The 2014 Parliamentary elections in Bulgaria were preceded by almost one year of civic protests in the capital, Sofia. Young people who formed the majority of the protesters demanded that the Bulgarian political elite should become accountable and responsible for its political decisions. With the slogan ‘Who?’ they demanded to know who was governing the country. Thus, Bulgarian youth protested against the “backstage” – the clandestine dealings between politicians and economic elite, which they felt was corrupting not only political and economic spheres, but the whole of society. The decision of the parliament to dissolve itself and call new elections in October 2014 was accepted with relief by Bulgarian citizens. The European Parliament (EP) elections in May and the severe defeat of one of the governing parties, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) served as a precursor for the national elections.
The electoral campaign, as is usual in Bulgaria, began long before the official starting date. The results of EP elections mentioned above and surveys conducted by various sociological agencies all indicated that the main opposition party, Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), would be the winner. The survey prognoses remained stable throughout the whole campaign, showing support of about 30% of votes for GERB. Thus, other political parties from the very beginning shaped their electoral strategies according to the expected results. As a result, for the first time, the campaign for national elections was less intensive and aggressive than the EP elections campaign. Politicians preferred to focus on populist promises, such as generating one million working places in the next four years (“Bulgaria Without Censorship” bloc), improvement of the infrastructure, and gaining additional funds from the EU. But pending reforms in critical areas of development for Bulgaria – including education, health care, security and social policy – were barely mentioned. The EU was referred to during the campaign primarily with regards to the blocking of funds by the Union during the previous government. In general, within the Bulgarian political field, the EU continued to be perceived mainly as a financial donor, while all other dimensions of this element of regional cooperation remain largely muted.
By the time of the elections, most political observers shared the opinion that this was the calmest electoral campaign for last 15 years, without significant disputes on policies among the politicians. These tended to rely on their electoral cores and did not try to attract other voters. Some experts even expressed an opinion that this was an intentional strategy of the parties. One novelty of the campaign was the introduction of preferential voting in party lists, which gave voters an opportunity to change the order of elected MPs. Consequently, the secondary members of party lists often had more active campaigns, as they had more to gain.
The overall results were in accordance with expectations. Still, there were several important trends and developments that could be observed from the outcome of the elections. First is the voter turnout: in these elections the turnout was below 50% (48.66%) – the lowest in the history of Bulgarian national parliamentary elections since the fall of communism. In last five national elections the highest turnout was registered in 2001 (66%); after that turnout rates began to decrease, reaching its minimum in 2014. Thus, there was a tendency of declining participation in one of fundamental institutions of democratic political game: elections. This was an important indicator of the level of citizens’ trust in political institutions in general. Indeed, in the last several years there were numerous surveys in the country indicating high levels of distrust in the main democratic institutions. Combined with the rising support for populist parties and longstanding problems of corruption, this put the very stability of the country’s democratic model under threat.
Second, an important issue was the third consecutive victory of GERB in national elections. But, this time the party’s results were not as impressive as their first victory: it gained 32.67% of the votes (1,072,491), which gave them 84 seats in the national parliament, compared to 39.72% (1,678,641 votes) in 2009. Since 2009, GERB steadily transformed itself from an anti-establishment party into one of the parties of the status quo. This decline in support could explain why Boyko Borisov, the party leader, looked more concerned than satisfied after the results were announced.
Table 1: Results of the of 2013 and 2014 elections parliamentary elections in Bulgaria
|Party/Results||2013 % (votes)||Seats||2014 % (votes)||Seats|
|GERB||30.54% (1 081 605)||97||32.67% (1 072 491)||84|
|BSP||26.61% (942 541)||84||15.40% (505 527)||39|
|DPS||11.31% (400 466)||36||14.84% (487 134)||38|
|RB||–||–||8.89% (291 806)||23|
|Patriotic Front||–||–||7.28% (239 101)||19|
|BBC||–||–||5.69% (186 938)||15|
|Ataka||7.30% (258 481)||23||4.52% (148 262)||15|
|ABV||–||–||4.15% (136 223)||11|
Source: compiled by the author based on data from Tsentralna izbiratelna Komissiya
The third issue to consider is the humiliating defeat of Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the entrance of new left challenger, the Alternative for Bulgarian Revival (ABV), into the national parliament. The BSP received the support of 15.39% of the electorates (505,527 votes), which as the lowest number of votes since the fall of communism in 1989 and situated the party among those with average electoral support. The tendency of declining BSP support was visible in last three national elections. In fact, the party did not succeed in stabilizing its electoral position since 2005, when the party was part of Sergei Stanishev’s coalition government. Sociological surveys in first few days after the elections revealed that BSP voters in the EP elections preferred to vote for the newly established ABV coalition this time, as well as for the populist parties that secured parliamentary representation.
Fourthly, traditional centre-right parties were back in the parliament after a short break (2013-2014). Thus, under the name ‘Reformist Bloc’, the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) and Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB), in coalition with the Movement Bulgaria of Citizens (DBG), received 8.88% of the votes (291,806). The voters of this bloc were predominantly economically active people with a University education living in the capital. Many of them participated in the 2013 protests, and were publicly active and explicit with their political preferences. This was a double edged sword for the new Bloc: on one hand, it had devoted supporters, but on the other the political activity of their electorate limited their room for maneuver, including their coalition potential.
Fifth, three nationalist populist parties entered parliament. Ataka succeeded in passing the electoral threshold (4%) for a fourth consecutive time. This party received 4.51% of the votes (148,262) and would be represented in the parliament by 12 MPs, which was far below its 2009 result: 9.36% (395,733). For a second consecutive electoral campaign Ataka focused on severe criticism of the EU, NATO, the USA, and the ‘colonization’ of the country by Western-based multinational companies. The party openly campaigned for close contacts with Russia, expressing its adoration of the ‘powerful man’ in Moscow. Not surprisingly, Ataka declared itself a Russophile party and opened its campaign with the concert of the Orchestra of Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Two other national-populist parties competed with Ataka for the support of Bulgarian voters and managed to enter parliament by forming the ‘Patriotic Front’ Coalition. This coalition comprised the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) and National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB) supported by some other micro-parties. Their result was 7.28% of the votes (239,101) and they secured 19 MPs.
The role of television
Last but not least, these elections proved once again the importance of the media and especially TV as a channel for political communication and mobilization in Bulgaria. The three populist political parties which entered parliament were created by TV channels. Ataka emerged from a political programme on the ‘SKAT’ TV channel and after it entered parliament for the first time in 2005 the party created its own channel ‘TV Alpha’. The birthplace of NFSB was also TV ‘SKAT’ a few years after Ataka came into being. The third populist party that was the product of TV was “Bulgaria without Censorship” (BBC). This party grew out of a TV programme of the same name produced by the Chief Executive of the TV 7 channel, Nikolay Barekov. After the programme gained popularity, Mr Barekov left TV and started a political career as a self-described ‘new politician’. The significant role of TV in the creation of new political parties in Bulgaria was characteristic of the political process in that country more generally. Parties could use the media successfully as a springboard to gain popularity and influence, but they did not invest much into party building. The use of the media and, especially TV, made such parties highly flexible and sensitive to public opinion. This rendered them responsive, but not responsible: they lacked institutional structures that could translate popular opinions into policies. These were ‘parties without firm social roots’ (Poguntke 2002) representing only the interests of their leaders. This made possible the un-thinkable situation of the Bulgarian nationalist-populist party Ataka supporting Plamen Oresharski’s 2013-14 coalition government comprising the BSP and DPS, both of which were formally Ataka’s ideological adversaries.
Composition of the future government
Determining composition of the government will be a difficult and time-consuming process due to the fragmentation of the newly elected parliament. There are three parties and five coalitions, in which the number of parties varies from two (Patriotic Front) to thirteen (Coalition BSP Left Bulgaria). Immediately after the elections, GERB said that they would form a minority government, relying on the implicit support of the DPS, BBC, and Patriotic Front. This already happened once in 2009 when GERB won national elections but did not have enough MPs to form majority government. At that time, the leader of the party formed a minority government and succeeded in attracting several MPs from the smaller parties represented in parliament, as a result of which he was able to remain in office for more than three years. GERB leader Boyko Borisov’s latest idea is to form a government of “shared responsibility” in which some parties will have ministerial positions, but there would be no official coalition agreement. The alternative, of dissolving parliament again and calling new elections, is not viable as nobody seems ready for this at this stage, simply because their election to a new parliament is not certain. The parties that are new entrants (BBC, ABV and Patriotic Front) prefer to have secure places in the current parliament than to try and maximize their gains in new elections; while the party of Bulgarian Turks, the DPS, is in a position to defend effectively its interests in this parliament and sees no need for new elections. The BSP and Ataka, on the other hand, are in a deep crisis and definitely not prepared for a new electoral battle.
On the basis of the above we can draw two conclusions. First, in the short term perspective we have high level of political fragmentation which will make the next government highly dependent upon different interests and incapable of pursuing significant reforms in key areas for Bulgaria’s political and economic development. Second, in the long term perspective, the steady decline in voter participation, widespread political cynicism, increase in support for populist parties and the “institutionalization” of corrupting practices such as vote buying and corporate voting, all contribute to the deeper erosion of the democratic political system. Bulgaria may be entering a period of prolonged political and economic instability which will render it an unreliable political partner in the EU and NATO frameworks.
Dragomir Stoyanov (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Lecturer in European Union Politics and International Politics at City College International Faculty and VUZF (Bulgaria). His research interests include political parties, Europeanization and politics in Central and Eastern Europe.