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Bulgaria's third election in eight months brings hopes of an end to political stalemate

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By Orlando Crowcroft
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A supporter of the Political Party "We Continue the Change" takes pictures during an event in central Sofia, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.
A supporter of the Political Party "We Continue the Change" takes pictures during an event in central Sofia, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021.   -   Copyright  Valentina Petrova/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Earlier this summer, fans of Bulgaria’s economy minister, Kiril Petkov, circulated a meme that showed the 41-year-old alongside another of a shirtless Chris Hemsworth. Australian actor Hemsworth, it said, was what men think women want. Petkov, it said, was what they actually wanted.

In the run-up to the November 14 parliamentary elections -- Bulgaria’s third in a year -- Petkov and his new party, We Continue the Change (PP), has emerged as the great hope of those opposed to ex-prime minister Boyko Borisov, who resigned after his four-year term ended in 2021.

Borisov faced huge street protests in 2020 after Bulgarian police and prosecutors raided the offices of the president, Rumen Radev, and that lasted until his mandate ended earlier this year.

And despite the PP only having been formed six weeks ago -- and Petkov having kept his shirt on, in public at least, for the duration -- the meme creators could well be right. Bulgarian voters of both sexes appear poised to make the PP the second-biggest party in parliament on Sunday.

The same polls suggest that Borisov’s Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) will come first, but fall far short of a majority and fail to form a coalition, as in April.

Under Bulgaria’s constitution, the mantle will fall to the second-biggest party, which could either be the PP or the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). If the former, Petkov and his co-leader, caretaker finance minister Assen Vassilev, will be asked to form a government.

A total of 240 seats are up for grabs, with seven main political groupings competing: the GERB, PP and BSP as well as There Is Such a People (ITN) -- headed by pop singer and former TV star Slavi Trifonov -- and three other anti-establishment parties, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) and Stand up, Bulgaria. We are coming (IBGNI) and Democratic Bulgaria (DB).

In order to form a government, one of them would need to win 121 seats - a prospect that is extremely unlikely. More likely is that after Sunday, days and weeks will be spent trying to form a coalition. The party that comes in first place tries first, second place tries second and if both fail, a party is nominated by the president to try. If it fails, new elections are called.

It is that scenario that has played out twice already during 2021.

In April, GERB - which came first - failed to form a government, as did ITN. When the third place Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) declined to even try new elections were called for July.

In that poll, ITN shocked Bulgaria by coming in first place by less than a percentage point over GERB. All eyes turned to Trifonov, the TV personality-turned-politician, to use his victory to unite the anti-establishment parties against the GERB and end Bulgaria’s political quagmire.

Johanna Geron/AP
Bulgaria's President Rumen Radev speaks with the media as he arrives for an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Tuesday, May 25, 2021.Johanna Geron/AP

Sadly for many in Bulgaria, it didn’t work out that way. Trifonov and the ITN failed to bring the other anti-establishment parties on board and bickering over ministerial appointments saw negotiations breakdown. The consensus in Bulgaria was that -- buoyed by his surprising victory -- Trifonov became the political equivalent of a celebrity primadonna.

“Trifinov and the ITN blew it,” Ruzha Smilova, programme director at the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, told Euronews.

This time around even the most generous polls suggest that GERB will not win more than 24% of the votes on Sunday, meaning Borisov will once again struggle to form a government.

The same polls suggest that support for ITN, just like the TV and music career of its leader, is on the wane. So it could be up to Petkov and Vassilev to end the stalemate.

“The hope is that the anti-establishment parties are clever enough to finally start negotiating and start developing what is a missing part of Bulgarian politics: coalition culture,” Smilova said.

But despite glowing coverage in the international press, comparisons to Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau and a strong line in internet memes, Petkov’s campaign has been dogged with controversy in recent weeks over allegations that he was not actually permitted to serve as caretaker minister as -- until recently -- he was a citizen of both Bulgaria and Canada.

There are no laws governing citizenship.
Kiril Petkov
Co-leader of We Continue the Change

Petkov has claimed that the future was manufactured by his enemies and disputed whether being a joint-national prevents him from holding office anyway. He told Euronews that he had given up his Canadian citizenship on April 21, before he became a caretaker minister.

His critics point out that he remained a Canadian citizen until August 20, but he countered that the law isn’t clear on whether that means he couldn’t serve.

"This was a PR stunt for our opponents. The Constitution doesn't say anywhere when exactly your citizenship is (has to be) given up. There are no laws governing citizenship,” he said.

“This attack and this opposition against me and our movement [...] is proof that we're really fighting against private interests within the government, that it's not just for show.”

Still, if the spat has damaged Petkov amongst voters, the fact that his co-leader is also popular- if not as famous - means that the party may be able to weather it.

“They are a very good couple. The one guy, he is very likeable, charismatic and the other guy is the better negotiator,” said Smilova.

The November 14 poll is two elections rolled into one. President Radev, whose term expires early next year, opted to bring his election forward and run the presidential and parliamentary vote on the same day. Radev said that the move would save both time and money.

Since his election in 2016, Radev has bucked the trend of his office being largely ceremonial and emerged as a vociferous critic of Borisov and the GERB, even going as far as supporting the street protests that led to the ex-prime minister’s downfall.

Unless Radev can win 50% of the vote in the first round -- with turnout above 50% -- the vote will proceed to a second round on 21 November. Although Radev faces at least one strong contender in Anastas Gerdjikov, he is polling well ahead of his rivals and should win re-election.

It remains to be seen how the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in Bulgaria, which is the least-vaccinated EU member state, with just 23% of people vaccinated, will affect turnout - or indeed, the prospects of the parties running for office. Bulgaria is seeing thousands of new cases daily and has had days with more than 300 deaths. Meanwhile, the country's healthcare system is struggling.

First results -- via exit polls -- will be known at around 8 pm (CET) on Sunday, but they may not be conclusive, especially if there is a big turnout amid the Bulgarian diaspora.

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