Politics of Bulgaria: An Overview

The next country we will focus on in 2017 is Bulgaria, as their election on the 26th of March will be the second major one of the year.


Bulgarian politics are fluid and often unstable.  An assassination attempt in 2013 and three straight early elections are just two parts of the Eastern European country’s fluctuating political atmosphere.  We will provide an overview of the country’s politics ahead of the 2017 election.

Bulgaria normally holds a parliamentary election every 4 years, but early elections were called ahead of schedule due to the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov in November of 2016.   His center-right “Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria” (GERB) party candidate, Tsetska Tsacheva, lost the 2016 presidential election in the second round with only 36.16% of the vote.  Though the president is merely a formality in Bulgarian politics, like most parliamentary republics, the defeat showed that people no longer had confidence in the GERB-led coalition government.

Boyko Borisov, Prime Minister, Bulgaria
Former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov was forced to resign for a second time following his party’s defeat in the 2016 presidential elections. (Photo from Getty Images)

In our next post we will give a full preview of the 2017 election, but first we need to examine how the Bulgarian election system works and what the country’s electoral history looks like.

The unicameral parliamentary system Bulgaria uses places the most of the power in the national assembly, which then selects the prime minister with a majority vote.  Members of the parliament are selected from multi-member constituencies via a closed-party list, meaning that people vote for a party instead of an individual, and seats are allocated from each constituency.  Without getting bogged down in the detail, this means that a party (or alliance of parties) needs 4% of the vote to receive a proportional number of seats in the parliament.  Unlike the Dutch system’s 0.67% cutoff that we covered in previous posts, this 4% cutoff places stricter conditions on entering parliament, meaning less parties are usually required to form a governing coalition.  This coalition selects the prime minister, who then forms a cabinet.

Historically, Bulgaria had their first free elections in 1990 with the decline of Soviet Union, making it a relatively young republic.  In 2007, 17 years later, the country joined the European Union along with neighboring Romania, but it is outside of the Eurozone, keeping it someone independent of the Euro crisis and dulling euroskepticism in the country.  That being said, right-wing-populism is present with the creation of the “United Patriots” electoral alliance, consisting of three nationalist parties (Attack, Bulgarian National Movement, and National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria), in 2016.

In parliamentary elections, the government has never been reelected since the fall of communism, displaying the fluid and often unstable nature of Bulgarian politics.  The previous two elections were also early after protests over austerity rattled the GERB led government in 2013, leading to slightly early elections.  The resulting Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and Turkish interest Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) government then resigned in mid 2014 due to more protests, forcing another election.  This inability of three governments in a row to serve for all 4 years is a dangerous trend for the country.

With that historical overview covered, let’s take a deeper look at the previous two parliamentary elections and most recent presidential and European elections to see if a trend emerges ahead of this year’s.

As we covered before, the 2013 election came on the heels of the (first) resignation of Prime Minister Borisov and his GERB party.  Widespread protests and unpopularity of many parties was rampant throughout the country, including an attempted assassination of DPS party leader Ahmet Dhogan during a lived televised speech.  The election saw a large increase in support for the left-wing “Coalition for Bulgaria” electoral alliance (now called “BSP for Bulgaria”), consisting of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and many smaller left-wing parties.  They received 26.61% of the vote and gained 44 additional seats in the national assembly, bringing their total to 84 (out of 240).  GERB received 30.54% of the vote, losing 20 seats and bringing their total to 97 seats, still holding a plurality.  The liberal-center Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) received 11.31% of the vote, losing 1 seat and finishing with 36 seats.  The only other party to finish above the 4% cutoff was the right-wing-populist and pro-Russia “Attack”, who received 7 seats.  Controversy was rampant about voter fraud following the election, causing a rocky start to the resulting BSP and DPS government, which lasted just over a year before dissolving.

DPS Party Leader Ahmet Dhogan survived an assassination attempt ahead of the 2013 election by fighting back against the attacker seen on the right.  (Photo from the NY Daily News)

Just before the dissolution, the government’s popularity (or lack thereof) was presented in the 2014 European parliamentary election in May.  GERB finished with 30.4% of the vote and 6 of the 17 seats, Coalition for Bulgaria (BSP’s alliance) received 18.93% of the vote and 4 seats, DPS received 17.27% of the vote and 4 seats, the new euroskeptic Bulgaria Without Censorship party received 10.66% of the vote and 2 seats, and the new Christian-Democratic Reformist Bloc received 6.45% of the vote and 1 seat.  Attack, who had indirectly supported the government, fell from 11.96% to 2.96%, losing all of their seats in the European Parliament.  The results of the election showed that the already minority coalition between the BSP and DPS did not have even 40% of the vote, and the prime minister resigned by the end of July, only 2 months later.

The BSP’s struggles continued, as 2014 parliamentary election punished the socialists for their unpopular governing.  They fell to 15.4% of the vote (down from their previous 26.61%), finishing with only 39 seats, 45 less than after the 2013 election.  Interestingly, GERB did not benefit directly from BSP’s fall in seats, despite receiving 32.67% of the vote (up 2.13% from 2014), as 8 parties entering the parliament (instead of the 4 after 2013) caused the seats to be more divided among the parties.  They still received 84 seats, far more than their BSP counterparts.  DPS finished close behind BSP with 14.84% of the vote (up 3.53% from 2014) and 38 seats, not receiving the punishment that their senior coalition partner did.  Five other parties managed to receive more than the required 4% of the vote: the Reformist Bloc (8.89% and 23 seats), Patriotic Front (now know as United Patriots:7.28% and 19 seats), Bulgaria Without Censorship (5.69% and 15 seats), Attack (4.52% and 11 seats), and Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (4.15% and 11 seats).  The larger number of parties caused coalition negotiations to be more difficult, but eventually GERB and the Reformist Bloc (RB) formed a minority coalition supported by the Patriotic Front and Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV).  Minority coalitions such as this tend not to last the whole 4 years, and this one was no different.

The Independent Pro-Russia candidate, Rumen Radev, won a decisive presidential victory with the support of the BSP.  (Photo from PressTV)

The popularity of that minority coalition was tested when Prime Minister Borisov put his hopes in Tsetska Tsacheva for the 2016 presidential election and vowed to resign if she lost.  The two major candidates, the independent but BSP supported Rumen Radev and Tsacheva for GERB, received 25.44% and 21.96% respectively in the first round of the election.  While this was conceivably a close result, the second round was a decisive victory for Radev, who received 59.37% of the vote to Tsacheva’s 36.16% (percentages don’t add up to 100% due to the available “none of the above” option).  The result was considered to be a vote of no confidence for the GERB led government, and Borisov resigned as he promised.

Looking at these elections over the past 4 years gives us a decent overview of where Bulgarian politics is.  There is a constant struggle to hold onto a majority, and the rise of the right-wing-populist “United Patriots” electoral alliance will likely continue to make a majority coalition difficult.  We will have to see if this year’s election, which we will preview in our next post, can change that trend.  Hopefully this has been enough of a basic overview as we begin to cover the Bulgarian election.  After a general preview we will have an analysis of each major party ahead of the election.

More information: Elections in Bulgaria, 2017 Election, Bulgarian National Assembly

Author: Brendan Noble

I am a political consultant, data-analyst, Hillsdale College economics alumnus, and conservative-libertarian. Twitter: @Brendan_Noble

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