Bulgaria’s pre-electoral tensions: From constitutional crisis to institutional trench war

Bulgaria’s pre-electoral tensions: From constitutional crisis to institutional trench war

“It is logical for [the DPS] to support Mr Borisov in the presidential election, they are allies in business and politics – all the more so as Mr Borisov is a trustee for Turkish President Erdogan, who congratulated the DPS at their conference.”

(President Rumen Radev)

In late summer 2020, people took to the streets of Bulgaria in their thousands to protest against the current cabinet. They shook Bulgaria with demands for the immediate resignation of PM Boyko Borisov and Attorney General Ivan Geshev. Shortly after, the standoff began to slowly but steadily evolve into a constitutional crisis. In 2021, events have morphed even further into an institutional trench war. The upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections hold the keys to the Sofia’s future.


In August and September 2020, thousands of Bulgarians took to the streets to protest against the government and its policies. Protestors shook the country with demands for the immediate resignation of PM Boyko Borisov’s cabinet and Attorney General Ivan Geshev. Over the weeks, the crisis steadily exceeded the limits of the usual challenge to the immutable status quo.

Bulgaria PM
Figure 1: There was once a time, not too long ago, when Borisov and Radev did not quarrel daily on national television © BGNES

President of the Republic Rumen Radev sided with the protestors and the opposition, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) imitated him quietly. Growing inter-executive tensions have led to draft reform of Bulgaria’s fundamental law — which Radev opposed.  Bulgaria precipitated a “constitutional crisis”. This has morphed into political trench warfare, with the upcoming elections dictating Sofia’s political and economic future. 

Rumen Radev: the man with(out) a date for election day

After a troubling 2020, it seemed as if the new year would certainly welcome better times. Yet, Bulgarian politics was able to defy this undemanding assumption. As early as the beginning of January 2021, the Radev-Borisov feud spiced up again. The renewed debate attacked the President’s freedom in fulfilling his constitutional duty to fix the date for parliamentary elections. The constitutional formula is here quite unclear as it reads that the President of the Republic shall:

schedule the elections for a National Assembly and for the bodies of local self-government and shall set the date for national referendums pursuant to a resolution of the National Assembly

(Art. 98.1

There appears to be little limit to the President’s decision arbitrariness (Art. 64.3). Any Sunday with the window of “two months from the expiry of the mandate of the preceding” assembly is acceptable. However, the consolidate praxis has been for Presidents to schedule elections for the earliest available date. That is, the first Sunday after the end of the legislature. 

Figure 2

But Radev is no ordinary President, and a rather ‘political’ one. After having supported the celebration of elections as early as September 2020 – during the protest –, he backed down. In January, Radev consistently “declined to confirm scheduling the elections on March 28, as he had previously stated.” Eventually, the date was set on April 4.

The ‘consultations’

After all, even at the latest date (i.e. late May) the pandemic would still be a source of disruption to reckon with. Against this background, “the State is not ready” to grant free and fair voting to every citizen at home and abroad. Such a blanket surrender to rampant corruption, chronic mismanagement and the risk of fraud should have called for unity. Yet, the President himself steered the national debate in the opposite direction. Despite his responsibility being limited to fixing the date of the election, Radev began to indulge in its organisation. In a typically military undertone, he tried to set the record straight by declaring that: 

I proposed the earliest date for mobilization in the work of the institutions, but so far there are only promises. I do not see organizational and logistical readiness. Unlike the prime minister, for me it is important and important how to ensure health and the constitutional right to vote of Bulgarians. For me, the effectiveness of the campaign, which should make Bulgarians vote, is important. It matters how the machines will be audited, how Bulgarians will vote abroad

Figure 3: President Rumen Radev chairing the consultation round

This statement was perceived as a stark indictment of the government, which the Electoral Code charges with organising the elections. But soon afterwards, accusations transcended into overstepping. Radev began organising so-called “consultation” with (extra-)parliamentary parties, mayors, the Central Electoral Commission, Bulgarian organisations abroad and healthcare authorities. The apparent end of this process lays clearly outside the boundaries of the President’s competencies.

The purpose of the consultations is not the date, but the way the elections will be conducted. I set the date as early as possible so that the institutions have enough time, but I do not see readiness for these elections.

During these talks, stakeholders brought up various proposals for freer and safer elections: form mail and automated voting to policy changes. However, operating mobile ballot boxes for quarantined people was the only such suggestion accepted by everyone involved in these decisions.

The cabinet strikes back

Obviously, the ruling party’s (GERB) reaction during the consultations was outraged. Surely, GERB cannot be considered a lighthouse of democracy and liberalism. Still, this time their complaints have a legal foundation given that Radev’s consultations run on “purely political rails”. On the last day of round-table talks, the President clashed directly with GERB representatives. Party leaders and figureheads did not shy away from accusing Radev of “leading a campaign against their party”. Some of the harshest comments came from Tsveta Karayancheva, Vice-president of the Parliament and GERB member. She went two steps forward, becoming the first in order of time blaming him for popular mistrust in election’s fairness.

Attempts to disqualify and challenge the results of a vote that has not yet taken place are very dangerous. Unfortunately, Mr. President, you are also involved in such talks. In recent months, we witnessed there a coordinated effort to undermine the confidence of Bulgarian citizens in the electoral process.

Figure 4: Tsveta Karayancheva (left), Vice-president of the Parliament and GERB member, at the consultations with President Radev © bTV

Radicalising GERB’s position, the nationalist coalition United Patriots (OP) simply failed to take part in the consultations. Krasimir Karakachanov, the foremost leader of one of OP’s members and Deputy PM, also issued a press release. Thus, OP aligned with GERB in rejecting mail voting and enhanced the confrontation cabinet-Presidency to a whole new level.

Forecast: An ongoing institutional(ised) trench war

Two factors make this umpteenth chapter of the Radev-Borisov confrontation qualitatively different from everything that has already happened. First, since the summer of 2020 the standoff is institutional and constitutional in nature. On the one hand, the PM and the President have begun to use their offices to fight against their opponent. On the other, MPs keep jumping in the arena, reducing parliamentary debate to a mirror of intra-executive tensions. Second, the crisis in becoming ‘normal’ and widening. As clashes protract, people get used to them and infighting inevitably becomes ‘normal’. At the same time, OP’s stance shows that the front is enlarging beyond party lines. Eventually, extension and normalisation may lead to institutionalisation, with the risk of systemic President-PM rivalries. 

In a nutshell, in Bulgaria there are now not just two personalities facing each other. There is a clash between the two mightiest institutions of the executive branch. Under these circumstances, the situation may easily overheat. Parliamentary elections may confirm GERB in power and either Radev or a like-minded figure could win the presidential contest. Then, Bulgaria could become a much more unstable and polarised country than it already is, with risks for economic recovery.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Fabio Telarico

Fabio A. Telarico was born in Naples, Southern Italy. He is fluent in Italian, English and Bulgarian. Between 2015 and 2017 he won several prizes in nation-wide literary contests. Since 2018 he has been publishing on websites and magazines about the culture, society and politics of South Eastern Europe and the former USSR. He also participates regularly to international conferences on the same topic.