.
Bulgaria insists that North Macedonia formally recognizes that its language has Bulgarian roots and removes what it says is anti-Bulgarian rhetoric in the country before it raises its objections to the country joining the bloc.
Last week MEPs voted on a resolution putting pressure on Sofia to lift her veto.
Recalling “North Macedonia’s cooperative and constructive approach throughout the negotiations,” EU lawmakers “called on the two countries to reach a compromise on an action plan that includes concrete measures.”
Bankov told Euronews that there is currently a “consensus between the opposition and the government on the Bulgarian position” on the talks on the accession of North Macedonia.
However, one factor is whether or not the anti-Macedonian VMRO party makes it to parliament in the elections. It is currently polling around the 4% threshold, Bankov said.
“If they manage to enter parliament, it could make it easier for them to continue the current coalition … which would essentially mean that there would be no major changes in the government’s stance on North Macedonia.”
On the contrary, a government without VMRO could “moderate its position”, said the academic.
Russia vs the West?
Bulgaria, Moscow’s closest ally during the Cold War, is a member of NATO but remains heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies.
Last week, Sofia expelled two Russian diplomats after Bulgarian prosecutors said they had dismantled a spy ring reporting to Moscow.
Borissov, who presents himself as pro-Western, called on Russia “to stop spying on Bulgaria” after the incident and received support from both Washington and London.
Meanwhile, the socialist opposition is traditionally friendlier to Russia.
But Bankov qualified the binary opposition between a pro-Western Borissov and a pro-Russian opposition.
Borissov is like a “face of Janus, in the sense that he just wants to get along with everyone,” the expert told Euronews.
“So if it has to be anti-Russian in front of its Western partners, it will be. If it has to be a little more, let’s say Russia is friendly to another audience, then it will be too.”
The expert did not think that this balancing act between Russia and the West would fundamentally change with the elections.
A political stalemate looms
At least three different scenarios can emerge from the Bulgarian elections.
“As it seems, a very possible coalition would be between GERB, There are such people and VRMO,” Bankov said.
So far There Is A Such People has ruled out forming a coalition with the GERB, the Socialist Party or the movement for rights and freedoms.
(Source: Europe Elects)
Another option would be a so-called “grand coalition” between GERB and the Socialists, Bankov said. Even if the Socialist Party has so far rejected the idea, some of the Socialist candidates have openly said they were in favor of an “expert government,” Bankov noted.
“If they [all parties that can potentially enter parliament] keep their pre-election promises, the most likely outcome will be new elections to coincide with the presidential elections in the fall, “Bankov said.
“And that will definitely work in Borissov’s favor, just because GERB is an important party” with the resources to run several national campaigns at the same time.
Every weekday at 1900 CEST, Discovering europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to be alerted about this and other breaking news. Is available in Apple and Android devices.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism