News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Southeastern Europe - Europe2024 Bulgaria’s False Dilemma

When elections become a ritualized contest between the status quo and nebulous “change”, apathy wins



Boris Popivanov,

Protesters gather in front of the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Protesters gather in front of the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia, Bulgaria to demand its removal, 9 May 2023. Photo: IMAGO / NurPhoto

Earlier this month, on 14 September, the coalition governing Bulgaria headed by an otherwise unassuming chemistry professor named Nikolay Denkov marked its first 100 days in office. From day one, Bulgarian media had debated feverishly whether the coalition between the two largest groups in the Bulgarian parliament — the right-wing populist Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), which governed the country from 2009 to 2021, and a right-liberal alliance between the newly formed party We Continue the Change (PP) and the standard-bearer of Bulgarian liberalism, Democratic Bulgaria (DB) — would be able to last this long. Incidentally, its participants reject the term coalition, and instead refer to the government as a “sglobka”, a Bulgarian word that means something like “puzzle piece” and says a lot about its instability, whether real or perceived.

Boris Popivanov is an Associate Professor of Political Ideologies at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” in Sofia, Bulgaria.

In those first 100 days, GERB and PP-DB threatened each other with ultimatums and formal statements that they would withdraw from the agreement, declared that they had no confidence in each other for anything, and proved unable to agree on who was actually leading the coalition — GERB, which has more MPs, or the smaller PP. The argument about who was more important has yet not come to a resolution, and instead, the two parties have agreed to rotate out representatives. PP-DB representative Nikolay Denkov will serve as prime minister for the first nine months, after which he will switch places with Deputy Prime Minister Maria Gabriel from GERB. By all accounts, both parties appear to be quite ashamed of their participation in the coalition, even if they do not admit so publicly.

“Changing” the Status Quo

How and why could this strange situation come about? In the summer of 2020, Bulgaria was rocked by massive, months-long protests against the protracted rule of GERB and its leader Boyko Borisov, who had become synonymous with stagnation, corruption, lawlessness, authoritarianism, and growing social polarization. For many Bulgarians, the government felt more and more like an oligarchy, with GERB serving merely as a thin political veneer.

GERB and Borisov managed to hold on to power until the spring of 2021, but then had to step down. A serious political crisis broke out. None of the parties contesting the GERB model were able to overcome their differences with the others and offer a convincing alternative. In two years, the country went through five parliamentary elections: in April, July, and November 2021, in October 2022, and in April 2023, with voter turnout declining each time — while 50.6 percent of voters cast their ballot in April 2021, by April 2023 that figure had dropped to 40.7 percent.

The sglobka reveals the superficiality of the status quo vs. change dilemma: at the end of the day, the two sides merged without resulting in any meaningful reconfiguration of political power.

Regardless of widespread public cynicism, the Bulgarian political elite has invariably presented the main dividing line in Bulgarian politics as a clash between the “status quo” and “change”. GERB was an obvious candidate to embody the status quo. The struggle for a monopoly on the vague notion of change, on the other hand, has been fierce, with several parties emerging seemingly from nothing and topping the polls, only to decline into obscurity several months later.

Ultimately, a major contender with the telling name “We Continue the Change” gradually crystalized. Led by two Harvard graduates, Kiril Petkov and Asen Vassilev, the new party promised to pull the country out of the quagmire of post-socialism and raise Bulgaria up to the standards of developed Western democracies. Winning first place once and second place twice in the country’s marathon elections, PP managed to convince a wide swathe of voters that it represented GERB’s authentic antagonist, while its alliance with the traditional liberal party DB further strengthened its pro-European credentials.

A Threat and an Opportunity

The coalition with GERB that took office on 6 June 2023 thus unsurprisingly provoked widespread disappointment. Some analysts sought to draw parallels to Germany, where the grand coalition became something like a practical solution to the problem of power under Angela Merkel. Yet in Bulgaria, the situation is different.

It is indeed the case that, whether rightly or wrongly, Germany’s Christian Democrats and Social Democrats are often seen as principled opponents, but neither was established with the explicit aim of destroying the other. PP, by contrast, entered the political scene precisely with such a goal: namely, to put an end to GERB and to send its leader, Boyko Borisov, into retirement. Instead, PP accepted GERB as a partner and protected Borisov from the public prosecutor’s investigations.

The sudden about-face was certainly motivated by the parties’ fears that they would begin to lose influence should the endless cycle of elections continue. GERB and PP-DB, of course, publicly justified the sglobka with loftier considerations, citing the presence of an urgent threat and combining it with a singular opportunity.

The threat, they said, stemmed from the war in Ukraine — both partners argued that the previous caretaker governments under President Rumen Radev, originally nominated by the post-Communist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and currently the most trusted politician in the country, had prevented Bulgaria from fully supporting the Ukrainian cause and placed the country alongside Viktor Orbán’s Hungary in its geopolitical ambiguity. Replacing him with a credible Euro-Atlantic administration was vital.

The opportunity, in turn, was rooted in the perceived need for constitutional reform that would strengthen the balance of power between state institutions, correct the weaknesses of the public prosecutor’s office, and restore the rule of law. Those forming the government explained that constitutional change represented a higher goal, against which all the usual squabbles between parties appeared trivial.

More Europe, More Capitalism, More Problems

The choice of the two leading parties to come together no doubt appears dramatic. GERB is a party of traditional populists — flexible, sensitive to public opinion, and able to adapt to the issues of the day. PP-DB seems to be more uncompromising in its elitism, and devoted to its mission to lead the Bulgarian people into a bright European future. In the parlance of conventional European politics, one could say that GERB tends to represent the conservative spectrum, while PP-DB covers the liberal side. But are the differences between them as dramatic as we are to believe?

Both are united in their understanding that the European Union in its current form is an ideal to which Bulgaria should strive, that progressive development is possible only through the promotion of business, and that taxes should be as low as possible. Both actors not only see no problems stemming from contemporary capitalism, but also believe that the cure for every social and economic difficulty lies in more capitalism.

Without a solid left-wing alternative, right-wing parties face little pressure to modify their policies or improve conditions for working people.

Both actors have found a similar answer to why Bulgaria continues to occupy the unenviable place of the poorest and most unequal EU member state. For GERB, a country’s upward trajectory is a slow process that must be adapted to local characteristics and is generally based on better infrastructure. Often, local mistakes and external crises delay this process and require it to be renewed. According to PP-DB, there is simply no genuine Western-style capitalism in Bulgaria and the market is not genuinely free as in the West. In their view, once the country is finally freed from corruption and oligarchy, capitalism will deliver prosperity for all as promised in 1989.

Thus, the conflict between the two parties largely plays out not on the terrain of economic or social policy, but rather along questions of morality. The dispute over who is more corrupt and unprincipled has engaged the attention of all Bulgarian media for the last 18 months. Mutual accusations and mud-slinging have continued even after Denkov’s cabinet was formed in June. Ultimately, however, the sglobka reveals the superficiality of the status quo vs. change dilemma: at the end of the day, the two sides merged without resulting in any meaningful reconfiguration of political power.

The Culture War Coalition

A survey by the polling agency Trend released on 14 September showed an uninspiring 22 percent public support for the ruling coalition. Some analysts attribute the low numbers to public anger at the way the sglobka was put together. Yet deeper reasons can also be identified. For 100 days, the cabinet failed to demonstrate a clear action plan and proved be dependent on the whims of parliamentary factions. The prime minister and his colleagues have repeatedly identified inflation, growing poverty, and energy insecurity as pressing social problems, but serious steps to overcome them are nowhere to be seen.

Instead, the new government’s biggest impact has been in the realm of the culture wars — a quintessentially American political phenomenon that has recently made its way into Western, and increasingly even Eastern Europe. Indeed, cultural divisions have existed in Bulgarian society for many decades, whether in terms of geopolitical orientation (Russia vs. the West) or value systems (“modern” vs. “traditional”). However, the new government is doing its best to exacerbate them, almost as if to shift the political agenda away from social and economic issues.

The government’s culture war salvos include various initiatives to block alleged Russian influence over Bulgarian society, such as proposals to change the national holiday, dismantling the Monument to the Soviet Army in the capital city, Sofia, and many others, all of which were unsurprisingly met with fierce resistance. The motivations on either side are as laughable as they are clear: for the government, Bulgarians have not yet proven themselves as Europeans; for the opposition, the government is betraying what they call authentic balgarshtina, or “Bulgarianness”.

As everywhere else, the culture wars in Bulgaria are a dead end, a path with no way out. All talk of national identity and independence wastes public energy and masks the helplessness of a right-wing status quo unable and unwilling to deal with impoverishment and stagnation. The partners in the sglobka try to present themselves as an alternative to each other, but prove utterly unconvincing. In the last few months, it has become clear that conservative populism and liberal technocracy can very easily coexist at the expense of the people’s welfare.

Incoherent Opposition

The sglobka’s chances of survival are boosted in no small measure by the weak opposition in parliament. The government’s primary opponents are the far-right Vazrazhdane party, the nominally centre-left BSP, and populist showman Slavi Trifonov’s small party called Ima takyv narod (“There Is Such a People”, or ITN). They have no common understanding of what the government’s problems are, let alone of the problems facing Bulgarian society. All three parties suspect each other of corruption or external funding and accuse each other of being “inauthentic”.

None of the three parties, not even the Socialists, regards social issues as Bulgaria’s biggest problem, and instead focus their fire on moral or cultural disagreements. It is paradoxical that both in and outside of parliament, the parties do their utmost not to be identified with a social agenda, likely perceiving it as bland, difficult, and above all far from what they think the voters are interested in: issues of the nation, history, tradition, and “Europe”.

ITN seems to be primarily interested in trading its support for economic perks. Vazrazhdane is the only party that managed to increase its result in each of the last five parliamentary elections in Bulgaria, but the alternative frightens at least as many as it inspires. Moreover, the party’s parliamentary track record shows a feature characteristic of other far-right parties in Europe — namely, its compatibility with the political mainstream when it comes to implementing right-wing economic policies.

Sixteen years into Bulgaria’s full membership in the European Union, calls for bringing more Europe to Bulgaria no longer prove so inspiring.

That party that traditionally stands for an alternative to neoliberal economics, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, finds itself in a severe ideological and organizational crisis. Compromises between the Socialists and right-wing forces are not new. Fifteen years ago, it was the Socialist Party, then in power, that introduced a flat income tax as well as Europe’s lowest corporate tax. The deep social polarization in Bulgaria today is largely due to this act.

After concessions to liberals came concessions to conservatives. Since 2016, when current leader Kornelia Ninova became party chair, the Socialists have largely abandoned social and economic issues and engaged in furious propaganda around the defence of “traditional values”. In her ambition to encroach upon the terrain of nationalists and populists, Ninova became the most prominent fighter against so-called “gender ideology”, and in recent months, the party even tried to organize a referendum against sex education in schools, but failed to gather the necessary support.

This lack of support was a clear expression of disapproval of the Socialist Party’s ideological twists and turns. In only a few years, the BSP has lost four-fifths of its voters and seen its political influence decline precipitously. In early 2023, a number of the BSP’s best-known public figures initiated a split and established a new coalition called Levicata, or “The Left”. However, that formation largely copies the conservative messaging of its former party, and the split appears to be more personal than ideological.

Smaller progressive groups manage to garner some media attention, but generally lack the capacity and resources to organize a nationwide party. The nomination of energetic and popular trade union activist Vanya Grigorova for the upcoming Sofia mayoral race by the BSP and Levicata has raised some hopes for new momentum from below, but the risks of this nomination being mired in party intrigue are not to be underestimated. Sadly, the negative developments within Bulgaria’s left-wing camp affect not only then BSP and its sympathizers, but also the majority of Bulgarian citizens. Without a solid left-wing alternative, right-wing parties face little pressure to modify their policies or improve conditions for working people.

Against False Dilemmas

The establishment of the sglobka only appears to resolve Bulgaria’s political crisis. Beneath the surface, the current government is only deepening it. It demonstrates that the status quo vs. change dilemma is a false one. These days, most Bulgarians react to recent events with apathy rather than radicalization, which in turn speaks to an alarming decline of Bulgarian democracy.

Sixteen years into Bulgaria’s full membership in the European Union, calls for bringing more Europe to Bulgaria no longer prove so inspiring. The inflated expectations of the past that the EU would automatically bring order and prosperity have diminished. Increasingly, Bulgarians see the EU as willing to accept and legitimize whichever political clique is in power, no matter how corrupt, as long as it complies with the directives laid down by the European institutions.

“Europe” remains a role model for Bulgaria, if nothing else by default, and Bulgarian politicians often invoke it as such, but they fail to reflect on whether Europe really offers solutions to the country’s deepening social crisis — or, in fact, is the cause of it.