Bulgarians will head to the polls on Sunday for a parliamentary election amid a surge of coronavirus cases and following months of anti-government protests.
Incumbent Prime Minister Boyko Borissov's centre-right GERB party is ahead in most opinion polls, despite accusations of endemic corruption.
According to national polls averages compiled by Europe Elects on March 21, the three-time premier would get a 28.4% vote share.
The socialist opposition (BSP), led by Korneliya Ninova, was polling at 22,9%, according to the same source, even if a new poll released Wednesday placed her party ahead of GERB, in contrast to other surveys.
A number of smaller parties were also projected to enter parliament for the first time.
Opinion polls suggest an uncertain outcome, with several coalition options possible and even another election in the fall in case of prolonged political deadlock.
Bulgaria, a small Balkan nation of 7 million that is the European Union's poorest country, rarely grabs international headlines.
Yet there are a number of reasons why Europeans should care about Bulgaria's election -- from defending the rule of the law to opening accession talks with North Macedonia, or containing the pandemic in the hard-hit Balkans.
Here is what is at stake.
Anti-corruption push: from protests to polls?
Anti-corruption NGO Transparency International ranks Bulgaria as the most corrupt of the 27 nations in the EU.
Last summer, thousands of Bulgarians have rallied daily for several months, decrying widespread, deep-rooted corruption and degradation of the rule of law.
They were calling for Borissov’s government and chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev to resign over allegations they allowed an oligarchic mafia to seize control of the Balkan country.
Protesters also said they were fed up with the ruling style of Borissov, who has been in power since 2009.
But Borissov refused to resign, saying he could not give up to chaos amid a health and economic crisis.
Therefore, Sunday's elections are regularly scheduled elections as protests failed to trigger snap elections.
While protests have dwindled in recent months due to the looming election and the pandemic, three parties are campaigning on protesters' demands:
- One of them is the centre-right alliance Democratic Bulgaria, which currently polls around 7%, according to a recent Market LINKS survey for Bulgaria's largest private television network bTV.
- Standup! Mafia out!, a centre-left coalition that was formed in the aftermath of the protests, currently polls around 5-6%.
- Populist party There Is Such a People (ITN) did not take to the streets but was also sympathetic to the protest movement, which received extensive coverage on the TV network owned by party leader and media mogul Slavi Trifonov. There Is Such a People currently polls around 16%, according to Market LINKS.
But according to Petar Bankov, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow, "we should not overestimate the effects of the protest movement" in the polls.
The Bulgarian politics expert told Euronews that support for these three parties was either stagnating or declining.
"The effects of the protests are waning out due to the lack of a unifying figure or political entity," Bankov said.
Speaking to Euronews ahead of the election, Maria Mateva an activist at Justice for All, who joined the protests from day one, said the stakes of the elections were high.
"We have been in a status quo for a very long time (...), a status quo that maintains very high corruption levels.
"So I think it's very important that we break this model," Mateva went on, adding that she was not optimistic over the outcome of this election.
"I believe our arrogant and unqualified government will put their best efforts to sabotage the vote and stay in power," she said.
"The election protocols are more complicated than ever. The commissions will lack some experienced members due to the pandemic and the replacements will be from the parties in power," Mateva added.
Wary of electoral fraud, the activist has volunteered as a vote count observer.
'European funding is providing a lifeline to the government'
MEPs sided with the protesters in a resolution voted in October last year that intended to defend the bloc's democratic principles.
"The European Parliament deeply regrets that the developments in Bulgaria have led to significant deterioration of respect for the principles of rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights, including the independence of the judiciary, separation of powers, the fight against corruption and freedom of the media," the resolution said.
But Borissov is well connected in EU circles and a long-time member of the powerful European People’s Party (EPP), making it delicate for Brussels to lash out at him.
Mateva told Euronews that she wished the EU had stricter binding mechanisms in place to ensure respect for the rule of law in her country.
"I'm very happy with all the recommendations, all the reports, but to be honest, in our case, they don't have the expected results," she said.
"The perception of many Bulgarians is that European funding is providing a lifeline to the government," Bankov told Euronews.
The expert welcomed the bloc's new rule of law mechanism that ties respect for the EU's core democratic values with EU funding.
"This would be something that could potentially work for Bulgaria," he said, even though the conditionality of EU funds has drawn strong pushback from eastern EU countries.
Containing COVID-19 in hard-hit Balkan region
Bulgaria has been hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with infection and mortality rates spiralling in recent weeks.
The Balkan country now has one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the EU, behind Hungary and about equal to the Czech Republic.
The deteriorating health situation prompted the government to impose new restrictions on March 18, including the closure of schools, universities, malls, culture, and sports venues.
Borissov had been reluctant to impose an unpopular lockdown ahead of the election despite soaring infection numbers.
Over the past week, Bulgaria reported on average 3,670 news cases per day, according to John Hopkins University. That is a three-fold increase in one month.
WHO said the situation in the Balkans and Central Europe was "particularly worrying."
The country's vaccination campaign has been slow and the country is lagging behind other EU nations. Only 5% of the population has received at least one injection, compared to 11% on average for the bloc.
Bankov said the main impact of the pandemic on the election will likely be a low turnout, in the absence of postal or proxy voting.
"We do see parties that are pandering to anti-lockdown sentiment," Bankov also noted, "especially populist party There Is Such a People."
"We also see the government currently using the pandemic for its own political benefits," the scholar went on, noting for instance that the government announced a lockdown easing for Thursday -- just before election day and despite soaring infection numbers.
Other experts think COVID anxiety may benefit the government.
Dimitar Ganev, an analyst from the research firm Trend, told AFP that voters usually favoured the status quo in times of uncertainty.
North Macedonia accession talks
Bulgaria's election may shape the outcome of North Macedonia's EU membership talks.
Bulgarian authorities vetoed in November last year the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia.
Bulgaria insists North Macedonia formally recognise that its language has Bulgarian roots and stamp out what it says is anti-Bulgarian rhetoric in the country before it will lift its objections to the country joining the bloc.
Last week, MEPs voted a resolution putting pressure on Sofia to lift its veto.
Recalling "North Macedonia’s cooperative and constructive approach throughout the negotiations," EU lawmakers "called on the two countries to reach a compromise over an action plan that includes concrete measures."
Bankov told Euronews there was currently a "consensus between the opposition and the government about the Bulgarian stance" on North Macedonia's accession talk.
One factor, however, is whether or not anti-Macedonian party VMRO makes it to parliament at the election. It is currently polling around the 4% threshold, Bankov said
"If they manage to enter into parliament, it could make it easier for them to continue with the current coalition (...), which would essentially mean that there would be no major changes in the government's stance on North Macedonia."
On the contrary, a government without VMRO could "moderate its stance," the scholar said.
Russia vs the West?
Bulgaria, Moscow’s closest ally during the Cold War, is a member of NATO but remains heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies.
Last week, Sofia expelled two Russian diplomats after Bulgarian prosecutors said they had dismantled an espionage ring reporting to Moscow.
Borissov, who portrays himself as pro-West, called on Russia "to stop spying in Bulgaria" following the incident and received support from both Washington and London.
Meanwhile, the Socialist opposition is traditionally friendlier to Russia.
But Bankov nuanced the binary opposition between a pro-Western Borissov and a pro-Russian opposition.
Borissov is like a "Janus face, in the sense that he just wants to get along with everyone," the expert told Euronews.
"So if he has to be anti-Russian in front of his Western partners, he will be. If he has to a bit more, say Russia friendly to another audience, then he will be as well."
The expert didn't think that this balancing exercise between Russia and the West would change fundamentally with the election.
Looming political deadlock
A least three different scenarios may emerge from Bulgaria's elections.
"As it looks, one very possible coalition would be between GERB, There Is Such a People and VRMO," Bankov said.
So far There Is Such a People has ruled out entering a coalition with GERB, the Socialist Party or the movement for rights and freedoms.
(Source: Europe Elects)
Another option would be a so-called "grand coalition" between GERB and the socialists, Bankov said. Even if the Socialist Party has so far rejected the idea, some of the socialist candidates have openly said that they were in favour of an "expert government," Bankov noted
"If they [all parties that can potentially enter parliament] keep to their pre-electoral promises, the most likely outcome will be new elections to coincide with the presidential elections in the fall," Bankov said.
"And that will definitely work in favour of Borissov, just because GERB is a major party" with the resources to handle several national campaigns at the same time.
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