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Bulgaria to elect sixth parliament in three years

Alexander Andreev
June 7, 2024

Bulgarians will elect representatives to parliaments at both the national and EU levels on Sunday. Familiar faces and polarizing figures could return to power in Sofia.

Boyko Borisov (left) and Deljan Peewski (right) sit beside each other at a table, May 14, 2024
Most observers expect a coalition between GERB, the party of former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov (left), and DPS, the party of Delyan Peevski (right)Image: BGNES

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to Bulgaria last week to provide campaign support to Bulgaria's GERB party, a member of the transnational European People's Party (EPP) group to which von der Leyen herself belongs. She was visiting a country that is unique in the EU in many ways.

For one thing, Bulgarians will not only be voting in the EU elections this Sunday; they will also be electing a new parliament, their sixth in only three years.

But that's not the only thing that sets Bulgaria apart: Rumen Radev, president of the NATO and EU country, often makes pro-Russia statements on the war in Ukraine and claims, among other things, that Russia cannot be defeated.

What's more, the country's next government could include politicians that are seen in the West as corrupt, among them several who have been sanctioned in accordance with the US Magnitsky Act, which allows Washington to sanction foreign individuals for human rights and corruption violations.

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev has made several pro-Russia statements on the war in Ukraine and claims Russia cannot be defeatedImage: BGNES

Finally, one of the EU's longest-serving heads of government, former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, is returning to Bulgarian politics after a three-year absence. Many Bulgarian election observers and critics see Borisov as a symbol of the intertwinement of politics and organized crime.

Low voter turnout could help Borisov

Discussions about the upcoming elections in Bulgaria have been dominated by Borisov and the former media magnate and oligarch Delyan Peevski, who has been sanctioned by the US.

Borisov and his GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) party are expected to get 24–25% of the vote in Sunday's EU and parliamentary elections. The liberal-conservative alliance known as We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria (PP-DB) is expected to poll at 15–16%, with the party of Bulgaria's Muslims, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), coming in third.

Peevski was recently elected co-chair of DPS, even though he himself is not a Muslim.

Voter turnout at elections in Bulgaria over the past three years has hovered consistently around the 40% mark. Election observers assume this will not change on Sunday, although the most recent opinion polls suggest turnout might be as high as 48%.

One thing is certain: Both GERB and DPS would benefit from low voter turnout.

Forming a government may be difficult

Borisov's GERB party spent 10 months in power over the last year, with the liberal-conservative PP-DB alliance. Their coalition government was based on Euro-Atlantic values and unconditional support for Ukraine in the fight against the Russian aggressor. After the collapse of the coalition in April, it's thought unlikely — although not impossible — that the two parties will form a government again.

Four men and a woman from the Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria (PP-DB) alliance officially hand in their resignation to President Rumen Radev (right), Sofia, Bulgaria, March 27, 2024
The leaders of the We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria (PP-DB) alliance handed in their resignation in March, triggering a parliamentary electionImage: BGNES

Most observers expect a coalition between GERB and DPS. According to pollster Georgi Ganev of the Trend agency, however, other constellations are also possible.

"Even if GERB and DPS do get a majority in parliament, it will be a small one, and it is unlikely that the two parties will decide to rule with such slim support unless they are joined by one or two other parties," he said. "At the same time, PP-DB voters are unlikely to be very happy about a repeat of the previous government."

Populists expected to make gains

The populists of the Vazrazhdane party (Revival) are also set to be elected to Bulgaria's parliament. Vazrazhdane is a pro-Russian, anti-European party whose leader, Kostadin Kostadinov, has announced he would like to form a new group in the European Parliament with Germany's far-right populist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) after the EU elections.

Kostadinov has said the EU is "harmful." Several Bulgarian experts believe future members of the European Parliament from Vazrazhdane will try to sabotage the work of the entire European Union. They also said President Radev secretly backs the party because he holds similar pro-Russian views.

Many big issues on the agenda

After the elections, Bulgaria must deal with a whole string of important issues, including high energy and electricity prices, support for Ukraine and for Ukrainian refugees in Bulgaria, joining the euro currency zone and, above all, the as-yet unfinished reform of the judiciary and the country's intelligence services. It was these reforms that caused the collapse of the outgoing government.

Two people walk past the building of the Bulgarian parliament, the National Assembly, in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria
Bulgarians will elect a new parliament on Sunday. Pictured here: the building of the Bulgarian parliament, the National Assembly, in SofiaImage: Bildagentur-online/Joko/picture alliance

Oligarch Delyan Peevski has said he will not allow Bulgaria's intelligence services to be "broken up."

For his part, Borisov has rejected any suggestion that he wants to adopt a mafia culture. "I am a European politician; I do not want a return to the mafia years," Mediapool, a Bulgarian news portal, quoted him as saying earlier this year.

Political analyst Daniel Smilov believes Bulgaria can advance and make progress. He points to the major successes of the outgoing government, saying: "Despite everything, Bulgaria has acted responsibly and reasonably with regard to Ukraine and the country's dependence on Russian gas, made significant strides toward Schengen [Europe's zone of unrestricted movement — Editor's note] and is on the verge of joining the eurozone. Incomes in the country are rising and the country is racing to catch up with Central Europe."

This article was originally written in German.