Bulgaria: Can Civil Unrest Lead to Actual Change?

Bulgaria: Can Civil Unrest Lead to Actual Change?

Protests in Bulgaria have been taking place for almost three consecutive months now. Various news outlets have been covering the extent of violence taking place between protesters and the police, the current GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) government’s refusal to resign and Prime Minister Borissov’s new constitution proposal intended to act as a band-aid on the gaping wound of corruption. However, not much has been said in terms of whether this increasing civil unrest will lead to actual change within the state. It is important to discuss the recent rise in popularity of the movement Democratic Bulgaria and if it could deliver viable political results, as it appears to be the coalition at the heart of the protests. Given the political momentum it has gathered, this newcomer has a chance of breaking through the ranks of the old political elite. 

Democratic Bulgaria is an electoral alliance created two years ago by the parties Yes! Bulgaria, Democrats for Strong Bulgaria and the Greens. The party actively involved in the protests from the start has been Yes! Bulgaria, given that their citizens-operation at Rosenets beach earlier in the year contributed to widespread civil unrest, alongside other developments such as leaked photos of the PM sleeping next to a handgun and stacks of money. Their leader, Hristo Ivanov, has become a key figure chanting alongside protestors and flooding social media with calls for change. He has made dozens of appearances across radio and TV since the beginning of the protests and has petitioned the government for the sacking of the General Prosecutor. Regardless of whether this is all part of an opportunistic political campaign or a case of a more honest political elite on the rise, it is important to consider whether this party running on an anti-corruption platform will have the opportunity to implement actual change.

Electoral Setbacks: Will They, Won’t They?

An initial obstacle to Yes! Bulgaria making changes to the old-school system will be their performance in an election. Thus far, even as a part of the movement Democratic Bulgaria, which was launched in a bid to pull together votes, they have secured no seats in the National Assembly, one seat in the European Parliament and various seats in local municipalities. Their most successful performance was in Sofia with twelve municipal representatives. In this regard, a snap election, which Ivanov has been pressing for, will be more beneficial for the movement as they have currently gathered a seemingly larger supporter base during the protests. However, as it stands, PM Borissov refuses to resign and insists on waiting for the scheduled parliamentary elections in March 2021.

Moreover, other newcomer anti-corruption parties such as the former TV host Slavi Trifonov’s party There Are Such People or the national ombudswoman Maya Manolova’s Stand Up.BG might also gather votes, leaving less scope for Democratic Bulgaria to secure a double digit percentage of seats. The even more recent launch of the former vice-chairman of GERB Tvetan Tsvetanov’s Republicans for Bulgaria party might have been intended to cause a split in the vote as well.

Furthermore, opinion polls conducted by Gallup International suggest that while Democratic Bulgaria has almost tripled its support, it still remains at 5.7%. It is behind There Are Such People, which has not been as involved in the civil upheaval and is currently at 7.9%. While these are all preliminary suggestions, they are not promising in terms of the outright replacement of the traditional two-party race between GERB and BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party). Presumably in order to combat these percentages, Ivanov has commented that he is willing to secure new allies if elected to parliament, stressing it is important they share similar views to those of Yes! Bulgaria.

Lessons from Moldova and Ukraine

Elections in both Moldova and Ukraine in 2019 led to newcomer anti-corruption parties taking office, which went down fairly different paths. Given the percentages listed above, a majority in parliament similar to the one secured by President Zelensky’s Servant of the People party seems highly unlikely, although it would provide the biggest scope for change. It is also yet to be seen whether a candidate from a newcomer party will reach the second round in the Bulgarian presidential election scheduled for 2021.

Alternatively, a fate akin to that of the ACUM block in Moldova appears to be more plausible. While ACUM managed to secure a sizable portion of the vote in 2019, it did not have a majority and was somewhat cornered into a coalition with the Socialist Party, which later ousted the Maia Sandu government over the appointment of the General Prosecutor. The prevalence of disputes over that same position in Bulgaria and Ivanov’s statement that he is willing to consider a coalition with GERB, provided Borissov resigns, are perhaps setting the stage for a comparable development of events. In such a case, despite Ivanov quickly backtracking on his statement on social media, more significant changes could be expected in the long term, as in Moldova where presidential elections are taking place in a month’s time and Maia Sandu is a prominent candidate for the position.

Likelihood of Change

Elections in Bulgaria have not led to meaningful change as GERB has dominated political life since Bulgaria’s accession to the EU in 2007. Although the 2020 protests are presenting an opportunity for a breakthrough, a scenario where GERB is re-elected is still probable. The election of the second biggest party, BSB, is possible as well. Neither scenario will lead to any major changes in how politics is conducted in the state, much as Ivanov has stated. Similarly, while there is an opportunity for a newcomer to enter parliament more significantly, the spurring of numerous smaller parties negates each of their chances for a substantial presence in the executive. On balance, the most realistic possibility for change is presented by the scenario where Democratic Bulgaria enters a coalition with either of the two traditional dominating parties, or a greater coalition of newcomers is formed.

Categories: Europe, Politics

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