Bulgaria's center-right GERB party has won in parliamentary elections, but not decisively. Building a government coalition looks tricky.
Snap parliament elections have taken place in Bulgaria, looking to answer a number of essential questions: Will the country finally have a stable government? Will the country remain within the sphere of European and trans-Atlantic influence or tilt back towards Russia? Will the new government be more left or right, and what role will populism play?
Preliminary election returns show the previous prime minister will remain: Boyko Borisov of the center-right GERB party. His first challenge as the country's leader will be to find partners for a stable coalition. Some EU observers and policymakers want to see a "grand coalition" with the socialist party (BSP). But that looks unlikely given Bulgaria's political polarization and both sides' rejection of such a coalition, said pollster, Andrey Raychev.
However, Andrey Smilov, a political scientist, dismisses the hard stance against a "grand coalition" as mere campaign rhetoric.
"There's actually plenty of room for cooperation beneath the surface," Smilov said. "One option would be a sort of government of experts to placate and convince voters that such a coalition is necessary in the interests of security or to combat the refugee influx."
A weak and unstable government
Though on election night Borisov floated the possibility of working with the BSP, the socialists, in their turn, remain opposed to any coalition with GERB. So the prime minister may need to rely on a rotation of minority governments, as has been the case three times in the last four years. An alliance of three borderline neofascist parties, known as the United Patriots, could help rule. Wolja (Will), a populist party led by businessman and self-declared "Bulgarian Donald Trump" Veselin Mareshki, could also have a seat at the table, if the party makes it into parliament at all.
No matter the make-up, the government looks to be a weak and unstable one, unwilling to tackle Bulgaria's main problems: corruption, economic stagnation, poverty, and faltering health and education systems. The election has observers also looking for signs of foreign policy interests, said Ognian Mintchev, a political scientist. "The question is whether Bulgaria will remain a part of the Euro-trans-Atlantic community or become a 'no-man's land' between East and West."
Russian influence has been growing over Bulgaria, which has a pro-Russian history. As an EU member, it is part of EU sanctions against Russia. Rumen Radev, an independent elected Bulgarian president in January and supported by the socialists, has, however, called these sanctions into question.
Energy projects backed by Russia play a "primary role" in what divides GERB and BSP, said Smilov. BSP wants to see a nuclear power plant and gas pipeline "come to fruition and be financed by the state. GERB is skeptical, however."
Bulgaria has always found itself caught between Russia and Turkey, in both geographic and historical terms. The fiery rhetoric of Turkey's President Recep Erdogan coupled with heightened fear of refugees helped send 9 percent of voters toward the United Patriots nationalist alliance, making them the third-largest party in parliament. The ethnic Turkish MRF party finds itself right behind at 8 percent. Raychev sees Turkey's electoral influence in favor of DOST, another ethnic Turkish party, and fear of Erdogan "opening the refugee floodgates" as having played key roles in the election outcome.
The majority of Bulgarian voters are firmly pro-EU, recognizing its role in protecting Bulgaria from an influx of refugees and its economic support worth billions. Political rhetoric from all parties, including nationalist ones, mirrors public sentiment, despite the occasional anti-EU jab, mostly from the socialist party chairwoman, Kornelia Ninova.
Given Bulgaria's known corruption, voters tend to trust EU politicians more than their own on tackling graft and cronyism. They have pinned their hopes on the EU as serving as a solution to their national problems.