Now that we’ve set up the background and overview of Bulgarian politics, we can now take a took at their upcoming parliamentary elections, which will take place on March 26th of this year.
As we discussed in our overview, Bulgarian politics are fluid to the point that no government has been reelected since the fall of communism in 1990. In fact, governing coalitions are often a minority government and do not even last the full 4 years. The 4% cutoff allows anywhere between 4 and 8 parties to enter parliament, meaning anywhere from 2 to 4 parties are needed for a majority. Recently the trend has been the formation of a minority coalition with non-coalition support from a third and/or fourth party.
With only one month left until the election there are still many questions surrounding the potential results and their legitimacy. After controversy about voter fraud in 2013, it was mandated that voting machines be provided in every polling booth as an alternative to voting via paper, but almost no polling locations have requested a voting machine. This could cause a problem with the Constitutional Court afterwards and is something to look out for as early voting has already been impacted.
Bulgaria is economically expanding but is facing new obstacles due to Russian sanctions and the political instability. Business leaders are fearing whether a stable majority will finally be formed, preventing a solid basis for future expectations. Will stability be created or will the current trend continue? Let’s take a look.
Beyond the normal economic debates, the main issues of the election, like the presidential election before it, are the EU, Russian relations, and refugees from the Middle East. Considering the country’s location relative to the Middle East and particularly Turkey, refugees are an increasingly prominent concern. One of the main parties, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), is actually a party supporting Turkish and Muslim minority interests, showing the growing immigrant population within Bulgaria.
Polling and Projections
Bulgarian polling data does not have an answer to the question of stability. Currently 5 parties will almost certainly finish about the 4% cutoff point and Reformist Bloc is on the edge. The current minority coalition of the center-right GERB and the Reformist Bloc (RB) parties, with the support of Patriotic Front and the Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV), is unlikely to last due to RB’s drop from 8.89% in the previous election to polling around 4% this year. Alternative for Bulgarian Revival are also unlikely to break the 4% cutoff and the Patriotic Front electoral alliance has merged with attack to become United Patriots (UP). While GERB’s Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, was forced to resign due to the results of the presidential election, his party’s popularity has not taken a large hit. GERB received 32.67% of the vote in 2014 and are currently polling between 28% and 31.5% (depending on what polling company you look at), implying continued support for the party.
GERB’s main rivals, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), are projected to make significant gains compared to the 2014 elections, in which they only received 15.4% of the vote. Similarly to GERB, they are polling between 28% and 31.6%, making the battle for a plurality a tight race. DPS, a liberal Muslim party that tends to favor coalitions with BSP, has taken the brunt of BSP’s rise in the polls; they are projected to drop from 14.84% of the vote to approximately 7% to 8.5%.
Two other groups (one alliance and one party) are expected to make it into parliament as well. One of these is the right-wing United Patriots electoral alliance – consisting of Attack, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, and the Bulgarian National Movement. The latter two parties participated in the Patriotic Front electoral alliance in 2014, and this newer alliance is an attempt to unite the right-wing electoral campaign, preventing Attack from falling below the 4% mark. Attack’s share of the vote has dropped in recent elections, so preventing them from falling below the 4% total keeps the right-wing stronger in parliament. Compared to 2014, where the members total received 11.8% of the vote (7.28% for the Patriotic Front and 4.52% for Attack), UP is expected to receive between 9% and 12% of the vote. Volya (also known as Will), a new party based around Varna-based businessman Veselin Mareshki, is also expected to enter parliament. According to IntelliNews, “Mareshki describes Volya as a centre-right party of independent pragmatic people.” Mareshki has also been compared to Donald Trump as an anti-establishment businessman turned politician. Interestingly, in that IntelliNews article (and according to Novinite) he admitted to giving bribes in “the interest of Bulgarian citizens.” This means his party has brought some interesting controversy with its rise, and polling data has ranged between 5% and 12% for the party, making it difficult to draw conclusions about the potential results of the party. Two other parties that made it into parliament in 2014 will most likely not reach the 4% cutoff this year: Bulgaria Without Censorship and the Alternative for Bulgarian Revival.
The two main factions are the BSP and DPS on the left and GERB, RB, and Volya on the right (plus possibly the member parties of UP if needed). As we said earlier, the governing coalition is unlikely to continue as GERB and RB are both expected to lose seats. They received approximately 41.5% of the vote in 2014 and will received around 31% to 34% of the vote this year. The Reformist Bloc might not even break the 4% threshold, which would be a serious detriment to to GERB’s efforts. Since Volya is more likely to align with GERB than BSP, their 5% to 12% could bring that vote total up to anywhere between 36% and 46% (it is probable that the three parties will receive combined around 39 to 43% to give a slightly more accurate range). That will most likely not not be enough to form a majority coalition, especially if RB fails to reach 4%. BSP’s gains are partly offset by DPS’s losses, but combined they will make gains. Combined they earned just over 30% of the vote in 2014 and will receive between 35% and 40% of the vote this year. The result: neither of the main left or right “preferred” coalitions are possible.
Since these pure center-right or center-left coalition are unlikely to receive a majority of seats, there are three possible agreements that could potentially be reached (barring a large swing in the polls between now and election day): A center-right coalition with right-wing (UP) support, a GERB led coalition with various supporting parties, or a center-left coalition with center-right or right-wing support. The first of these is the most likely as it a similar one to the agreement reached following the 2014 election. In this situation, the previously mentioned GERB led coalition would receive outside support from all or some of the United Patriots electoral alliance, which (besides Attack) supported the previous GERB led government. Reminder: support means they agree to vote to approve the prime minister and cabinet, but the party does not receive any cabinet positions. Assuming most or all of the UP members are willing to support GERB, their support would likely give them the required majority. We have seen this scenario since 2014 be somewhat stable, but it is not the solid majority coalition that would solve the shakiness of Bulgarian politics. The second scenario would be similar but there is a different mix of coalition members and supporting parties. There is precedent for opposition support from DPS for GERB along with a mix of center-right and right-wing coalition partners and supporters. A variety of outcomes could be possible here; an example is a coalition of GERB and RB with outside support from Volya along with part or all of UP and/or DPS. The last time this happened was after 2009, when GERB was 4 seats away from the 121 seats needed for a majority and opposition parties gave support. This would be much more unstable considering the governing coalition would have received less than 40% of the vote, and relying on outside support usually leads to problems. The final scenario is only if GERB does not have a path to a majority, as this is a long-shot attempt that was tried and failed after the 2013 election. In this case, BSP and DPS form a coalition (as they did is 2013) and require outside support from the center-right or right-wing to govern. In 2013, they attempted to create a mostly non-partisan and pragmatic parliament, receiving support from the right-wing Attack party since they only have 120 seats (exactly 50% instead of the needed 50% + 1). This year, they would need support from either Volya or UP to reach a majority. The 2013 agreement fell apart quickly, so this would be a shaky deal leading to instability.
To conclude our general preview of the election we must go back to the question of whether the instability of government formation will continue. The answer is almost certainly yes. In proportional-style elections that don’t have a solid majority from either main faction we often look for a centrist king-maker party to be a junior-coalition partner for stability, but Bulgaria lacks a party of that style. DPS seems to the main “3rd party” that could fill that role, but they appear unwilling to form a coalition across ideological lines with GERB (and RB on the other side not working with BSP). The strength of the right-wing and right-wing-populist parties in Bulgaria make this problem even worse, as they are almost always unwilling to form a stable coalition with the center-right, even if the “right” in total has a majority (as it does here). These factors mean that the instability of governments that we have seen in the past will continue after the 2017 election, no matter who leads the coalition building.
In our next few posts will will discuss the specifics of each party: their election results, ideologies, liberty ratings, and projections.