After a long period of uncertainty for Bulgaria and three rounds of elections, the new leading party’s marathon is still ongoing until a government is formed.
With a new worrisome record of almost only 40% turnout according to the electoral commission of Bulgaria, November 14th elections was the country’s third go at a parliamentary ballot in 2021 and the first such deadlock since the end of communism, in 1989.
The newly formed party “Continue the change” defeated the GERB party of former Premier Boyko Borissov, Europe’s longest-serving leader and a dominant force in Bulgarian politics. As official data showed, Bulgaria is standing as the EU's least vaccinated country (https://covid19.who.int/region/euro/country/bg) and ranked as the most corrupt EU member state by Transparency International (https://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2020/table/bgr). New centrist party Odyssey begins with a “zero corruption” pledge, navigating through a labyrinth of dead-ends with only one way out.
Set up by two Harvard-educated former interim ministers, Petkov and Vasilev, “Continue the change” is seen as having the biggest chance of drawing a new landscape from the debris of “vague, abstract ideologies’’ that the Bulgarian most read author Gospodinov describes in his book The Physics of Sorrow. To do so, according to Dr Yorgos Christidis, Associate Professor in the Department of Balkan, Slavic and Oriental Studies, of University of Macedonia, the very first step for the new leading party resides in their capacity to rapidly form a government with a clear mandate for change, based on an agreement signed between the coalition partners. The only viable set up mathematically is a coalition between “Continue the change”, “Democratic Bulgaria”, “There is such a people” and the Bulgarian socialists, for a majority Government. And what’s next? Awaiting the government to fulfil their promises. Putting an order first to public expenditure, is a promise, but also what already the two leaders of “Continue the change” showed during their brief tenure as ministers, in the caretaker government formed, following the April elections. Associate Professor Christidis highlights that a scenario of another round of elections will be catastrophic: There seems to be no option left than the formation of a government; a failure to reach an agreement and having another round of elections could prove highly costly for the country. Bulgaria is confronted with a number of challenges both internally and externally, that cannot wait. The political parties, especially those that promote "change", are well aware of that. Any prolongation of the political uncertainty could only favor the parties of the "status quo", like GERB. Bulgaria’s mosaic of parties led to a political fragmentation. The latter combined with the abstention of voters, are the two key questions one should ask, before going any further with an analysis of Bulgaria’s particular political landscape, Dr. Christidis adds.
Around the above set up and given the ongoing discussions between the parties, Dr. Radostina Primova, a Senior Climate and Energy Expert based at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, sees similarly to other analysts a lot of uncertainties and some potential for change: we see a new style of leading coalition negotiations for a new government. The approach currently focuses on deliberations in working groups, in the following thematic areas: energy, ecology, finance, economy, international relations, agriculture, tourism, culture and social affairs, rule of law and the justice system, education. Core objective of these working groups is to first identify the common ground for joint policies and strategies in these measures and also the dividing (or red) lines between parties rather than the distribution of positions and political appointments. The final outcome of the meetings is expected to be the development of a broader policy roadmap in the respective areas, including the different policy proposals and solutions that will be negotiated and fine-tuned during the next round of negotiations. The meetings are transparent and open to the public and online, following a new and more dialogue-prone strategy and action plan that brings in the table hot topics such as economy and energy.
The biggest potential for conflict during the negotiations, adds Dr. Primova, lies in the field of energy transition (including the issue of a coal phase-out deadline and strategy, the raising of the domestic climate ambition for 2030, as well as the future of nuclear energy and building new nuclear reactors as a way for Bulgaria to fulfil its 2050 climate targets), the Bulgarian position on North Macedonia’s EU accession negotiations and how to overcome the deadlock, relations with Russia and the signing of the Istanbul convention (with the leader of BSP [the Bulgarian Socialists] opposing the gender-related elements in it and advocating for the protection of traditional family values).
On the other hand, areas where there the parties could easily agree on, is the reform of the justice system, in particular the rule of law and the role of the Prosecutor General: the most powerful figure in Bulgaria, as he oversees the work of all other prosecutors and has the final word on the investigation processes. According to the current legislation, the legislature cannot bring criminal charges against him. This unlimited power has been criticized as problematic by international institutions like the European Court of Human Rights, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and the European Commission jeopardizing a transparent and accountable justice system and acting as a major bottleneck for public sector reforms and business development for SMEs.
Nevertheless, a coalition with conflict potential seems like the only option ahead. A strong question mark though, accompanies “Continue the Change” capacity to actually implement the announced plan, as a recently formed party with no prior political structure in the country.
As one of the most debated issues during the working group meetings, the coal phase out seems to be the milestone towards Bulgaria’s recovery plan –submitted to the EU one month ago– and towards energy transition. The latest version of Bulgaria’s Recovery and Resilience Plan foresees the expansion of natural gas transmission infrastructure and the construction of a new 1 GW gas-fired power plant to replace lignite electricity generation. At the same time Petkov defends the optimization of Pump-accumulator hydroelectric power stations, supporting the construction of a joint hydropower plant with Romania on the Danube (https://www.euractiv.com/section/all/news/kiril-petkov-offers-preview-of-new-bulgarian-politics-in-the-making/).
With economy, energy and anti-corruption policies on the agenda, if we could symbolically observe the past 20 years of electoral process in Bulgaria as a Labyrinth and position ourselves right at the entrance, what we would certainly see –putting aside the maze and branching awaiting ahead– is abstention. If we go further back, to the last 25 years, we see a country in a chronic existential crisis, with some periods of recession. Assistant professor Dr. Christidis talks about the zero point, the period after 1989 that led today’s citizens to a fundamental cynicism, mistrust and disbelief to values. 1989 was a moment of absolute social transformation, the time when social Darwinism dominated Bulgaria. It was a tough period, he continues, a period that progressively led to the brain drain of nowadays, principles and values were significantly shaken and shaped. The capitalism of the few and ‘’happy’’ strong played a dramatic role and exposed its citizens to the wounds of a collective, unspoken trauma. This period brought also the sorrow and sadness often described in modern Bulgarian literature and cinema. This new era, after 1989, progressively planted cynicism in some people’s hearts and resilience to others. Until those two worlds meet again, the majority of citizens of Bulgaria look for their lost dignity, demonstrating on the streets in quest of change, being totally absent or in waiting, and they measure the length of the path already walked while hoping that the exit is not far away.
In the meantime, there are some less visible topics in the party’s agenda that seem to be forgotten, such as: the vanishing landscape of the countryside that slowly dies away, the demographic decline and the need for investments in human capital (https://balkaninsight.com/2020/07/09/bulgaria-writes-new-chapter-in-long-story-of-demographic-decline/), and the marginalized communities such as the Roma population who seem to be completely neglected, lost in an absolute absence of political willingness and public support that could leverage EU programs of social support to this regard as Dr. Christidis adds. For Georgi, a 34 year-old man who lives in a Roma quarter near Sofia Roma don’t count for the politicians, we have no job now with Covid, we had police checkpoints, we need work.
Last but not least, the election result marks the entry in the Parliament of "Vazrazhdane" (Revival), the nationalist party of Kostadin Kostadinov, a pro-Russian force with far-right tendencies. Their campaign mainly focused on anti-vaccination and anti-restriction messages.
A Labyrinth of causes and effects, a labyrinth of time and space.
 European Commission, 2020 Rule of Law Report: Country Chapter on the rule of law situation in Bulgaria, 2020, pp. 4-5/ European Council, Council Recommendation on the 2016 National Reform Programme of Bulgaria and delivering a Council opinion on the 2016 Convergence Programme of Bulgaria, 2016, p. 3.