How many elections would it take to end the crisis in Bulgaria?

After holding a fifth national vote in two years, Bulgaria is nowhere near having a stable government.

Boyko Borissov, former Bulgarian Prime Minister and leader of centre-right GERB party, leaves from a polling station during the parliamentary election, in Sofia, Bulgaria, April 2, 2023. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov
Boyko Borisov, former Bulgarian prime minister and leader of centre-right GERB party, leaves from a polling station during the parliamentary election in Sofia on April 2, 2023 [Reuters/Stoyan Nenov]

It was not that long ago that Bulgarian politics appeared a rather dull affair. All an outsider needed to know was a single name: Boyko Borisov. The leader of the centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) ran the country for the better part of the 2009-2021 period.

He was popular at home and quite well-received abroad. In Brussels, he rubbed shoulders with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron; in Moscow, he talked gas deliveries with Russian President Vladimir Putin; and in Ankara, he negotiated border security and infrastructure projects with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Every four years Bulgarians would head to the polls to give GERB and Borisov yet another term in office… until his luck ran out in 2021. In April of that year, Bulgarian voters punished GERB and Borisov’s coalition partners for years of corruption scandals and abuse of power, leaving them unable to form a government.

Since then, Bulgaria has been on an electoral roller coaster, holding five elections in two years. Neither GERB nor any other political power has been able to secure enough votes to put together a stable government.

GERB is weaker than in the past, but still resilient and well-entrenched, not least at the local level. Its surest path to power is co-opting pro-Western reformers.  However, parties representing the latter see Borisov’s party as toxic and are reluctant to form a coalition with him. This has resulted in a power vacuum.

The outcome of the latest vote held on April 2, in which once again no political party gained a clear majority, confirms that political instability will plague Bulgaria over the long haul.

According to preliminary results released by the Central Election Commission, GERB has emerged first with 26.5 percent of votes, a two-point lead over the coalition between the reformist We Continue the Change (PP) and Democratic Bulgaria (DB) parties, Borisov’s main challengers.

GERB will have the first shot at forming a government, for which it has two options: one, a grand coalition with the PP-DB union; and two, a coalition with the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which is traditionally backed by ethnic Turks. BSP received 8.9 percent of the vote and DPS got 13.7 percent.

Borisov prefers the first option, as it could burnish his reputation as a standard-bearer of Western-friendly policies and curry favour with key governments on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet sharing power with Borisov could prove a poisoned chalice for PP-DB, whose electorate largely sees GERB as part of the problem in Bulgaria, not the solution.

Under the short-lived government led by PP and DB in 2022, Borisov was handcuffed and detained briefly as part of a corruption investigation. If PP-DB are serious about fighting for the rule of law, they will not compromise easily.

DPS and BSP are keener to be in the next government. Yet Borisov may have second thoughts about officialising his long-standing affair with DPS, which is widely seen as a propagator of corruption schemes; in 2021, the United States sanctioned one of its prominent members, Delyan Peevski, under the Magnitsky Act for his alleged involvement in corruption schemes. BSP, on the other hand, openly brandishes a pro-Russia stance, which could prove problematic for GERB’s pro-West credentials.

With neither GERB nor PP-DB being able to garner a critical mass of votes to end the political crisis, Bulgaria has drifted in the direction of presidential rule. President Rumen Radev is effectively wielding executive power through the caretaker cabinets he has been appointing since May 2021.

Re-elected for a second term in 2022, Radev is in a strong position politically. With no regular government in power, he has a final say through the provisional cabinet on critical decisions – whether or not Bulgaria will be sending weapons to Ukraine or how to adjust the country’s energy sector to a rapidly changing regional and global marketplace. To make matters even worse, the head of state is not accountable to the legislature, which has to dissolve itself every time it fails to vote in a new government.

Another concern is the gains made by the far-right and Russia-loving Revival party. With a populist campaign attacking the US for allegedly turning Bulgaria into its “colony” and the European Union for “destroying” the country’s economy, it managed to win a record 14.2 percent of votes.

Some observers see the rise of the pro-Russian party as giving a boost to a potential grand coalition between GERB and PP-DB. The two previously aligned together in parliament in order to pass a motion allowing arms to be sent to Ukraine. The threat of Bulgaria drifting towards a presidential regime is also seen as additional motivation for both sides to come together.

In any event, we are looking at lengthy coalition talks, which may well prove inconclusive and leave Radev in charge. Even if a coalition with GERB materialises, it is unlikely to survive the upcoming local elections scheduled for October.

Large municipalities, which have so far been dominated by GERB, are a desired asset in that they operate substantial financial resources, especially from EU funds.

PP-DB will be looking to dethrone GERB by capturing Sofia, Plovdiv, Ruse and other big cities, as a springboard for claiming power at the national level. Without the big cities and the patronage opportunities they provide, Borisov’s influence will decline even further. The balance of power nationally could tilt in favour of the reformist bloc, whatever its future shape. Whether this will change anything on the political chessboard in Bulgaria remains to be seen.

Until then, the country will remain stuck in a Groundhog Day situation that does not bode well for its political and economic future. Amid a devastating war in neighbouring Ukraine, high inflation and persistent energy insecurity, Bulgaria is trapped in a spiral of elections, fragmentation and inability to forge political compromises. Neither GERB and its fellow allies nor those who want to modernise and transform Bulgaria seem to be able to gain the upper hand for now. This is allowing political entrepreneurs such as Revival’s Kostadin Kostadinov and the ambitious President Radev to benefit.

All that means that more instability lies ahead.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.