Bulgaria 2013

Legislative elections were held in Bulgaria on May 12, 2013. The 240 members of Bulgaria’s unicameral legislature, the National Assembly (Народно събрание), are elected by closed-list PR (Hare-Niemeyer method) with a 4% threshold.

Bulgaria since 1990: anti-incumbency

Bulgarian politics since the fall of communism have been marked by anti-incumbency – no governing party has ever managed to win re-election. The right-wing Union of Democratic Forces (SDS), a broad collection of parties and politicians which had opposed the communist regime, won the 1991 election and formed government with Philip Dimitrov as Prime Minister, although Dimitrov was forced to resign within a year. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the renamed communist party, won the 1994 elections and Zhan Videnov became Prime Minister. Under Videnov, Bulgaria’s economy collapsed with hyperinflation (inflation reached 1000% in 1997), and the government faced huge protests which forced Videnov to resign in February 1997. The right-wing opposition won the 1997 elections in a landslide, taking 52% of the vote against 22% for the BSP. The new Prime Minister, Ivan Kostov, came in with shock therapy and large-scale privatization, which restored the country’s economic health and began accession negotiations with the EU. But as in most post-communist states in the 1990s, privatization was marred by corruption and quickly became a way for new oligarchs to enrich themselves and gain control of the country’s economy (and politics). Kostov’s rule was characterized by endemic corruption and mismanagement.

The SDS lost the 2001 election, but they lost it to a new vaguely centre-right liberal party, the National Movement – Simeon II (NDSV), the personal vehicle of former King Simeon II (the last king, who ruled between 1943 and 1946, before being deposed). In turn, Simeon’s party lost the 2005 election to the BSP, led by Sergei Stanishev. Stanishev was defeated by Boyko Borisov’s ‘Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria’ (GERB) party, a right-wing party created by Borisov – the mayor of Sofia between 2005 and 2009 – in 2006. The NDSV, in the meantime, died off – losing all of its 53 seats. The GERB won 39.7% against 17.7% for the BSP, and by virtue of the BSP’s short-lived change in the voting system from pure PR to parallel voting, the GERB almost won a majority to itself.

Contending forces

GERB leader Boyko Borisov, a flamboyant former wrestler, bodyguard and police chief keen on presenting himself as a populist (when he’s a fairly standard-fare right-winger, although a corrupt one at that), became Prime Minister. His government came to power as Bulgaria was hit by the economic crisis – the country’s economy shrank by 5.5% in 2009. His government responded with stringent austerity measures, which reduced Bulgaria’s budget deficit to 0.5% (one of the smallest in the EU) thanks to major spending cuts, but further aggravated the dire poverty faced by up to two in ten Bulgarians living under the national poverty line. The country is indeed one of the poorest in the EU (alongside Romania), with the lowest average wages (€357), the lowest minimum wage and the lowest HDI. The official unemployment rate has almost doubled since 2009, reaching 12% in 2012.

Borisov and the GERB’s anti-corruption rhetoric from 2009 turned out, in the least surprising thing ever, to be a gimmick. Bulgaria was already the most corrupt state in the EU (tied, again, with Romania) and the government’s anti-corruption ‘efforts’ have not improved the case. Before even taking office, the US Congressional Quarterly (CQ) accused Borisov of being directly linked to organized crime and major mobsters in Bulgaria; in 2011, leaked American diplomatic documents accused him of money laundering for criminal groups by way of his wife, who owns a large bank. More recently, in March 2013, an investigation revealed that interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov (Borisov’s right-hand man) had ordered wiretapping. Political rivals, businessmen and journalists were spied on by the state. The head of the organism charged with fighting organized crime, who also happens to be Borisov’s former campaign manager, is suspected of having received a €20,000 in 1999 in return for alerting mobsters of police interventions and having turned a blind eye to drug trafficking channels in the country.

Borisov’s tenure has also been marked by a noted degradation of media freedom and transparency in the country. Since 2006, the country’s standing the Press Freedom Index has tumbled from 35th to 87th. The government usually benefits from rather tame media coverage, a number of subservient sycophants in some media outlets, the lack of investigative reporting and rampant self-censorship.

Faced with a crisis which worsened economic deprivation, and politicians who continue to be crooks, there has been widespread popular discontent with the government and politics in general. A protest movement, which originally protested exorbitant electricity prices (electricity distribution was privatized in 2005, and is now controlled by three companies holding regional monopolies, the whole sector is notoriously corrupt), began in January 2013. With rising electricity prices, it estimated that households will soon spend 100% of their monthly income on basic necessities. In the energy debate, Borisov’s flip-flops over the fate of the Belene nuclear power plant (construction began in the 1980s, then stalled on-and-off, then was about to begin in 2012 with a Russian company, then Borisov cancelled the plant) were quite unpopular. The opposition BSP, which strongly supports the Belene nuclear power plant, managed to organize a referendum on the matter earlier this year – a large majority voted in favour of Belene, but turnout was so low (20%) that the government was allowed to throw out the result (in fact, the government had set the turnout threshold over the 60% turnout in the 2009 general election).

During the protests, seven protesters set themselves on fire, and at least three have died. Clearly, Bulgarians have been worn down by corruption, mismanagement in both the public and private sector, inefficient and useless administration, high unemployment and poverty. The protests are not only about GERB’s tenure in office, they speak to ingrained corruption and mismanagement which has been the staple of every government – left or right – since the fall of communism. Parliament is often seen as a rubber stamp, in the pockets of oligarchs and businesses who secure laws favourable to themselves.

Borisov fretted that the protests would hinder his party’s chances in this year’s election. An opportunistic politician, he tried to rebuild his populist image (to save his party). He fired his finance minister (behind the austerity policies), revoked CEZ’s (a Czech energy distributor) license and proposed to reduce electricity prices by 8%. Then, in late February, overly dramatic, he announced that he would resign because he could not serve in a government “under which the police are beating people”. He also said that he was giving the power back to the people and that he did not want more blood to be spilled – to quote Joe Biden, a bunch of malarkey. He was replaced by a technocratic (but GERB-controlled) government led by Marin Raykov, a diplomat. Borisov’s resignation was in reality a strategic move to provoke early elections, salvage his party’s standing ahead of those elections and catch the opposition by surprise.

GERB campaigned on its record of reducing the deficit and emphasizing the need for fiscal responsibility.

The main opposition is the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the only relevant party in a ‘Coalition for Bulgaria’ filled with useless tiny parties. The BSP still goes through the motions of being a social democratic/left-wing party, but in reality it is fairly moderate (left-wing critics would say it is right-wing). In power, the BSP – certainly no less corrupt or more competent than the right – continued with privatizations and even created a 10% flat tax. In opposition, they have been either rather silent or uninspiring. There has been infighting between BSP leader and former Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev and former President Georgi Parvanov. As a result, the party’s prime ministerial candidate was Plamen Oresharski, the former finance minister in the BSP-led government between 2005 and 2009. The party’s platform was moderately left-leaning, promising to increase the minimum wage, create 250,000 jobs in 10 years (with a ‘reindustrialization’ plan) and greater state participation in the economy. It proposed to amend the flat tax – which Stanishev’s government put in place – by exempting those earning less than the minimum wage from the income tax and create a 20% tax bracket for those earning over 10 times the minimum wage. Like other opposition parties, it sought to harness the 2013 protest movement, with ‘anti-corruption’ promises.

The governing party countered by alleging that Stanishev bought his position of leader of the PES by awarding a contract for Bulgarian identity documents to Siemens (which has connections with Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the socialist group in the EP). This, however, appears to be a fairly dubious accusation.

The traditional third party is the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a party which excites everybody because it defines itself as a liberal party defending ethnic minorities. In reality, the DPS is an ethnic Turkish party (Turks make up 9% of Bulgaria’s population) which is certainly the most hated party in Bulgaria. Part of the reason stems from ethnic/religious tensions, but the DPS also has an unsavoury reputation as a corrupt party which has used dirty tricks such as vote buying or “electoral tourism” (allegations that ethnic Turks voted in Bulgaria at their permanent address and then returned to Turkey to vote with their passports).  Only the BPS is amenable to governing in coalition with the DPS, which was the junior partner in coalitions between 2001 and 2009, first under Simeon II and later under Stanishev.

The DPS’s founder, Ahmed Dogan, led the party until January 2013. He became famous around the world when an assassination attempt against him at the DPS congress in January was captured in video. The whole incident was actually pretty amusing, especially with bodyguards and members starting to kick and beat the assailant. While most consider that Dogan remains the real boss behind the scenes, Lyutvi Mestan is the party’s new leader.

Attack (Ataka) is the main nationalist (far-right) party, with a magnificently bellicose name. The party, founded in 2005, is led by Volen Siderov, who gained some international notoriety in 2006 by qualifying for the presidential runoff election, with 21.5% in the first round and 24% in the runoff. In parliamentary elections, however, Ataka peaked at 9% support in 2009. The party, naturally, is strongly nationalistic – it is certainly the party which hates the DPS the most of all parties, it opposes EU and NATO membership and has close relations with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Siderov espouses anti-Masonic conspiracy theories and often claims that international forces (which usually involve Turkey, the EU, NATO, the United States and sometimes Gypsy ‘bandits’ and Jews) are planning a genocide of Bulgarians. The party, however, has tended to emphasize its anti-capitalist, anti-globalization and anti-neoliberal agenda, which makes it one of the more economically left-wing parties in Bulgaria – certainly moreso than the BSP. Ataka claims that the IMF and World Bank’s ‘neocolonial and neoliberal’ agenda marginalize and impoverish countries. The party’s platform supports a major increase in the minimum wage, replacing the flat tax with a progressive income tax and the nationalization of electricity distribution companies.

Ataka unofficially supported Borisov’s government after the 2009 election, but relations between the two parties quickly turned sour. The party’s support had dropped significantly by 2012 (1-3%), but it managed to regain support and improve its position because the protest movement. It has been one of the few parties to benefit from the protest movement, unlike the BSP.

The Union of Democratic Forces (SDS), the main right-wing party in the 1990s, and the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB), a right-wing party founded by Ivan Kostov in 2004, ran a common list (Blue Coalition) in 2009, taking 7% of the vote. The coalition was broken off this year. The SDS especially is a pale shadow of its former self, and the DSB has only limited support.

Order, Law and Justice (RZS), which won 4% and 10 seats in 2009, a personalist populist outfit led by eccentric anti-corruption activist Yane Yanev. The party zealously supported the GERB government.

Bulgaria for Citizens Movement is a new party founded and controlled by Meglena Kuneva, Bulgaria’s first European Commissioner. It is a centrist liberal party, supporting balanced budgets, ‘financial stability’ and economic liberalization.


Bulgaria has 6.9 million registered voters, when the entire population of the country is less than 7.5 million. Bulgaria’s electoral rolls are notoriously terrible, filled with Bulgarians who have been living abroad for years or voters who have since died. The government never seems to be interested in cleaning up the rolls. Bulgarian elections are also marred by serious allegations of vote selling/buying (voters selling their votes, which is illegal) or employers coercing their employees into voting for a certain party which they favour (often because it’s their own or because they hope to gain money from having that party go somewhere).

The day before the election, the police seized 350,000 illegal ballots in a printing press in Kostinbrod. Coincidentally, the owner of the printing press was a GERB municipal councillor.

Turnout was 51.33%, down almost ten points since the 2009 election (60.2%). As in other European countries which have faced similar socioeconomic upheaval and growing disillusionment with the political system, one of the main winners of popular discontent has been abstention. The results were:

GERB 30.50% (-9.21%) winning 98 seats (-19)
BSP 26.61% (+8.91%) winning 86 seats (+4)
DPS 11.29% (-3.17%) winning 33 seats (-4)
Ataka 7.30% (-2.06%) winning 23 seats (+2)
National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria 3.71% (+3.71%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Bulgaria for Citizens 3.25% (+3.25%) winning 0 seats (nc)
DSB 2.92% (-3.84%) winning 0 seats (-5)
IMRO 1.89% (+1.89%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Lider 1.73% (-1.53%) winning 0 seats (nc)
RZS 1.68% (-2.45%) winning 0 seats (-10)
NDSV 1.63% (-1.38%) winning 0 seats (nc)
SDS 1.38% (see DSB) winning 0 seats (-9)
People’s Voice 1.34% (+1.34%) winning 0 seats (nc)
All others (below 1%) 4.77% (+3.17%) winning 0 seats (nc)

Results by electoral constituency/province (source: uselectionatlas.org)

The governing party, for the first time in post-communist Bulgaria, won a plurality of the vote. However, the GERB lost a substantial amount of support – about a third of its vote – and it now falls well short of an absolute majority in the National Assembly. The opposition Socialists recovered a good chunk of the support they had lost in the last election, though I don’t know whether this means that they gained votes from other parties or if they just held their 2009 support in a context of low turnout.

Only two other parties entered Parliament this year, the DPS and Ataka. A bit less than 25% of voters voted for the plethora of parties which fell below the 4% threshold. Ataka, which had been written off only months ago, managed to claw its way back because of the protest movement and its left-wing economic positions, more in tune with some of the protester’s demands than the BSP’s moderate Third Wayish platform.

Nevertheless, these results still show that there is a major disconnect between Bulgarian voters and their political leaders. None of the four parties which entered Parliament are new forces or previously marginal forces which gained support as a result of the crisis. The GERB and BSP represent Bulgarian politics-as-usual: backroom deals, corruption, mismanagement and aloofness. The DSP is an ethnic party with an ethnically-defined electorate which will never be in a position to appeal to voters outside of its niche. Ataka saved its parliamentary caucus with the protests, but it does not seem like it will ever become a more serious or dangerous force. None of the other parties – Kuneva’s liberal party, the moribund (or long-dead parties which survive as ghosts) parties like the SDS/DSB/NDSV, the plethora of various personalist populist outfits or the new far-right (National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria) – a party associated with cable TV station SKAT (the one which had propelled Ataka to Parliament in 2005) – managed to actually appeal a great many voters.

The election yielded an inconclusive result. GERB is the largest party and should get first shot at forming government, but it seems extremely unlikely will be able to form a government with these numbers. The DPS and Ataka have ruled out working with GERB, even if GERB has gotten so desperate to remain in power that it backtracked on its past statements and is now open to working with DPS. A GERB-BSP grand coalition is unlikely. For starters, Bulgaria isn’t Austria or Germany. Secondly, the BSP led a very anti-GERB campaign which minced no words in talking about GERB’s corruption. It led the charge against Tsvetan Tsvetanov and alleged that the GERB had been preparing to rig the election when the 350k ballots were seized. Similarly, a GERB minority is unlikely to survive given the hostility of the three other parties.

The most likely government which could be formed on these numbers is a BSP-DSP-Ataka government (probably with Ataka and/or DPS providing outside support without being in cabinet), which is a bit hard to envision (given how Ataka and DPS are worlds apart). If the BSP is unable to form a government after GERB has failed to do likewise, the President will ask one of the smaller parties, and if this proves unsuccessful there must be new elections within two months. In the meantime, the technocratic (pro-GERB) government will stay in place as a caretaker cabinet.

At this point, one of the most likely outcomes is probably a new election. Whichever government results from this mess will find it hard to govern in the long-term.

One the biggest challenges facing any new government will be the legitimacy crisis and the growing divide between citizens and their politicians. Yet, given the political parties which remain in this new National Assembly, this seems to be a pipe dream.

Next: Pakistan, British Columbia (Canada) and the Philippines. Bear with me! Apologies if not all elections are covered, but guest posts are welcomed.


Posted on May 15, 2013, in Bulgaria. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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