Bulgaria’s Parliamentary Elections Threaten Stability As COVID Outlook Worsens

Bulgaria held its parliamentary elections on Sunday, April 4th, just days after its daily COVID-19 infection rate reached a record high since the start of the pandemic. Early election results indicate a loosening grip on power for incumbent Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, whose conservative GERB party has dominated Bulgarian politics since 2009. Though GERB still finished first in the polls, its vote share fell markedly as growing concerns of corruption continue to undermine Borsiov’s popularity. The elections saw three new parties critical of the political establishment win seats in parliament after campaigning on anti-corruption. However, the more fragmented parliament will make forming a stable government difficult, putting Bulgaria at risk for political turbulence as the coronavirus continues to spread.

Borisov’s unpopularity culminated in months-long protests last summer that decried endemic cronyism, graft, and degradation of the rule of law. Two of the new parties in parliament, “Stand Up! Mafia Out!” and Democratic Bulgaria, were formed in the aftermath of the 2020 protests. The third new party, “There Is Such a People” (ITN), led by TV personality Slavi Trifonov, did not take to the streets but supported the protest movement, securing the second-largest percent of the vote share in Sunday’s election. Despite projections that coronavirus fears would lower voter turnout among the older electorate and benefit Borisov’s GERB given its younger supporter base, the party’s vote share slid from over a third back in 2017 to just under a quarter, according to preliminary official results. This will make it difficult for Borisov to form a government with majority support. 

Borisov’s options for building a coalition are further complicated by the failure of nationalist parties VRMO and NFSB, junior allies of GERB, to win any seats in the new parliament. This makes it likely that a mandate to form a government will fall to Trifonov. The ITN leader has said, though, that he opposes forming a coalition with any of the mainstream parties, which further increases the risk of political deadlock. “If all parties that make it into parliament keep their campaign promises not to enter into coalition with certain political forces, then we won’t have a government after these elections,” says Sofia-based analyst Asen Genov.   

The threat of political instability if no coalition is formed comes at an especially precarious time for Bulgaria, whose coronavirus-related death rate is second-highest in the European Union. According to a publication from Our World in Data, the country averaged 4,000 new cases daily in March and has been lagging behind other E.U. members in its vaccine rollout. Hospitals are full, and health officials warned last month that the healthcare system was “on the verge of collapse.” Without a stable majority government, Bulgaria may be unable to tap into the $884 billion E.U. Recovery Fund intended to help the European economy rebuild in the wake of the pandemic.  

Bulgaria is the poorest country in the E.U. and is ranked the most corrupt among the bloc’s member states according to Transparency International. Nevertheless, under Borisov’s rule, the country has managed to get itself into the so-called ‘waiting room’ to join the euro currency. Kristilana Gerogieva, Head of the International Monetary Fund, says Bulgaria’s entry into the eurozone would provide monetary stability and shield it from global uncertainty. “Things are looking very good,” said Georgieva in January 2020 of Bulgaria’s prospects for adopting the single currency, given its healthy public finances and low debt. This may be put in jeopardy if the absence of a stable government impedes the pandemic response, forcing Bulgaria to continue relying on foreign debt to fund relief efforts. If Bulgaria becomes unable to sustain fiscal discipline, its worsened prospects for joining the eurozone may lead to greater instability for the COVID-plagued country.    

While Borisov’s chances for forming a government within the highly fractured parliament look slim, the possibility of protracted political turmoil may work in his favour. With no coalition, it is likely that new elections will be held in the fall and may coincide with the November presidential elections. Petar Bankov, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow, said this would bode well for Borisov’s GERB, who have the resources to handle several national campaigns at the same time. If Borisov manages to remain in power, it may lead to further protests like those of last summer, which were mostly peaceful but grew violent in some instances, causing hundreds of injuries. The possibility for greater conflict threatens to accelerate the cycle of political instability and COVID mismanagement, deepening the recession to a point where Bulgaria’s entry into the eurozone and thus its long-term prospects for peace and stability are in jeopardy. The newly elected parliament must choose to set politics aside in order to secure for its citizenry the COVID relief it so desperately needs. 

Caleb Loughrin