See our 2017 Elections Specials
On Sunday, March 26, Bulgaria went to the polls to choose the composition of its Parliament; the decision to return to the polls had been made in the aftermath of the defeat, in the presidential elections in November 2016 by the party of the then prime minister, Boyko Borisov, of the center-right movement, GERB (Citizens for a European Development of Bulgaria), which has governed since 2009, excluding a brief period between 2013 and 2014. The election was then won, by a wide margin, by former general Rumen Radev, backed by the opposition Socialist BSP party, led by Kornelia Ninova. Although the role of the President of Bulgaria is very limited, compared – for example – with his Russian or U.S. counterparts, and most functions are carried out by the head of government, Borisov dismissed the government, hoping to win the parliamentary elections. Therefore, since November, jurist Ognyan Gerdzhikov has led a caretaker government. Last Sunday, Bulgarian citizens chose among candidates proposed by 13 parties, 9 coalitions and 21 popular initiative committees, who competed for the allocation of the 240 parliamentary seats. As expected, Borisov’s party won with 32% of the votes; 27% of the votes went to the Socialists, while two other parties, the United Patriots nationalist alliance and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms - the party of the Turkish minority – won approximately 9% each. Finally, the last party that managed to pass the 4% electoral threshold was the new Volya party, led by entrepreneur Veselin Mareshki. The turnout was generally rather low, at around 50%.
A Pyrrhic victory?
On paper, therefore, the pro-European conservatives have won; Boyko Borisov rashly claimed that he will form ''a government in step with the realities in the EU and the world''. Compared with previous elections, Borisov has improved his party’s position, by obtaining 12 more seats. Despite being a convinced European, to regain sympathy and win Socialist votes, in his election campaign he had declared his intention to improve relations with Russia. But citizens have a good memory and recall that it was he who blocked the major Bulgarian energy projects, from South Stream to the Belene nuclear power plant, thereby cancelling, soon after they were proposed, thousands of potential jobs and several millions of euros in revenue. Borisov is still recognized in one positive light: from 2011 to 2016 unemployment in Bulgaria decreased from 11.4% to 7.1%, while wages increased and, last year, GDP grew by 3.4%. The Socialist Party then made an excellent election campaign, almost doubling the results of the last round; in 2014, in fact, the result stood at 15%, perhaps partly due to the words of Kornelia Ninova, who promised her personal commitment to increase pensions and salaries, introduce certain protectionist measures and resume relations with Moscow, in an attempt to eliminate anti-Russian sanctions. Apparently, it even seemed to be a major conservative-socialist coalition, as some experts prognosticated, but Ninova ruled out any possibility. ''We are ready to form a government if the conservatives fail to do so, but without them'', she stated categorically. In fact, since 2009, the conservatives have always won the elections (before them - from 2005 to 2009 – the Socialists were in government), but in 2013, a similar situation occurred: they won once again, but failed to form a government, which was instead formed by the Socialists, who governed from May 2013 to August 2014.
The advance of the new political forces
The United Patriots therefore went up to third place. This formation combines the three main nationalist and Eurosceptic movements: VMRO, the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria and the Ataka Russophiles. These parties do not usually manage to enter the government structure, but support various executives from the outside. This time, however, the possibility of an alliance with the Socialists could come to light, which, in this way, could defeat the competing party. In fourth place (but with a few percentage points less) the Movement for Rights and Freedom (DPS), the party of the large Turkish minority (comprising around 9% of the Bulgarian population), which came into government several times and which could this time even align itself with Borisov’s conservatives. Turkey, in fact, spoke up: President Recep Tayyp Erdogan and the Ankara government tried to influence the Bulgarian Turks living in Turkey, to persuade them to go to the polls in Bulgaria. The Nationalist Party protested against this sort of ''electoral tourism'', even by blocking the Bulgarian-Turkish border and so did the Bulgarian government, which accused Ankara of meddling in the election campaign by calling, in recent weeks, the Turkish ambassador to Sofia for this reason. The fifth unknown is populist businessman Veselin Mareshki, who made his fortune thanks to a chain of pharmacies and who, just before the elections, opened one of the largest fuel distributors in the world in Sofia, with lower prices compared with its competitors; Mareshki is known by the motto ''I don’t promise, I do''. His party, the latest to enter Parliament, could be a minority partner in the next government.
With an eye towards Russia
Bulgarian companies have suffered substantial financial losses due to anti-Russian sanctions. From 2013 to 2016, trade between Russia and Bulgaria dropped from $7.1 billion to $2.8 billion, while Russian investments in the Bulgarian economy declined from €245.2 million to €137 million. Bulgarian agri-food exports of fruit and vegetables to Russia, which has been stable since the Soviet Union era, have also stopped. Bulgaria imports up to 75% of energy products from Russia: not only gas, but also oil, coal and uranium for the atomic power plant. When the Socialists were in government, Bulgaria had agreed with Russia, in 2006, to resume the construction of the nuclear power plants in Belene and launched the South Stream project in 2008. However, when Borisov became Prime Minister, he first blocked Belene and then South Stream (in 2012 and 2014, respectively), rejecting the authorization for the laying of the gas pipeline in Bulgarian waters. Italy’s Saipem, which won the agreement with the consortium for laying the pipelines under the Black Sea, was ready to do its job, but the lack of authorization by Bulgaria forced Russian President Vladimir Putin to block the project and begin to consider the alternative route, via Turkey. There are still rumors, with the victory of Rumen Radev in the presidential elections and before the parliamentary elections, that Bulgaria would resume the South Stream project, but Russia has now proceeded with Turkey. The CEO of Gazprom, Alexey Miller, ha in fact declared that on March 29 the offices of the company South Stream Transport B.V. opened in Turkey, which will coordinate the work in the country. Finally, tourism must also be considered, as it is one of the pillars of the Bulgarian economy. Last year, over 8 million Russians visited Bulgaria, spending more than other tourists. Therefore, good relations with the Federation was the winning card in the elections for the Socialists, Russia’s historic allies, as well as for the Nationalists, who have increased their seats in Parliament; even Borisov, who has never been too kind to Russia, has now toned down.
The Bulgarian EU presidency
We will soon see the new shades of the Bulgarian reality: everything will depend on the forming government. Since this is a complex puzzle, there is also a high probability that an executive will be appointed and that Bulgaria will return to polls again this year, even though these are the third elections already since 2013. Meanwhile, on January 1, 2018, Bulgaria’s EU presidency will begin, with the hope that, at least by that date, there will be a stable government in Sofia.