WHO IS WHO AND WHO WANTS WHAT IN THE UPCOMING BULGARIAN GENERAL ELECTION?

by Anthony Georgieff

The next general election, scheduled for 2 April, will be the fifth in about two years' time

It was called by President Rumen Radev, who is now the de facto ruler of this country, acting through the caretaker governments he appoints, because the previous election, in October 2022, failed to produce any kind of political alignment that could form a credible government.

There are indications that the same type of impasse may result after the next election, but there are some important details analysts, voters and observers should take into consideration.

A total of 23 political parties and alliances have registered to take part in the ballot.

If opinion polls are anything to go by (and in Bulgaria they should always be taken with a large pinch of salt because pollsters tend to work for specific political clients and politically affiliated NGOs) Boyko Borisov's GERB remains the largest political party.

A close second comes the newly formed alliance of Changes Continued, led by Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev, and Democratic Bulgaria, itself an association of three political entities, led by Hristo Ivanov and Gen Atanas Atanasov. Following a long courtship, and despite the initial reluctance of Petkov and Vasilev to join forces with the DB, they finally succumbed to wedlock. The main argument held by Petkov and Vasilev was that amalgamating Changes Continued, which had garnered a significant amount of votes by voters disenchanted by the demands and methods of Ivanov and Gen Atanasov, with Democratic Bulgaria would result in plummeting support. Conversely, Ivanov and Gen Atanasov, perhaps out of fear their small but vocal grouping might be marginalised even further, insisted a reinforcement with such a massive and vibrant movement as Changes Continued would significantly improve their own standing. Of course, there is plenty of time to go before the voters take to the polls in April, and in Bulgaria anything can happen in the meanwhile, but the initial assessment of the CC-DB marriage of convenience is neutral. Some polls indicate the support for the CC-DB combined has not decreased, but it has not increased either. The leaders of the new alliance appear convinced they will garner a first-past-the-post majority in the next National Assembly, get to produce a stable government and dictate policies in the next four years.

What may help them topple the GERB mastodon, which they identify as their chief foe, is an event that took place far away from Bulgaria. In what the local hacks were quick to dub the "second Magnitsky round," the US State Department promulgated the names of several Bulgarians that were sanctioned under the Rule of Law and Accountability Act. Though the US act has no legal meaning in Bulgaria, its significance in terms of reputation and public relations, especially for politicians and parties that claim subscription to Western values, is great. One of the individuals named in the "second Magnitsky round," was Vladislav Goranov, a senior GERB functionary and former finance minister. Boyko Borisov was quick to distance himself from Goranov (generating a number of jokes in the process). Yet Goranov's inclusion in the Magnitsky sanctions may have a negative impact on GERB in the runup to the 2 April election.

The second big battle in the 2 April election will be for the third place.

At present, the Muslim-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms, or DPS, looks set to emerge as the third largest party in the next National Assembly. The DPS voters, who are mainly ethic Turks in both Bulgaria and Turkey (according to Bulgarian law, citizens permanently living outside the country are still enfranchised to vote in general elections). Traditionally, the DPS, with its more or less stable voter base, has held the position of a balancer and has been a junior partner in several governments since 1990. At present, everyone left, right and centre swears they will never have the DPS as a partner. Whether they will abide to their protestations will depend on the actual election results.

The third place will be contested by the Revival party of Kostadin Kostadinov. A pro-Russian radical and extreme nationalist, Kostadinov has been dubbed "Kostya Kopeykin," referring to an infamous character in Nikolay Gogol's 19th century masterpiece, Dead Souls. Kostadinov started his political career at the beginning of the Covid pandemic when he was an outspoken anti-vaxxer. His perceptions of Covid-19 soon evolved into virulent anti-establishment rhetoric. At present, Kostadinov is gathering signatures to invoke a referendum on whether Bulgaria should adopt the euro. He demands an immediate cessation of any military aid to Ukraine. And he wants all US military personnel out of Bulgaria. Kostadin "Kostya Kopeykin" Kostadinov takes his cue from other extreme nationalist radicals such as Volen Siderov (Ataka) and Valeri Simeonov (National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria). While a textbook populist, Kostadinov may be able to beat the DPS into the fourth place. The main question analysts ask themselves is whether his bite will turn out to be worse than his bark. If the conduct of his extremist predecessors is anything to go by, the likely answer to that question is a no.

The Bulgarian Socialist Party, or BSP, will jump over the election threshold and enter the Bulgarian parliament, but with its projected 8-9 percent it will be a small and not very viable force. A recent congress of the BSP resulted in the removal of several of its senior functionaries. Coupled with the growing discontent with its increasingly autocratic leader, Kornelia Ninova, the BSP may disintegrate completely. One of its main demands is the continued rejection of the Istanbul convention for the protection of rights and women and children, which Ninova sees as promoting what she calls "gay marriages."

Other parties may also enter the next general assembly. Stefan Yanev's Bulgarian Upswing is a credible contender, and so is Slavi Trifonov's There Is Such a People.

Importantly, voter turnout is expected to be low, possibly even lower than at the October 2022 election, because an increasing number of Bulgarians simply do not bother to take part in what they view as a political circus.

Once the bottomline of the general election gets clear, the horse-trading will begin. Unfortunately, the situation in the 49th National Assembly will probably not be very different. Unless GERB and the Changes Continued-Democratic Bulgaria alliance gain a clear first-past-the-post majority that will enable them to set up a government on their own, the future of Bulgaria's next rule will be contingent on the DPS or Kostya Kopeykin's Revival. None of the main players will talk with them, and the BSP will probably be too small to count.

Consequently, Bulgarian politics will likely continue with its instability. The two most direct effects of this will be that adopting the euro and accession to Schengen will remain increasingly distant. To put it in another way, as a result of its political impotence this country may remain a second-tier EU member state in the foreseeable future.

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