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No clear winner in Bulgaria amid surge in votes for anti-establishment party

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By Alice Tidey
A woman reacts after casting her vote in Sofia on Sunday
A woman reacts after casting her vote in Sofia on Sunday   -   Copyright  Valentina Petrova/AP

Bulgarians headed to the polls on Sunday for their second general elections in three months with the ruling party expected to lose its grip on government.

The snap elections were called after the centre-right GERB party of former prime minister Boyko Borissov failed to form a coalition following the April ballot in which they came first with 26% of the vote. Opposition parties also failed to find common ground to form a government.

Borissov subsequently resigned and the eastern European Union member state has since been helmed by a caretaker government led by Prime Minister Stefan Yanev, a former army general.

Early polls indicated that the GERB were trailing the anti-establishment party, There Is Such a People (ITN), and record low turnout that marked a general apathy - and antipathy - from Bulgarian voters. 

 ITN, which is led by singer and popular TV host Slavi Trifonov, was on 23.2%, ahead of GERB which was on 23%. Even if GERB do manage to take the lead, it is unlikely the party will be able to form a governing coalition, but ITN may be able to do so with the help of other anti-establishment parties.

As for Borissov, his career at the top of Bulgarian politics is almost undoubtedly over. 

"I don't think Borissov is important anymore," Vessela Tcherneva, head of the Sofia office of the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR), told Euronews. 

"Nobody will go into government with him."

How did we get there?

Mass protests calling for Borissov's resignation started rocking Bulgaria in early summer 2020, with demonstrators decrying widespread corruption and a weakening of the rule of law.

Transparency International ranks Bulgaria the most corrupt out of the EU's 27 nations.

Borissov, in power since 2009, was accused of favouring oligarchs and businesses close to his GERB party and of colluding with the country's Prosecutor General, Sotir Tsatsarov, to pressure politicians and influential supporters of the opposition.

Borissov has always denied the allegations and attempted to calm the protest against him by first reshuffling his cabinet, then proposing to amend the constitution and finally promising ahead of the April ballot that he would not seek to become prime minister again.

The new general elections come just over a month after the US State Department imposed sanctions on three prominent Bulgarian citizens for corruption: media mogul Delyan Peevski, oligarch Vassil Bozhkov and former national security official Ilko Zhelyazkov.

Washington also slapped 64 other Bulgarian citizens and entities linked to them with sanctions.

What to expect?

According to a poll by Alpha Research last week, the Socialist Party was expected to come in third behind ITN and GERB with a projected 16.4% of the vote.

It will likely be followed by Democratic Bulgaria — a coalition of pro-reform liberal parties — and the centrist Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), which should both poll in the low to mid-teens. Stand up! Mafia Get Out, a coalition of anti-corruption parties, is forecast to capture 5.4% of the vote.

For Tcherneva, the most likely outcome is a coalition made up of ITN, Democratic Bulgaria and Stand up! Mafia Get Out. 

But even then, the three parties, which supported last year's protests, are unlikely to have a parliamentary majority and will need to rely on a fourth party.

"They have two options. The first is to go with the Socialist party but they are part of the problem," she said. 

"The other option would be to go with the support of the MRF (...) but I don't think that the protest parties would go in a coalition with them and most probably it will be a government of the protest parties with the support of the Socialist Party."

What will be the new government's main challenges?

The chief concerns for the new government will be strengthening the judiciary's independence and sheltering the Prosecutor's Office from political interference and beefing up the economy.

Bulgaria has the lowest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita in the EU at €6,600 in 2020, while the average for the EU27 was €26,290.

A minority government, however, may be limited in its scope for manoeuvre.

"I think getting reforms going will require a lot of political energy and when you have such a complicated coalition, you can create the momentum for one issue or two, but not for every one of them," Tcherneva said.

"So it can go two ways: it can be a coalition of the status quo with different faces, but pretty much the same way of doing things, and this can last again for a long time; or this can be a coalition with a reformist, hard-hitting agenda, but it may make it a short-lived one," she warned.

It will mostly hinge on the Socialist Party, and that they will demand in exchange for their support.

"We have been expecting them to try to reform for the past 30 years, so maybe in another 10 they will. But I don't see this coming," Tcherneva stressed.

"Still, it's worth the effort (for them) because I think people will realise who is on which side in this. But even a one-year or two-year government will make a big difference in this current kind of stalemate," she concluded.

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