In conversation with Flora Hevesi, Ruzha Smilova explores Bulgaria’s complex and ongoing political crisis, which has left a profound mark on the country’s political landscape.
The stalemate began in 2021, stemming from widespread public dissatisfaction with the government of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his center-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party. The ensuing period of instability was marked by difficulties in forming and maintaining a stable majority coalition government: Bulgaria faced five elections in two years, most recently in April 2023. The crisis has been characterized by an increasingly fragmented political landscape and a polarized society, and by constantly shifting power dynamics between GERB as the status quo and a new anti-corruption wave represented by the centrist parties of We Continue the Change – Democratic Bulgaria.
This period provides a unique case study in democratic resilience, political uncertainty and the challenges of coalition building in parliamentary systems. The recent elections were won by GERB, which managed to reach a compromise with We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria to form a new coalition government with a rotating prime minister. Nevertheless, the situation remains highly unstable, and a major new event is looming on the horizon: the upcoming local elections in October, which will be another crucial test for Bulgaria’s political parties.
Ruzha Smilova teaches political theory at Sofia University and is a program director at the Center for Liberal Strategies, an independent Bulgarian think tank. Her academic research is focused on the authority of democracy, normative and positive theories of democracy, democratic erosion, and illiberalism.
Flóra Hevesi: Could you describe the political landscape and the main political parties or coalitions that participated in the elections?
Ruzha Smilova: The Bulgarian party system is characterized by high electoral volatility, especially in the last two and a half years, as new political actors enter and win elections, resulting in a very fragmented legislature.
There are two major cleavages in the Bulgarian party system. The first was already introduced in 2013 and became more pronounced during the protests against the then ruling party GERB in the summer of 2020. This division revolves around the pro-GERB and anti-GERB axis. Those who oppose GERB argue and protest that the party has brought high levels of corruption to the country. The period after the country’s accession to the EU was characterized by a lack of progress compared to other European countries, as a result of the flawed and corrupt rule of GERB, which was in power for three consecutive terms, almost 12 years. The second split emerged after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is centered around pro- and anti-EU integration. This second cleavage characterizes the current Bulgarian parliament to a greater extent than the previous pro- and anti-GERB, pro- and anti-corruption cleavage.
If we characterize the six political parties – some of which are coalitions – in the Bulgarian Parliament, we have three groupings on the pro-European, pro-EU integration side. The first is a coalition between We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria, which is a pro-reform, pro-democracy coalition that managed to form a government after coming second in the elections. The second party, which was the winner of the previous elections, is the GERB coalition, which is also pro-European. The third player is the Turkish ethnic minority party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which is nominally liberal and strongly pro-European.
On the anti-European side, there is the Socialist Party, which is not nominally Euroskeptic, but it is neutral on the war in Ukraine, opposes Bulgaria’s greater involvement, and opposes sending ammunition to Ukraine. It is pro-Russian. Then there is the Revival party, which takes an even stronger position on the side of Russia in the conflict. The sixth player is the party There Is Such a People, which is an opportunistic player, taking the position that best suits its chances of getting into the next parliament.
Could you give a brief overview of the political crisis and the coalition that is believed or hoped to put an end to it?
The political crisis started in the summer of 2020 with the anti-GERB protests. The period of political instability continued with the regular elections in the spring of 2021. The regular elections were won by GERB, but the incumbent party was unable to form a government. As a result, it became necessary to hold another round of elections. At that time, the pro- and anti-GERB divide was strong, and it hindered the formation of a stable government, even though GERB had won the elections. The second round of elections was won by the newcomer party There is Such a People, formed around a TV personality. This party wanted to form a minority government, which proved impossible. A third round of elections had to be held within six months. In November, another newcomer won the elections: We Continue the Change, led by a minister from the caretaker government appointed by the Bulgarian president. The party’s leader, Kirill Petkov, was able to form a government. In addition to We Continue the Change, the four-party coalition included Democratic Bulgaria, which has been a very strong but relatively unsuccessful anti-corruption political project since the anti-government protests in the summer of 2013. The team of We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria was joined by the Socialist Party and There is Such a People of Slavi Trifonov, the party that won the summer elections but failed to form a government.
The ruling coalition was ideologically incoherent. The only glue that held it together was anti-GERB rhetoric. However, it was not able to sustain the coalition after the war in Ukraine started because of pro-Russian sentiments among the Socialist Party’s voters. The Socialist Party began to weaken the coalition in March and April 2022. The coalition was dissolved because of conflicts over the budget and corrupt projects that would have supported oligarchic circles, which enjoyed the upper hand in procurement procedures and used There is Such a People as a vehicle to promote their interests. When their expectations were not met, the government had to resign because it lost its majority.
The next round of elections was won by GERB, but did not produce a government. The parliament was very fragmented and GERB did not manage to form a coalition. The fifth elections were held in April 2023, which were again won by GERB with more than 20% of the votes. It should be noted that the voter turnout was very low, less than 40%. Although GERB won the elections, it was not able to form a government. It was the second party – the coalition between We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria – that was able to form an interestingly structured government, which is essentially a minority government with the support and minimal participation of GERB. The only participant on behalf of GERB is Mariya Gabriel, the former European Commissioner who will be the rotating Prime Minister and is currently Foreign Minister. The government is led by a prominent Bulgarian scientist, physical chemist Nikolai Denkov, who was previously education minister. All ministers, except for the foreign minister, come from the We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria coalition.
In 2021, GERB was succeeded by There is Such a People, a party founded by a completely new and previously outsider political actor. At the time, many believed that this strategy could be a key in other countries as well. But now we see that its success was short-lived.
There is Such a People, the party of the showman Slavi Trifonov, has done nothing. They won the elections, but they did not manage to form a government, because they wanted to form a minority government with only 25% of the seats in Parliament, and they did not negotiate any support from other parties. The reason why they managed to win the elections is that they used anti-GERB rhetoric. Moreover, the patriotic Slavi Trifonov is a showman who gained popularity as a TV presenter and musician, and he has been touring the country for over 20 years with a very patriotic show that appeals to the younger generations. He also initiated a referendum to change the electoral system, which fell just a few thousand votes short of the threshold for validity. Had it passed, Bulgaria would have moved to a majoritarian electoral system, dramatically changing the country’s political landscape.
for the first time this year, Bulgaria may have its first successful referendum, initiated by the Revival Party. It focuses on postponing Bulgaria’s entry into the euro zone. Revival came third in the April 2023 elections because it campaigned against the euro and stoked fears among the population that joining the eurozone would lead to inflation and higher prices. Bulgaria is the poorest EU member state, and this fearmongering contributed to the Revival’s electoral success.
Given that the government is strongly pro-European, and that Revival and the Socialist Party are the only opposition, this could strengthen their position in the local elections in autumn 2023 and the European Parliament elections in 2024.
The two leading political groups have very different visions of Bulgaria’s Euro-Atlantic future. Could you please elaborate on this issue and its future implications in the light of the recent formation of the new government?
Nominally, GERB, together with its coalition partner – the Union of Democratic Forces – has promoted a European path for Bulgaria. Their rule was characterized by the growth of inequality in the country. However, during the three successive GERB governments, Bulgaria’s Gini index reached a value of over 40, the highest in Europe and comparable to the level of Latin American countries. Thus, on the one hand, there is a political actor that promotes an oligarchic path towards the Europeanization of the country. On the other hand, there is Democratic Bulgaria, a coalition of three parties: the Greens, the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria, and Yes, Bulgaria, a party that emerged from the anti-corruption protests of 2013. This coalition has always stood for modernizing the country, accelerating its development, and catching up with the rest of Europe as quickly as possible. Its agenda is essentially anti-corruption measures that would streamline the country’s development. We Continue the Change, a newcomer, has also adopted this rhetoric, but there is a small difference between them: the issue of fighting inequality. We Continue the Change stands for stronger social policies and redistribution, as evidenced by the Petkov government’s seven-month difficult quadripartite coalition, which managed to introduce a substantial increase in pensions and achieve a slight reduction in the country’s Gini index for the first time in years. As a result, this coalition stands for the modernization of the country through anti-corruption measures, and possibly the reduction of inequality and catching up with the European model rather than the Latin American model, which is characterized by oligarchic development with growing inequality.
What are the implications of the election results for other important policy areas, such as judicial reform?
Judicial reform has already begun. The Bulgarian Parliament adopted an amendment to the Law on the Judicial System, which introduced control over the Prosecutor General. This control was previously absent, which contributed to many shortcomings in the Bulgarian judicial system. However, during the process of implementing control over the Prosecutor General, another change was introduced, not supported by the government or the ruling party, but by GERB and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the party of the Turkish ethnic minority. This measure removed the Investigative Office from the Prosecutor’s Office, a move that had been opposed by Bulgaria’s European partners during the country’s EU accession.
The most difficult part of the whole picture is the turbulence within the judiciary. For the first time, the Prosecutor General was dismissed by the Supreme Judicial Council before the end of his term. This happened so quickly, and in violation of certain procedural rules, that it led to speculation that it was orchestrated by oligarchic circles behind the scenes, seeking to replace the Prosecutor General with someone more favorable to their interests. The turmoil is having a destabilizing effect on the political situation.
Despite the new government’s pro-Western stance, there has been a surge in public support for the far-right, anti-EU, pro-Russian Revival party, which came third in the April elections. How would you characterize the radical right in Bulgaria, and what are the key factors that contributed to Revival’s success?
The nationalist radical right has always found a place in the Bulgarian party system, usually securing a third or fourth position with nationalist, Eurosceptic rhetoric. In 2005, for example, Ataka stormed the party system and achieved significant results. Subsequently, the Patriotic Front, a coalition partner in the third GERB government, followed a similar path. So this is not entirely new in the Bulgarian party system, but the war in Ukraine deepened the division within Bulgarian society along the axis of pro-EU and Eurosceptic attitudes.
At the beginning of the EU accession process, Bulgaria was one of the strongest supporters of the EU. There was a strong pro-European consensus in the country, which has recently shifted towards more Eurosceptic positions. Nevertheless, the majority of Bulgarians remain pro-European, mainly because of a deep-seated mistrust of the Bulgarian government. Historically, trust in EU institutions has been much stronger than trust in the Bulgarian parliament or government.
With the war in Ukraine, this consensus has shifted. Two-thirds of Bulgarians strongly support Bulgaria’s neutrality in the war in Ukraine.
Many Bulgarians are skeptical about the EU’s policy regarding the war in Ukraine. The population is divided in terms of sympathy for the Russian or Ukrainian side. 23% express sympathy for the Ukrainian cause and 20% for the Russian cause, which is probably the highest level of support for Russia in the EU.
The war has increased the appeal of Eurosceptic sentiments, especially regarding military support for Ukraine. Sovereigntist positions have also been gaining momentum in Bulgaria, even before the Revival Party managed to secure third place in the recent elections. Previously, the sovereigntist party called the Patriotic Front – which was part of the third GERB government – was responsible for stopping North Macedonia’s EU accession talks and blocking the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. These actions were based on sovereigntist arguments that put Bulgarian interests above all else. Such sentiments are currently prominent in Bulgaria and have been further fueled by the war in Ukraine.
What are the possible implications of this recent development for the upcoming local elections?
Local elections have been an obstacle to forming a government, and they may be the main reason why the government collapses. They were one of the reasons why it was so difficult to form a government after the last elections in October 2022: the parties were reluctant to form coalitions with their declared opponents, against whom they were preparing their campaigns for the local elections.
This problem was even more pronounced after the April 2023 elections. For example, the main competition in Sofia is expected to be between the incumbent GERB (which currently holds the mayor’s post) and the coalition of Democratic Bulgaria and We Continue the Change, which won the parliamentary elections in Sofia and hopes to secure the mayor’s post as well. Neither GERB nor the coalition of We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria saw it in their interest to form a coalition government in order to gain a better position for the municipal elections.
It is important to mention the role of the President of the Republic, Rumen Radev. Because of the fragmentation and political instability, he has been able to govern the country through caretaker governments appointed by him alone, without parliamentary oversight.
If a government cannot be formed, the president dismisses parliament, appoints a caretaker government, and calls for new elections. If parliament fails to form a government five times, it gives the president carte blanche to rule without parliamentary oversight. Currently, President Radev is playing a political game by seeking alliances with incumbent mayors in the country. In practice, he is taking part in elections in which he should not be involved. The uncontrolled rule of the governments appointed by President Radev served as the glue that allowed the formation of the current difficult government led by Professor Denkov. GERB, We Continue the Change and Democratic Bulgaria did not want President Radev to continue to rule through unaccountable caretaker governments.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
From inside the country, it does not feel like we are seeing an end to the spell of political instability. The government is very unstable. GERB is the largest party in Parliament, but it is not part of the government, with the sole exception of the Foreign Minister – and rotating Prime Minister – Mariya Gabriel. Nevertheless, GERB is able to form thematic majorities on issues that are important to it. The government’s program is to join the eurozone and the Schengen zone, to introduce a budget that would meet the 3% budget deficit requirement for joining the eurozone, and ultimately to stabilize the country. However, this is threatened by the practice of shifting majorities on issues that go against the government’s agenda. For example, at the last minute, GERB managed to push through a judicial reform that went against what had been agreed with WWC-DB (on the issue of the place of the Investigative Office in the judiciary). In addition, there are other amendments in the pipeline that are not supported by the government, but are supported by topical ad hoc coalitions that serve GERB’s interests. This will create strong tensions within Parliament, and it is not clear how long Parliament and the government will survive.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
In collaboration with Lucie Hunter and Karen Culver