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Bulgaria election: All you need to know about country's fourth vote in just 18 months

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By Kalina Vlaykova & Nikolaj Oblakov
Bulgarian ex-Premier Boiko Borisov, leader of the center-right GERB party, drives a vintage Mercedes as he leaves a voting station, in Sofia, Bulgaria, Sunday, March 26, 2017.
Bulgarian ex-Premier Boiko Borisov, leader of the center-right GERB party, drives a vintage Mercedes as he leaves a voting station, in Sofia, Bulgaria, Sunday, March 26, 2017.   -   Copyright  Credit: AP Photo   -  

Bulgaria is embroiled in such political turmoil that Sunday's snap election is the fourth such vote in just 18 months. 

As of Sunday morning, only nine per cent of voters had cast their ballots, similar to the turnout at the last election in November 2021.

So, what's behind the instability and is there any solution in sight?

How did we get to this point?

Bulgaria, which joined the European Union alongside neighbour Romania 15 years ago, had enjoyed relative stability up until two years ago.

But large-scale, drawn-out anti-government protests rocked the country in the summer of 2020.

People accused the government of Boyko Borissov -- first elected in 2009 -- of corruption and democratic backsliding.

Nevertheless, his Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party went on to win planned elections in April 2021.

However, with 20 fewer seats, Borissov was unable to form a government. 

Credit: AP
Boyko BorissovCredit: AP

Indeed, no party was able to cobble together a coalition to govern. So a snap election was held three months later, which saw the There Is Such a People (ITN) party -- founded by Bulgarian TV host and musician Slavi Trifonov -- narrowly win the most seats. 

But another three months later -- in November -- Bulgarians were again back at the polls after ITN failed to form a coalition government.

That saw a new party, We Continue the Change (PP), sweep to victory and form a coalition with several other parties, including ITN.

But a little more than six months after forming a government, ITN pulled out citing disagreements with coalition partners over the budget and frustration at progress in tackling corruption. 

ITN leader Slavi Trifonov also accused PP of attempting to lift the veto on the start of EU accession talks with North Macedonia, disregarding Bulgaria’s national interests.

The coalition fell apart because it was an amalgam of parties united only by their opposition to Borissov's GERB party, Parvan Simeonov, from Gallup International Balkans, told Euronews.

Valentina Petrova/AP
Former Prime Minister Kiril Petkov poses with his supporter for photo during election campaign event in town of Pernik, Bulgaria, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022Valentina Petrova/AP

Who are the main parties in the election?

  • Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB): Right-wing party of Boyko Borissov, who was Bulgaria's prime minister for more than a decade until 2021.

  • We Continue the Change (PP): Kiril Petkov and Asen Vasilev only formed this new centrist party a year ago. It spent six months in government before its ruling coalition collapsed.

  • There Is Such a People (ITN): Bulgarian singer and TV host Slavi Trifonov formed this party in 2020, naming it after one of his albums. Sparked the October election when it pulled out of the last governing coalition.

  • Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS): Long-established centrist party that primarily represents the country's Turkish minority

  • Bulgaria Socialist Party (BSP): Successor of the Bulgarian Communist Party that was one of the parties in the country's most recent coalition government.

  • Revival (Vazrajdane): Pro-Russian nationalist party that is expected to do very well in October's snap election.

  • Democratic Bulgaria coalition (DB): Diverse collection of three parties -- taking in greens, liberals and right-wing democrats -- collectively known as the "urban right".

  • Bulgarian Rise (BV): Ex-caretaker PM Stefan Yanev formed this conservative party in May. Some describe it as pro-Russian. Yanev was sacked from the last government after recommending that Bulgarians stick to Putin's description of the Ukraine war: "a special military operation".

What are the main issues for voters?

Latest surveys show that Bulgarians' chief concerns are related to inflation, price hikes and the looming energy crisis.

That's because the country's annual inflation rate hit 15% in August.

It's being driven by increases in energy prices after Gazprom halted natural gas deliveries in April because Sofia refused to pay in roubles.

In Bulgaria, the poorest among the European Union's 27 members, surging energy costs are forcing families to cut extra spending ahead of the coming winter months to make sure there is enough money to buy food and medicines.

Linked to this, there has also been a change in what is driving people to vote, say experts. 

In last year's elections, the electorate was split between parties representing the status quo and those promising change.

But the Ukraine war has altered everything. 

"The war in Ukraine has caused a new cleavage in Bulgarian politics," Dimitar Ganev, a sociologist from opinion polling organisation Trend Research Center, told Euronews Bulgaria.

"It's between those who take a pro-Euro, pro-Atlantic position and those who have a softer stance towards Russia's actions. 

"Some of the political parties exploit the traditionally favourable attitude of Bulgarians towards Russia and seek to gather new voters."

Credit: AP
A woman pushes her baby on a stroller past an election campaign billboard of pro-Russian "Vazrazhdane" party, in Kyustendil, Bulgaria, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022Credit: AP

Why should the rest of Europe care about Bulgaria's election?

The fractures that are defining Bulgaria's politics further reinforce the opposition and with the vote share split between more parties making predictions about the final outcome is harder, according to political scientist Teodora Yovcheva.

This, she adds, should provide a warning for the rest of Europe.

"Bulgaria is entering a downward spiral of elections and this is a phenomenon that has every likelihood of spreading to other parts of Europe," Yovcheva told Euronews Bulgaria.

"The reason for this is the fragmentation of the political party system. Israel and Spain already have a similar fate.

"In the Bulgarian instance, however, the intensity is much stronger. Therefore, the European political elite has the opportunity to learn from Bulgaria's experience and appreciate the value of predictable and stable interaction between parties."

Who is likely to emerge triumphant from Bulgaria's election?

The political alliance GERB-SDS led one of the latest opinion polls from Gallup International earlier in September.

It is projected to get 25.8% of the vote, followed by We Continue the Change (PP) on 16.6%.

Meanwhile, the pro-Russian party Revival (Vazrajdane) and Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) are forecast to get around 13%.

Simeonov said one of the question marks of these elections is what happens to the parties of Bulgarian singer Slavi Trifonov (There Is Such a People - ITN) and ex-caretaker PM Stefan Yanev (the pro-Russian movement, called Bulgarian Rise)

ITN is facing a record loss in vote share. During elections last year it was the second biggest party. Now it might struggle to make the 4% threshold for getting into parliament. The party's main slogan is transforming Bulgaria from a parliamentary to a semi-presidential republic.

"The idea of a presidential republic is not alien to many voters disappointed by a series of elections without a clear stabilising outcome. They would like to see a more concrete bearer of political responsibility," said Simeonov.

In Bulgaria, when if a government collapses and a new one cannot be agreed upon, the constitution says the president must appoint a temporary, interim cabinet to rule until new parliamentary elections are held. 

Therefore Bulgaria's president, Rumen Radev, has recruited three of the country's most recent coalitions, making him a key figure in the political turmoil that has engulfed the EU state in recent years.